44 Films: Film 6 of 44: "Sembene!" (2015)
Film 5 of 44:
Directed by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman
The late Senegalese author-screenwriter-director Ousmane Sembene has not received the acclaim he deserves. Not by a long shot. Years after Sembene's passing, director and biographer Samba Gadjigo walks into 'Galle Ceddo', the filmmaker's quaint Dakar residence, and later film school. "Oh my God!" Samba dramatically exclaims as his camera surveys the neglected shell of a home. Photographs and film posters dangle off the walls, as if they were struggling to hold on to the vestiges of its legendary resident. In a verandah overlooking the ocean, film reel cases lie on the ground, sunburnt and rusty, the films inside them barely alive. It's a heartbreaking state for the abode of a man widely regarded as "The Father of African Film". A few minutes later, we watch as a youthful and erstwhile Sembene teaches young film students on that same verandah, telling them how black skin should always be filmed facing the light.
Samba Gadjigo made this film as an overdue homage to a man he had admired for decades, and only met when his more industrious filmmaking years had passed. He lets an infectious awe and respect shine through. A fine documentary is made by the synergy of absorbing source material and a superior filmmaker with honourable intentions. Sembene! wins in both regards. This isn't a film about a filmmaker as much as it is about a freedom fighter.
Sembene dropped out of school at age 11 to work in the family business. He left Senegal years later to work as a porter in the docking yards of Marseilles. When an accident confined him to bedrest for six months, he discovered European literature and his mind broke open. He obtained a rudimentary education in film and returned to Senegal to become the luminary we know today. In Fela Kuti: Music Is The Weapon, Fela's songs become an adhesive to the story of the man and times behind them. Gadjigo treats Sembene's films in a similar way, moving through them quickly (save for Black Girl, which he spends a delightful amount of time on), glossing over hours of breakthrough films to allow us access to the internal passions that became Black Girl, Xala, Emitaï and Moolaadé. We learn how Ousmane Sembene simply wanted agency on its own African stories. He brought to the continent an art form that was previously non-existent, using rudimentary expertise, leftover film stock and friends and relatives to introduce Africa to film history.
Sembene! is a worthy tribute to a paragon who let his discontent with post-independent Africa lead to discerning and imperishable work. Today's legion of Africa's filmmakers is more prone to lamentation than work, and I'm as culpable as the next person. Yet, I doubt any of us can attest to toiling in the sort of scant and antagonistic environment that Sembene did. This colourful and fallible man showed us the way to go. We just need the belief that we can keep the work going; or the exasperation that leads to kick-ass art. Because, I'm sure we can all agree that the Africa is still as worthy of wagging fingers. Black fingers, lit from the front.
Oh and here are a few (completely paraphrased) gems from Sembene.
"If you want to crush a man, give him everyday what he needs to survive, for in the end you shall turn him into a slave, not a man."
"It's good to be in Cannes, but we can't be eternal guests."
"Frankness is not my downfall. It's my freedom."
Finally, thanks to Docubox for hosting the screening of this film. Check out their monthly screenings of fine documentaries, every last Wednesday of the month. They will screen Facing Ali next month.
See you tomorrow!