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Africa’s Greatest Filmmaker Has Been Unavailable to Africans — Until Now

Ousmane Sembene is a world-renowned filmmaker, but Africans rarely had the chance to see his film. A new touring series is changing that.


Students watch “Sembene!” in Africa

Jason Silverman

I imagine it’s a thrill for any filmmaker to share a documentary with an audience. Since the premiere of our film “Sembene!” three years ago, I’ve had the luck to be able to do that many times. But not all screenings are equal. This weekend, the experience of showing the film had a much deeper impact on me. This weekend, when looked into the audience … I saw myself.

“Sembene!” tells the story of Ousmane Sembene, Senegal’s most influential writer and filmmaker. Our film has won awards, been broadcast in more than a hundred countries and helped introduce new generations to the man known as “the father of African cinema.” Only rarely, however, has it been seen by the audiences most important to me: Africans.

Before making the film, I knew how far our global media culture tilts away from the so-called “developing world,” or global south, and towards Europe and the U.S. The stories Africans receive are, for the most part, conceived and built in New York, Los Angeles, and the European capitals. Since the birth of the moving image, Africans in particular, and people of color in general, have been largely invisible. We are extras in an ongoing show of Western power.

As “Sembene!” began screening, I felt the powerlessness of the modern African storyteller in a much more personal way. “Sembene!,” available everywhere in North America, South America, and in most of Asia, was almost impossible to find in Africa.

Last weekend, for the second year, we produced a program that offers a small way for Africa to reclaim some of its stories. Sembene Across Africa gives micro-grants to local schools, cultural centers, libraries, activists, NGOs, educators, and filmmakers (and this year, we even partnered with a military camp), along with copies of our documentary and one film by Ousmane Sembene. This year, it was the classic satire “Xala.” Along with study guides and marketing support, we also provide free streams of the films in Africa. Funding has been provided by the Ford Foundation, the Sundance Institute, Kickstarter supporters, Frances Cassirer, and other donors committed to supporting African culture.

The project’s local organizers then create programming that reflects the needs of their own communities. For example, in Cameroon, the organizers connected the discussions to the intense political environment that threatens the country’s stability. The organizers market the programs and invite guests who can give some local context to the films. This year, the Sembene Across Africa team reached tens of thousands of viewers through nearly 140 screenings in 32 countries and free digital streams of the films. Our program was a tiny drop in a very large bucket, but progress nonetheless.

I bounced around Senegal for the three-day event, from Dakar to Sokone to Thies to Toubacouta. Each time I looked out into a new crowd of faces, intently considering this new, perhaps radical genre — African cinema! — they were being introduced to, I remembered the Sembene story that changed my life.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Films Terre Africaine Les/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5862066a) Ousmane Sembene Ousmane Sembene - 2004 Films Terre Africaine, Les On/Off Set Moolaade

Ousmane Sembene

Films Terre Africaine Les/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

“If Africans lose their stories,” Sembene told me, nearly 30 years ago, “Africa will disappear.” Every time I return home to Senegal, his words resonate more deeply. American and European logos are everywhere — on buildings and t-shirts and shop windows and cars. In my tiny village Kidira, Senegal, on the border with Mali, the children and, often, their parents, spend more and more time watching low-calorie American and European videos on their phones and TVs. From my vantage point, as a displaced Kidiran who has lived in America for the past 30 years, I get a clear view of how quickly the Africa of my childhood is receding each time I return home.

Sembene, who was 30 years my elder, predicted this. While working in slave-like conditions as a dockworker, Sembene, who had a fifth-grade education, spent his evenings learning how to write. His painstakingly created novels, some of the first written from an African point of view, were his contributions to Africa’s independence movement of the ‘50s. After independence, Sembene took on the next challenge: teaching himself how to make movies. African movies, he said, could be “an evening school” for illiterate Africans. He finished his first short in 1962, and then wrote books and made movies continuously until his death in 2007.

I met Sembene in 1990 and worked with him until his death, and his determination continually inspired me. He identified a problem — Africa was disappearing — and then a solution: make stories for Africans. His sweat fueled 50 years of work: nine feature films and 11 novels and collections of stories.

