“If Africans do not tell their own stories, Africa will soon disappear”. These are the immortal words that dominate the screen as Sembene! begins to roll; words that perfectly encapsulate the life and work of the subject of this lovingly crafted documentary. That subject is Senegalese director, Ousmane Sembene, a man respectfully considered the father of African cinema.
Directed by Jason Silverman and Samba Gadjigo, Sembene! is a deeply personal portrayal of the director’s life as told by Gadjigo, himself both the biographer and close friend of Sembene. The personal connection between the two works both for and against the film; for while it certainly helps to humanise the subject, which is deeply necessary when dealing with a figure as legendary as Ousmane Sembene, it also creates a great level of sentimentality. By the film’s end, there becomes almost too much of a focus on the relationship between Sembene and Gadjigo, with less time spent reflecting on his final years as a director. Thankfully, the film is not too overly sentimental, openly embracing the director’s flaws including his strained relationship with his children as well as his highly controversial film-making.
Indeed, while the film is about the life about Ousmane Sembene, it is also as much about his career, the ground-breaking films he produced and their relation to the history of post-independence Senegal. In the words of Kenyan novelist, Ngũgĩ wa’ Thiongo, “in all his works, [Sembene] saw himself as giving voice to the voiceless”. As the first African director to gain international recognition, Sembene prided himself on stirring up controversy with his films: openly criticising the corruption of the post-independence governmental system; Islam; and the institution of female genital mutilation, to name but a few.
Sembene never stopped fighting for equality and offering hope for the helpless, even directing his final film, Moolaadé, at the age of 81 (despite being almost blind). The director serves as a hero to millions of people, and thanks to the work of Silverman and Gadjigo in producing this deeply important documentary, his work can continue to engage generations to come.
Sembene! will be screened at Filmhouse on 6th Oct as part of the Rebel with a Camera series alongside Sembene’s films: Black Girl, Xala and Moolaadé
Image: Aya Distributions