The Story of Sembene!: How Ousmane Sembene Invented African Cinema

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Sembene! Photo: Sundance Institute

This post was originally published on February 10, 2015. With Sembene! opening in limited release this weekend, we're re-promoting it.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival was filled with movies about the love of movies: The drama smash Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and the documentary The Wolfpack both featured characters whose lives centered around a fascination with classic films, and who strove to re-create those films in their own way. But no film demonstrated the power of cinema more resonantly than Sembene!, directed by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, which screened as part of the world-documentary competition.

The Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (1923–2007), often called the father of African cinema, had a seismic career. He effectively created an African film industry out of nothing: In 1963, with a used 16mm camera and leftover film stock sent by friends from Europe, he made a short called Borom Sarret (The Wagon Driver), considered the first African movie made by a black African. Until the independence of French West Africa in 1960, French colonial authorities had made it illegal for Africans to make films of their own, so countries like Senegal had no film equipment, no professional actors, and no funding; Sembene used friends and family to put the film together. “Any time I hear an American independent talking about his war story in getting a film made, I have to smile to myself and think of Ousmane Sembene,” says co-director Silverman.

In 1966, Sembene made La Noire de … (Black Girl), the first feature film ever released by a sub-Saharan African director; it was awarded France’s prestigious Prix Jean Vigo and put him on the map, making him a mainstay on the festival circuit. From there, his profile rose. With the politically charged epics Xala (1975), Ceddo (1977), and Camp de Thiaroye (1987), he created some of the most beautiful films of all time, courting both controversy and acclaim and ensuring that African cinema had a place on the world stage. Ceddo was so inflammatory it was banned in some African countries for its depiction of strife between Muslims and Christians. Thiaroye, about a colonial-era massacre of African troops by the French, was banned in France but won six awards at the 1987 Venice Film Festival. Sembene’s devastating final film, Moolade, about female genital mutilation, won the Un Certain Regard award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

Sembene! documents the filmmaker’s eventful life — he grew up in a family of fishermen on the shores of the Casamance River in rural Senegal, living a life of what he termed “daily vagrancy.” Kicked out of school for insubordination, uninterested in fishing and wanting to see the world, he stowed away to France. He was working as a dockworker in Marseilles in the 1950s when he wrote his first novels, out of a desire to see the Africa that he knew depicted in literature. When he turned to cinema in the 1960s, it became a vital link for him between the oral cultures of his youth and the timely political issues of his day. His films often start off in simple, fablelike ways, but they proceed to ask complex questions about identity and tribal, spiritual, and political allegiance. These are serious films about serious subjects, but thanks to Sembene's poetic style of storytelling, they hover between realism, ritual, and myth. They are, all of them, utterly intoxicating.

But the documentary doesn’t just tell Sembene’s story. It also tells the story of Samba Gadjigo, one of the film’s co-directors, who himself was raised in a poor village on the border between Senegal and Mali, and whose life was transformed by his introduction to Sembene’s work. “We had no radio, no TV, no newspapers.” Gadjigo recalls of his childhood. “Most of our stories were conveyed orally, from our elders, like my grandmother.” Gadjigo did not know a world outside of his village until he started going to a French high school. There, he was introduced to literature, but it came at a cost. “More and more, the stories of my village receded, replaced by French stories,” he remembers. “By 14, I saw myself more as French than African.”

It was an assistant at his school who introduced a 17-year-old Gadjigo to the works of Sembene. Specifically, it was a novel by Sembene called God’s Bits of Wood that made the first impact on the young man. The fictional account of a 1947 railroad strike, the book “was the first fiction we read in which Africans were portrayed in a positive light, in which Africans had agency,” he says. It was as if the call Sembene had made at the beginning of his career — to tell stories of the Africa he knew, to other Africans — had found its ideal response in young Gadjigo. “This book had characters like me and like the people I grew up with. This wasn’t literature for me. It spoke to me directly. It changed my life.”

Gadjigo became obsessed with Ousmane Sembene’s works. “I wanted to imitate him,” he recalls. “He was a militant, a progressive thinker, someone in the trenches — not pontificating in the universities.” But for Gadjigo, “the best way to perpetuate Sembene’s legacy was to begin teaching his work.” So, he continued his academic career — he graduated from the University of Dakar, became a high-school teacher in Senegal, and later came to the U.S. as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. All along the way, he continued to write and think about Ousmane Sembene, a man with a fifth-grade education who changed cinema forever.

In 1989, as a professor of African Studies and French at Mt. Holyoke, Gadjigo sent Sembene a fax inviting him to come speak to his students. “Of course, he answered it with brutal honesty — a typical Sembene answer. ‘I’m not here to cater to American academics. If you want to struggle for Africa, the struggle is here.’” So, Gadjigo packed up and went to Sembene’s home in Dakar, to meet the man and ask him in person if he’d come. After a few days, “he found that I was very serious about what I was doing,” and relented. Upon his arrival in the U.S., Sembene was surprised to discover that his following here was greater than his following at home. “At a time when his work wasn’t very well-known in Africa, he saw that the amphitheaters here in America were packed.”

For the next 17 years, Sembene and Gadjigo worked together, with the younger man becoming an “unofficial agent” for the director, helping book him on tours of museums and universities. Everywhere he went, Sembene preached independence of vision. “Whenever he had African students in amphitheaters, he told them when you are in the Western world, learn as much as you can,” Gadjigo says. “Absorb as much as you can. But the day you land on African soil, forget everything. You can learn the technique of filmmaking in Europe, but you cannot make African films in Europe.” Gadjigo himself also made a documentary, The Making of Moolade, about the production of Sembene’s final film.

On the day of Sembene’s death in 2007, Gadjigo vowed that he would not let the filmmaker’s work be forgotten. He also found himself responsible for organizing Sembene’s papers and archives, which were in disarray, with many of his film materials rotting away at the director’s home in Dakar. It was out of this effort that Sembene! the documentary grew, with Gadjigo collaborating with his longtime colleague and friend Silverman, a film producer and festival director. It has taken eight years to get the film made. Along the way, Gadjigo also wrote a biography of Sembene.

So the film is the very definition of a labor of love, and the final result shows it. While it offers plenty of archival footage and interviews, perhaps Sembene!’s most resonant quality is its generous presentation of scenes and images from the films themselves, often with Gadjigo describing the influence they had on him and on African culture in general. It’s an illustration of the power not just of storytelling, but of identity — because in Sembene’s work, who’s doing the telling matters. As the director himself put it: “By making films, we have the opportunity to view ourselves, for the first time, through a mirror made by ourselves.”

Silverman sees the documentary existing within a “Möbius strip” of influence. “Sembene set out to make movies to shape a new Africa. We wanted to ask, ‘How effective was he?’ Well, here you are with his storyteller, whose life was changed by his films. Samba is evidence that storytelling does matter. But now, we have to ask ourselves, ‘How can we make this film matter?’ How can we find the next 17-year-old boy who will be inspired by Sembene’s work?”

To that end, there are plans under way now to potentially make DVDs of the documentary and to distribute them for free in high schools in Senegal, as well as to take the film to small villages. It’s all part of a broader issue of how to make Sembene’s work itself more widely available. The films are currently out of license in North America, and they’ve always been relatively difficult to find in Africa, where distribution is spotty. “This is the question Sembene himself was asking at the start of his career,” Gadjigo says. “How do you reach an African audience with African stories?”