Read More:  ‘Black Girl’ Trailer: Janus Films to Re-Release 4K Restoration of Ousmane Sembène’s Landmark of African Cinema

Many — the novel “God’s Bits of Wood,” the features “Black Girl,” “Xala,” “Emitai,” “Ceddo,” and the Cannes-winning “Moolaade”—are considered classics, taught in European and American universities. In his heyday, Sembene was a hero to the Black Panthers and many artists and intellectuals, becoming for many the face of Africa. When he died, one person described him as “the Mandela of African culture.” But, if we are being honest, Sembene didn’t achieve his basic goal. Yes, he wrote and produced and directed films, which was a heroic feat. But he failed to connect them to African audiences.

And how could he have? Europeans controlled Africa’s movie screens and televisions. Electricity was unpredictable or unavailable throughout most of the continent (it still is in many rural regions). Sometimes, Sembene would put projectors and a screen into a van and show a film on the walls of villages and in neighborhoods. He’d reach hundreds of members of his intended audience, a far cry from the tens of millions that needed him.

This weekend, as I talked to Senegalese students and artists and teachers, many of whom had never seen a Sembene film, I thought of my own story. I had been raised in a village without TVs or radios, with almost no exposure to the wider world. When I left, at age 14, to pursue my education, I was shaken to my core by my arrival in the city. My new school forbade us to speak our native languages; the lessons were entirely conducted in French. None of our books even mentioned Africa. I was immersed in France during the day; I’d exit the school doors into Africa each evening. My brain was being trained to be French; my skin and bones would always be African.

But then a teacher gave us Sembene’s novel, “God’s Bits of Wood.” Our lives changed as we read it: an African novel, about African heroes. For the students in this French school, Africa had begun to disappear. We rediscovered it on Sembene’s pages. There was even a character named Samba!

samba gadjigo

Ousmane Sembene with the author, Samba Gadjigo

I tell my story in our documentary. But that’s not enough — I want to help make that story happen for other Africans. More Africans should know their stories. Hundreds who share my sense of commitment became our partners on our Sembene Across Africa project.

In addition to the screenings I attended, I kept track of those happening throughout the continent. A Rwandan filmmaker slipped into a screening just as it was starting, and came out changed: “Trust me, it was way much more than just watching a documentary film for me … I went home a fully inspired person with this new burning desire to make films.” A traveling collective presented the films in villages throughout rural Cameroon. The auteur Mira Nair introduced a screening, under the African stars, at her Maisha film school in Uganda. Egyptians loved seeing the fearless and funny politics of “Xala” — the story of African businessmen doing their best to imitate the French colonizers who exploited them. And the film had deep resonances for the new nation of South Sudan.

The name of one group that organized screenings in Uganda and Nigeria, COAL — Custodians of African Literature — summed up the commitment of the weekend.

How were we able to succeed where Sembene failed? What did we have that he didn’t? The tools of the digital age. We were able to distribute the film digitally; it was played from laptops and projected on sheets, streamed on monitors. The venues that had reliable Internet were happy to make DVDs and courier them to those that did not, mostly in the rural areas. The digital age can solve the systemic problems that face African culture workers.

Of course, our modest success serves best as a marker for the work that needs to be done. I visited Galle Ceddo, the compound Sembene built with his own hands on Dakar’s coastline, where he wrote and produced all of his films and novels, and where Africans came to gather to talk about progress and liberation. Despite promises from the Senegalese government, this historic site, once visited by heads of state, Nobel Prize-winning writers and luminaries from around the world, was in an accelerating state of decline. It has been vandalized and ransacked, mold slowly eating its remains.

And, of course, it’s not just Sembene’s work that needs to be shared with new generations. The African political leaders have not been effective at — or, in general, even interested in — preserving African culture. It is, for most of the year, disheartening. But each June, thanks to our Sembene Across Africa project, I’m inspired to know that there are so many Africans who are, and encouraged at how one small effort, produced at the kitchen tables, can reach the Africans who are hungry and thirsty to know about who they are and where they came from.

Samba Gadjigo is, with Jason Silverman, the writer, director and producer of SEMBENE! (Cannes, Sundance, Telluride), which was included on New York magazine list of top ten films of 2015. Gadjigo and Silverman founded Sembene Across Africa, designed to bring African content to African audiences.

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