Sembene! Director: Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman. 82mins; USA.
Samba Gadijigo’s and Jason Silverman’s Sembene! is a rare documentary on the life of one of Africa’s most renowned and important filmmakers, Ousmane Sembene. Ousmane Sembene was Senegalese and the first man arguably who brought some of the most significant issues of Africa’s postcolonial predicaments to the attention of the world, and was regarded (much to his disapproval) as the father of African cinema. The story opens with Samba Gadjigo finding his way to the home of the late ace filmmaker. The frames carry our gaze with his movement around the neighbour into Sembene compound and then finally into his house. In the house were materials, books, film materials and tools that had suffered much neglect for quite a long time. The house, according to the visual interpretation and with the aid of the narrative voice of the director, had been abandoned for a long-time since the death of Ousmane Sembene himself. We are taken through the way the narrator decided to save those materials and preserve them as best as he could. The narrator provided us pictures that told stories about Sembene’s rise as well as those influential perspectives that shaped his forte as a filmmaker and the people whom he made friends with in his lifetime. Some of them ranging from artists like Danny Glover to filmmakers like Gordon Parks, Spike Lee and lovers of the art like Henry Louis Gates. Photographs of the young Sembene, much older Sembene and extremely old Sembene permeated the documentary and also contributed to, the handling of the whole artistic framework of the documentary. The interviews with people who were close to him during his life time such as his son Allain Sembene, his house keeper, Nafi Ndoye, and popular Senegalese novelist Boubarchar Boris Diop, were veritable vectors that contributed to story. Other instances follow with some visual recordings of Ousmane Sembene at work making his films and also instructing people on how to make films. These interviews are juxtaposed with clips from films such as Borrom Sarret, Ceddo Black Girl, Xala, Emitai and of course one of his most controversial works, Campe de Thioraye. The narrator simultaneously shows interviews about Sembene’s view of Africa with both white and black journalists in relation to his beliefs and the films that he had made. Even though his films were a reflection of his society and Africa at large, his personal thoughts shaped the context of his films in such a way that he was able to deconstruct familiar traditions that did not help Africa grow but to remain moribund without transformative change. Clips of his works as shown in the documentary evinced that they were actually subversive films, that part of the documentary only tells us essentially what the power of the frames was destined for during the rise and development, of Sembene in a continent that had nothing but its courage and dignity. There were other areas in the film where other issues of his life are relayed, such as the situation surrounding his divorce with his wife Carrie, how it devastated him and his refusal to get married again. Another reflection has to do with his idiosyncratic nature during his filming and when his moments of relaxation, recess and leisure time with, his son, friends and accomplices. The documentary reads more like a biography of Sembene, and an autobiographical account of Samba Gadjigo on his relationship with Ousmane Semebene. In fact, what makes the documentary more exciting is the fact that the filmmaker gives us enough details and indications to believe that he was the closest to Sembene. The fact that Sembene personally made him have access to his house when and whenever he chooses to visit was a clear indication of the close relationship that exist between the two. More significantly, their various sojourn together all over the world giving talks about his works and maintaining consistent appearances at international festivals and conferences, exhibition and so on. The reality of the work is inspiringly sublime. The work has a powerful undertone that makes you feel Ousmane Sembene still remains alive, living in the castle of the skin of those who admired him, and the alacrity he exhumes when it comes to discussing about Africa, his homeland in Senegal, his beloved people and his job. Visual representation of his silent moments, the way a walks the streets of France, London, and Burkina Faso, his debonair camp and humility when he is given a standing ovation, his familiar and yet imposing frame, as well as his funny and yet particular way of smoking his pipe. All these specificities only tell us that Ousmane Sembene was a phenomenal personality who will always be remembered for the many cinematic conventions and inventions that he popularised in Africa. The original scores by Ken Myr and Chris Jonas were well perfected for the film and the most profound was the closing version which fitted the story of the subject, such that one wonders whether a president had died. The film will for long be important for studies in African documentaries and the “cine essays”, which was popularised here in African film criticism by foremost historian and cinema scholar of long standing Prof Manthia Diawara. And one thing this film will do is that it will serve as an important work for new readers, students and general readers of Ousmane Sembene’s films. Therefore, even if no one had ever read about Sembene, the documentary will serve as an introductory encounter. It is more than a tribute to the ace, and late cinematographer. Tunde Onikoyi, IREP Media Team