A new documentary celebrates the great filmmaker Ousmane Sembène.
“It is good to be at Cannes, but I wish Africa would create something of its own. We should not be eternal guests. It is up to us to create our own values, to recognize them and to carry them throughout the world. We are not alone in the world, but we are our own sun. I do not define myself relative to Europe. In the darkest of darkness if the other does not see me, I do see myself. And surely do I shine!” – Ousmane Sembène
As a seventeen-year-old in Senegal, Samba Gadjigo didn’t really know what it was to be African. He only knew that he wanted to be as French as possible, to emulate everything French that was around him so accurately that he would, eventually, be able to bury everything about himself that was African.
Then he discovered a book called God’s Bits of Wood by a fellow Senegalese writer called Ousmane Sembène. Sembène would go on to become one of the most important film directors to come out of the African continent. And with the help of the young and star-struck Gadjigo—who was then a professor in the French department at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts where he still teaches today—Sembène’s legacy continues to live on.
Sembène was born in 1923 in Casamance in southern Senegal and worked as a laborer since the age of fourteen. In 1944, he was drafted into the French army, an experience that deepened his understanding of colonization. It served as the basis for his feature films, Emitai and Camp de Thiaroye. After World War II, Sembène moved to Marseilles where he worked on the docks, taught himself to read and write, and dove into studying the writings and teachings of Karl Marx, Pablo Neruda, Jack London, Birago Diop, Richard Wright, and Ernest Hemingway. He became a writer as well, in French but also in his native dialect of Wolof. But the majority of the people he wanted to reach through his writing were illiterate in any language, so he turned to cinema and proceeded to tell magnificent stories over the course of the next fifty years of his life. First-time filmmakers Jason Silverman and Samba Gadjigo have spent the last seven years ensconced in a very delicate, and ultimately, finely balanced co-directing partnership to make the documentary film, SEMBÈNE!
Sembène completed his last film, Moolaadé, in 2004, working against every adversity, just like all his other films. Moolaadé is about female genital mutilation practices, and it made a star of its lead actress, Fatoumata Coulibaly, a woman who was herself circumcised as a little girl. Sembène made the film when he was eighty-two years old, almost entirely blind, and very frail. He died in 2007, just a few years later. The film was shot on 35mm in the middle of tropical Africa, and Samba Gadjigo was there to document it all.
Premiering as an official selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film is told through Gadjigo’s experiences and memories of his hero, mentor, and “uncle.” Gadjigo became colleague, biographer, and the fiery-tempered director’s most trusted confidant. The film offers an epic story of the master told through the very particular and intimate lens of his protégé.
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