Unearthing Stories: ‘Sembène!’ Documentary Film Reveals Deep Complexities Of ‘Father of African Cinema’

Prolific writer, iconic filmmaker and father of African cinema, as he is so often called,Ousmane Sembène has been the inspiration, and a strong reference point, for many scholars and creatives alike in post-colonial African artistic expression. Through his compendium of work, Sembène’s films and writings have and continue to solidify his legacy as a leading pioneer in filmmaking and screenwriting throughout Africa. However, the story of the man behind the pen and the lens is often second to his work in discussions and writings on Sembéne and his influence. In Sembene!, directors Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silvermanpaint the portrait of a man as talented as he was complicated, delving into intimate territory as we visually traverse through both the personal and professional lives of the late filmmaker.

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Opening the documentary, the film begins with a tender but commanding voiceover from Gadijgo, a close friend of Sembène’s as well as his official biographer, recounting a story of the filmmaker’s youth oddly familiar to some of us. Through this disclosure, the central theme of Sembène’s   artistic journey, one of accurate representation, or the lack thereof, is revealed: How can one, as an African, form a healthy identity of themselves when we are not capable of watching ourselves through our own eyes?

In most photographs of Sembène he is seldom seen without a pipe wedged casually or hanging effortlessly between his lips. Tobacco, along with coffee, was said to be one of his few addictions, though the greatest of all was undoubtedly his affinity and flair for storytelling through film and the written word.

Long before social media made us more consciously aware of broader interrelated rhetoric concerning the reclaiming of representations of Africa and Africans by and for Africans, filmmakers such as Sembène were strongly preoccupied with this ideology, as stated in the opening words of the film. The seriousness and dedication in his approach to art was strongly parallel to the Griot culture often associated with Senegalese artistes, himself included. An author of ten books of fiction and one essay, numerous scripts that birthed four short films, ten feature length films, and four documentaries, Sembéne came to see the role of an artist as being synonymous with that of a revolutionary, evidence of which can be found in his films of which many, if not all, deal with topical issues and matters relating to social, historical and political consciousness. As he once pointed out himself, when speaking specifically on the role of African artists, Sembéne commented that, “Through his work of analysis, clarification, unmasking and denunciation, the artist arouses in his people’s consciousness the clear conviction that revolution is necessary and possible.“

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Sembène’s origins are traced from Casamance, a rural fishing village in southern Senegal, where his rebel spirit and voracious curiosity are already apparent, to the docks of Marseille in France where a severe work accident frees him from the clutches of menial work – a blessing in disguise. It is at this point that the soon-to-be filmmaker begins an autodidactic journey, that involved studying film in Russia, where his exposure to literature and art leads him to quickly notice the gap where Africans should stand, a gap he dedicates his life to filling. This void not only concerned the representation of African experiences through film and other arts, but elements related to storytelling and access to the tools, resources and platforms necessary for the creation and dissemination of these creative expressions by, for and about Africans, and in particular those that spoke to and contextualized the historical and current state of post-colonial narratives.

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Having made nine feature films during his lifetime, Sembène’s first forays into cinema revealed a man who refused to be bound by circumstance, unearthing a resourcefulness and tenacity that became a characteristic of the filmmaker, innovative traits that were integral to his work.

Using this new medium, and consciously deciding to make films in Wolof, he catered to those who were never spoken of and never spoken to with dignity and humanity, only observed from the detached perch of the oppressor’s eye. Sembène did not just want to create, he wanted to make his work accessible to those he wished to speak to – a complex aspect of his works that exposed some of the shortcomings of Sembène’s career. Though his films involved Senegalese actors, interrogated issues relating to tradition, modernism, gender issues, identity politics and post-colonial struggles in Senegal, and involved scenes that were filmed on location in various parts of the country, many of Sembène’s films did not successfully penetrate the masses in quite the same fashion we see evident with Nollywood-style movies today. With funding often coming from foreign sources, and with his heavy critiques of African leadership, patriarchy, colonialism and religion, Sembène often found it difficult to both accomplish his filmmaking objectives and simultaneously find favour among the general public.

Nevertheless, the importance of his work, both written and visual, cannot be underestimated or undervalued. Many of his films premiered or were screened at international film festivals, were some such as La Noire de…,  Emitaï and Moolaadé won awards, bringing attention to filmmaking on the African continent. He eventually co-founded the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou or FESPACO) in 1969, Africa’s largest film festival.

Nothing was free from his scrutinizing eyes. He criticized everything from religion (for which his 1977 film Ceddo was banned for alleged anti-Muslim sentiments) to archaic cultural practices and the treatment of Africans involved in European wars. He presented us with fleshed out human stories within an African context. His films, as the documentary shows, became increasingly more political following the wave of independence of African nations which was at its height during the 1960s and 1970s, to the point of getting his works banned in his own country.

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Gadjigo and Silverman do not portray Sembène as perfect or unnecessarily deify him. Straying away from his god-like status in African cinema, his shortcomings are explored mostly through personal accounts. A detached father and absent husband, his personal relationships often suffered at the expense of his vision and unyielding drive – the price of his uncompromising vision. His passion for his work was so deep it consumed all of him, leaving little for anyone or anything else.

The documentary is an anthological treasure trove, showing clips of Sembène’s   works and never before seen archival footage. We meet and are introduced to his family, friends, colleagues, and discover his connection with influential black thinkers, politicians and artists. If anything, it is a testament to art as a reflection of society, as political protest, as social revolution. This modern-day griot paved the way for many African creatives to not only use our craft to change our worlds, but to take pride in the telling of African stories. Towards the end of the film he imparts these words of wisdom we should all take to heart:

“I do not define myself relative to Europe. In the darkest of darkness, if the other doesn’t see me I do see myself. And I surely do I shine!”

Originally posted on Dynamic Africa

“In my unbelief I’m a believer, in a way, and though having changed I am the same, and my torment is none other than this, what could I be good for, couldn’t I serve and be useful in some way, how could I come to know more thoroughly, and go more deeply into this subject or that? Do you see, it continually torments me, and then you feel a prisoner in penury, excluded from participating in this work or that, and such and such necessary things are beyond your reach. Because of that, you’re not without melancholy, and you feel emptiness where there could be friendship and high and serious affections, and you feel a terrible discouragement gnawing at your psychic energy itself, and fate seems able to put a barrier against the instincts for affection, or a tide of revulsion that overcomes you. And then you say, How long, O Lord! Well, then, what can I say; does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?”

Vincent Van Gogh