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

Hair Freedom: The evolution of the Natural Hair Revolution, A Black British Perspective.

4C or 3B. Co-washing or the LOC method. These terms may sound like technobabble but have made their way into black women’s zeitgeist around the world following what has been coined as the ‘Natural Hair Revolution.’ Political for some, personal for others – and both for many more – around the world, more and more women of African descent are beginning to find ways to appreciate, celebrate and educate themselves further on their natural hair textures, or, at the very least, are becoming more and more aware of their styling choices and the motivations – conscious or subconscious – behind them.

Hair Freedom, a 10-minute documentary by English filmmaker Zindzi Rocque Drayton joins a growing family of films that explore the dynamics of this movement.

It was interesting to see the black British perspective as North Americans have been dominating this discussion so far. The movement seems to be gaining more traction in our diasporic communities than on our continent ironically; I hope in the future we get more in depth analysis of the various socio-economic and geo-political factors that account for this disparity.

Solidly nuanced, the documentary takes the form of candid Q&A sessions amongst various individuals, to address issues ranging from terminology to identity politics. It showcases different black women of all shades with various hair textures, styles and lengths, an effective choice in my opinion considering the diversity we have in our community.

A recurring thread in the documentary was the evolution of this revolution. As it is somewhat a resurgence of the Black Power movement in the 70s, it is interesting to see the discussion moving past the reactionary stage into normalization. This does not mean that the celebration of our blackness is ill placed – our cultures have been denigrated then co-opted hence the necessity for us to reaffirm ourselves not out of superiority but to regain the humanity and dignity that has been denied to us for so long. I for one cannot wait till our hair is just hair, unqualified and not an extension of some mystical negro womaness.

Originally published on Dynamic Africa

Dreams of Shahrazad: Personalizing the Arab Spring through the art of storytelling.

South african filmmaker Francois Verster is no stranger to social consciousness. His most recent project “Dream of Shahrazad” follows the lives of various individuals in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey as they come to terms with the events we’ve come to know as the Arab Spring through the art of story telling.

Shahrazad becomes omnipresent in this film through various incarnations. We meet an impassioned Turkish conductor running a two week rehearsal program for a youth philharmonic orchestra’s performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade suite. He uses the orchestra as extended metaphor for democratic participation, reminding the students of their role as agents for change. An Egyptian theatre troupe uses traditional storytelling methods to bring to life the testimonies of mothers who lost their sons on the January 25th revolution. A visual artist with a lifelong obsession with the 1001 nights finds himself re-inspired to create and share his art through a new friendship with a Shahrazad-esque storyteller and a young Lebanese actress begins to heal from the effects the horrifying images of war she witnessed during the political instability in her country and emerges a popular internet activist.

Heavily inspired by the 1001 nights, the documentary is sectioned into four “books”: Once upon a time, Story of change, After the battle and The future of the Sultan of Shahriyar. It becomes a loom, weaving together different stories to form the rich tapestry that is the middle-eastern story telling tradition. Verster applies Shahrazad’s cunning story telling philosophy, never ending stories and starting new ones each night, to his cinematography. He cuts between frames of protest footage, beautiful paintings, silhouette animation and a kaleidoscopic collection of engaging artists as they use their work to rebuild their various nation’s moral though the power of narrative. The eye behind the camera is always silent – it graciously accepts its role as observer presenting us with images free of personal commentary hence allowing us to determine their meaning for ourselves.

The value of a voice is put into focus, drawing allusion to post-colonial studies pioneer Gayatri Spivak’s notable essay “Can the subaltern speak?”. Echoing Aimé Césaire, another influential african intellectual, a potential solution is presented to the members of the youth philharmonic orchestra urging them to  “channel all [their] ambition, all [their] rebellion, into [their] songs” and “let [their] voice and songs be the weapon of those without a voice.” The authenticity of this voice is also put into question. One of the troupes actors makes an interesting observation on the americanization mainstream acting in the country; after witnessing protesters’ raw yet eloquently expression of emotion in Tahir square and reflecting on their acting’s current form, he notes sadly: “we can neither express ourselves nor the society we live in”. Thus the troupe’s desire to create a new form of theatre that embodies Egyptian culture.

None of the film’s subjects are introduced by name – the stories they carry take the foreground. We have grown used to Arab world as object, it is always spoken off in most media outlets. In this documentary it speaks to us for itself. Verster entertains a wide array of interesting issues. Chief among those is the transformative power of storytelling. It allows all the artists to take pain and loss and turn it into harmony. Bound by shared trauma, the inhabitants of these nations now posses a new kind of consciousness: war brings the need to be reminded that one is alive, that they matter so they speak to ears now that are more open to listening because they too need the strength these tales carry, if not a sense of recognition and understanding in the other.

Originally published on Dynamic Africa for the Encounters 2015 documentary festival.