Ousmane Sembene (1923–2007), often regarded as the “father of African cinema,” changed the terms of filmmaking in Africa: to tell the stories of Africa from the African perspective. His work challenged numerous social and cultural issues from colonization and slavery, corrupt politicians, to female genital mutilation. However eight years after his death, Sembene has largely been forgotten. During the opening scenes of the documentary Sembene! (2015), which screened at Walker October 16–18, we see co-director Samba Gadjigo enter the dilapidated Gallo Ceddo—Sembene’s house. Rust and unstable celluloid threaten the future of Sembene’s life work.
Gadjigo, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, and co-director Jason Silverman set out to tell the story of Sembene and restore his legacy. What they achieved is a deeply intimate yet honest portrait of the man who sought to change Africa. In an interview with Gadjigo and Silverman, we asked about the making of the documentary, Sembene’s approach to filmmaking, and the current state of African cinema.
What were your goals when you set out to create Sembene!?
First of all, we wanted to pay tribute to one of the most important but unknown artists of our century; a filmmaker, novelist, and storyteller who had a deep understanding of the organic relation between culture and politics. Ousmane Sembene spent 50 years using his pen and his camera to try and rescue Africa from the colonizing elements that were drowning it. Through Sembene! we aim to inspire young artists around the world and challenge them to get involved in major issues that face their societies. And equally important, we wanted to tell a story that could entertain anyone, young and old. That was Sembene’s goal with his work.
How did the two of you meet and collaborate on this documentary?
We were each (and still are) working along those lines—Jason as a writer and film programmer and I as a scholar and teacher. Almost all my scholarly work has been devoted to advancing an understanding of African culture around the world and, as an American cultural worker, Jason aims at reflecting the diversity of world cultures in the films he selects for his American audience. We first met when he called me for an article on Sembene and he discovered Sembene’s work. After Sembene passed in 2007, we decided to join our passions, resources, and expertise to work together on this film.
What was the biggest challenge in realizing this documentary? How did you decide when you had successfully portrayed Sembene’s legacy?
Everything was a challenge. Only very few film experts know of Sembene in the US, and very few Americans can point to the world map and locate an African country. Thus, a film project about an obscure African film director is a hard sell. The other major challenge is our own lack of experience in filmmaking. Although Jason already had produced two films and has a deep knowledge of the film culture and film industry, he had never directed a film. I am a college professor who only wrote books and produced a 20 minute behind-the-scenes documentary about Sembene’s final film Moolaade. We were like a one-eyed man walking down the road with a blind man. But with time and persistence, water erodes the hardest rock.
Filmmaking is like any other form of storytelling; its goal should be to entertain and to educate by touching emotions. It was difficult to find the right tone to convey our message in the most artistic way. With the experience, political and artistic sensibility of our editor, Ricardo Acosta, we think we have accomplished a work we can be proud of and which does justice to Sembene and to all those who believed in us and supported us during the years that it took to make the film.
What progress has been made in communicating Africa’s stories since Sembene’s last film, Moolaade, in 2004?
A lot of progress has been made. With the availability of digital cameras and online editing, the cost of making a film has gone way down. Yes, with social media, African stories are being told by Africans, in real time. This is so important that it has altered our political and social landscape. We no longer need to rely on CNN, BBC, or TV5 Monde to show us what is happening on our continent.
Is Africa successfully working toward preserving its cultures and languages?
In light of the centuries of systemic and deliberate “silencing” Africa has gone through, we are progressing inch by inch, but the progress is irreversible. What other societies accomplished in centuries, we are accomplishing in decades. Thanks to social media and media activism, the youth of Burkina Faso, a “tiny” country in East Africa, was able to rid itself of a three-decade-long dictatorship! Cultural and political liberation go hand in hand.
With twenty years of research to pull from, how did you narrow down the most important aspects of Sembene’s story into an 86-minute documentary?
The goal was to tell a story that could resonate across cultures. Our first few cuts of the film were filled with historical and political context, along with talking heads that were conveying interesting information, but weren’t telling stories from the heart. Ultimately, we chose to include only the people who knew him best and the facts that helped contextualize Sembene as a human, rather than Sembene, the legend.
Can you speak on Sembene’s filmmaking process and how this oeuvre came to define the “birth” of African cinema?
All of Sembene’s films are based on real-life events; his films are not about escapism. Sembene made films rooted in and reflecting the actual African experience, thus ushering in an authentic African cinema that mirrors Africa’s past and its present and projects its future, from an African perspective. He made films by any means necessary, and even coined a phrase: megotage, as opposed to montage. A “megot” is the stub of a cigarette, the leftover that’s discarded. Sembene used leftover materials, or whatever he could find, to get his films made.
Samba, in your biography on Sembene, you mention Sembene’s connection to the land, how did this connection form and how does this connection manifest in his film work?
Sembene was born in Casamance, in the south of Senegal; his father was a fisherman also working the land to feed his family. Sembene was very attached to the land and to bodies of water. He was expelled from school at an early age, and became a fisherman, a mason, a soldier, and a dockworker. He worked outside and worked with his hands. Sembene was not only connected to the land; he was a man of the people. Note that in his own resume he wrote in 1993, in the section about profession, he wrote mason and dockworker. Moreover, all of Sembene’s works are reflective of his homeland, even those written in exile, between 1956 and 1960, including his untranslated 1957 novel O pay, mon beau peuple (O, my country, my Beautiful People).
Is there today an ecole du soir (night school), where Africans’ can engage in non-colonialist education?
Not nearly as much as we really need. The movie theaters have disappeared, and those that have survived are playing mostly American films. There are some bright spots: some young filmmakers in Dakar, for example, organize regular neighborhood screenings (festivals de quartier) attended by a large audience and aspiring filmmakers.
Are there differences in narrative structure between Sembene’s written and moving image work? Why did Sembene begin working with moving image?
Most of Sembene’s films are inspired by or adapted from his literary works. But literature and cinema have different aesthetic requirements. Cinema puts more constraints and limitations to the artist’s imagination. Sembene’s own preference is literature but, as he explained in many interviews, in the conditions of Africa, cinema is the best medium to reach a vast public that needs to be addressed in hundreds of different languages. With the moving image, Sembene stated, “People see with their ears and hear with their eyes.”
Several of Sembene’s film feature strong female and/or mother characters. Why did he want to tell their stories in particular?
In a nutshell: women are the most silenced element of society, but also a major potential force that needs to reckoned with.
Do the two of you plan to co-direct any future projects together?
The first plan: to make sure this first film makes it in the world! Africa can really use this story, and Sembene’s films, and that’s true of many marginalized communities throughout the world.