The great Senegalese director, Ousmane Sembene (1923-2007), the son of a fisherman and a fifth-grade dropout, but with a vibrant curiosity about the world, realized he wanted to be a writer and a filmmaker during a six-month convalescence in a French hospital. Working on the docks in Marseilles hauling coffee bags, he had seriously injured his back and while bedridden read wide and deep, educating himself. And discovered that “my Africa was absent” in literature.
“Sembene!”co-directed, written and produced by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, celebrates its subject’s vast achievements: showing Africa to itself by creating the continent’s cinema and fearlessly giving a voice to the voiceless. Yet it’s also a clear-eyed portrait of a man, who consumed by his work, neglected his family and was sometimes less than honorable with colleagues.
Incorporating archival material, new footage, film clips and animated cut-outs to introduce “chapters,” the documentary discusses Sembene’s early work as a writer and his decision to concentrate on filmmaking, knowing in 1961 when he made his first film (a short, “The Cart Driver”) that illiteracy was rampant. Inventing a “new language to represent Africans,” Sembene recognized the need for “our own cinema, our own heroes.” And he knew to carefully light black faces or “there would be no detail,” the literal expression of his statement, “If the other does not see me, I see myself.”
Sembene said, “I do (my job) because I want to talk to my people.” And he spoke sociopolitical truth to power, both European and African. In “Black Girl” (1966), his first feature, a young domestic worker is enslaved by her white employers. “Xala” (1975) spotlights the corruption of post-colonial African leaders and governments, while “Ceddo” (1977) condemns Islam as an often oppressive force.
Both films were banned or censored by the Senegalese government and after “Ceddo,” his African American wife, Carrie Moore, left him, citing his “bigamy”: “Creation is also his wife.” But Sembene’s work was championed by artists, freedom fighters and the international film community.
Sembene suffered an infertile period, nine years without being able to make a film and his next feature, “Camp de Thiaroye” (1986), while recognized as a masterpiece, was realized with funds he was overseeing to distribute to young African filmmakers. Sembene again found himself without resources.
Gadjigo, who grew up in Kidira, Senegal, longed to be French before discovering Sembene’s short stories at 17. Hired as a professor of African Studies and French at Mt. Holyoke College in 1986, he approached Sembene after “Camp de Thiaroye,” about speaking to his students (and elsewhere in the United States) and was rudely rebuffed. (Sembene has said, “Frankness is not a downfall. It is my liberty.”)
Undeterred, Gadjigo traveled to Dakar, arriving uninvited at Galee Ceddo, Sembene’s seaside house. Eventually Sembene acquiesced and for 17 years, until his death, Gadjigo worked with his hero as his biographer and arranging for lectures and for the films to be shown internationally, often with Sembene in attendance.
Nearly blind and with compromised health, Sembene summoned his vitality to direct “Moolaade” (2004), a fierce film about resistance to the brutality of female genital mutilation. It is Sembene’s last film and was a prizewinner at Cannes.
Gadjigo is now working to “carry Sembene’s work forward” and has rescued his archive, is preserving his films and traveling in rural Senegal, showing the films to audiences that have never seen them.
“Sembene!” will open on Friday, November 6 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, followed by a release to select cities.