“Whether it’s DeMille, Hitchcock, the Senegalese filmmaker Sembene … we’re all walking in their footsteps every day.” – Martin Scorsese
Over scenes of an African village, we hear a voice, the voice of Samba Gadjigo: “I grew up in a small village in Senegal, with no TV, no newspapers, no radio. All I had was stories told by my grandmother. By the time I was 14, I dreamed of becoming French, like the characters in the books I read in high school. When I was 17, I discovered the stories of Ousmane Sembene, the father of African cinema. Suddenly, I did not want to be French anymore. I wanted to be African.”
Gadjigo, Sembene’s biographer, opens a lock to a door of a house on the coast of Senegal, the house of Sembene, which he is entering for the first time since the filmmaker’s death three years prior. Inside, Gadjigo sees wreckage: papers everywhere, vandalism. Outside, rusty film cans are evaluated and opened. The legacy of the most revered of African artists is in danger. “I cannot let this happen,” Gadjigo tells us. “I will not let Sembene be forgotten.”
Using a weave of archival materials, new footage, animation and clips from Sembene’s films, Gadjigo leads us through Sembene’s remarkable life, from hardship to triumph to tragedy and finally to a redemptive ending.
Son of a fisherman, Sembene grew up in a small village in southern Senegal. He was kicked out of school in sixth grade, moving to Marseilles in search of a deeper understanding of the world. But the only work he finds is hauling sacks in slave-like conditions on the docks. While carrying a sack of coffee, Sembene fractures several vertebrae. He turns what to others might be a crippling injury into a blessing, using the moment to read voraciously — noting that, “My Africa was missing” from world literature. It was during this time that Sembene teaches himself to write, crafting novels of working-class struggle that became sensations in France.
We hear more of Gadjigo’s story. The French-dominated Senegalese school curricula leaves him wishing to be someone — a white Frenchman — he could never be. His first encounter with Sembene’s novels at the age of 17, inspire him, reminding him that Africans had the same human potential as anyone else. “It was the first time I was proud to be African,” he says. For the next 17 years, as he progresses through the educational system and receives a scholarship to study in the U.S., Gadjigo worships Sembene from afar. Sembene’s books and films keep him connected to home and deepen his understanding of African struggle.
In 1960, Sembene returns home amidst the jubilation of African independence and vows to make movies that will serve as a “night school” to galvanize and liberate Africans. Against all odds, and using any means necessary, he makes his first two films: the 20- minute Borom Sarret (1963), which presents the experiences of a starving cart driver in Dakar; and Black Girl (1966), the story of a domestic worker enslaved by her white employers. His star rises: the first Black juror at Cannes, an award winner at festivals worldwide, a growing hero to radical artists, politicians and freedom fighters everywhere.
By the late 60’s, Sembene is among the many expressing impatience, frustration and betrayal at the failure of African leaders to fulfill the promises of independence. His radical films and books had made Sembene, in the words of Gadjigo, “honey to the bees” for Black intellectuals and artists around the world and an icon of African resistance. His rebellious and provocative films include Emitai (1971), a story of resistance and rebellion against French rule and Africa’s first historical epic; and Xala (1975), a wickedly sharp satire that remains the best expose of black hypocrisy in the era of global economics. Both films are banned or censored by the Senegalese government.
With the film Ceddo (1977), a vivid, action-filled historical drama questioning the legitimacy of Islam, Sembene finally goes too far. It is blasphemous, ending with an Imam being shot by a princess in a village. Ceddo explores the political and religious battles that continue to define Africa, and it alienated many people in power. Scholar Manthia Diawara remembers warning Sembene that he was going to get attacked like Salman Rushdie. African leaders ban the film, sending Sembene into a funk. He is on the brink of financial ruin, and his film is not seen in Africa. Ceddo is the last film he will make for nine years. After watching his marriage collapse due to neglect, alienating friends and family with his single-minded focus on his work, the man of the people is alone.
It is against this background of frustration and alienation that Sembene makes a decision that will haunt him. In 1985, he is named the head of a Senegalese film fund and selects a team of young filmmakers, including his protégé Boris Boubacar Diop, to make a film about a massacre of African soldiers by the French Army. But as their production falters, Sembene seizes the money, applying it to his own film about the same story. Camp de Thiaroye (1986), winner of six prizes at the Venice Film Festival, is a masterpiece, but a personal disaster for Sembene. The French ban Camp de Thiaroye, fearful that the film, based on the real-life massacres of African soldiers by French officers, would prove embarrassing and perhaps provoke calls for restitution. And the African youth, who previously considered Sembene a hero, now call him a thief. His reputation failing him and his finances depleted, Sembene enters a dark phase, unable to make a film for the next six years.
Gadjigo, now a successful professor in the U.S., returns to Dakar to invite Sembene on a speaking tour in the U.S. After being rudely rebutted – “Why should I waste my time with American academics,”— Sembene is eventually convinced. The tour is the starting point of an intense and inspirational relationship that continues for 17 years until Sembene’s death. In the young Gadjigo, Sembene sees proof that his films and books matter.
With help from Gadjigo, Sembene attempts to reinvent himself once again, investing his still-militant films with a rich new humanity. Guelwaar (1995), an unashamedly autobiographical film, follows a flawed hero who is killed by his rivals and becomes the subject of a religious feud. It also offers a fiery diatribe about the shame of foreign aid.
Through exclusive behind-the-scenes footage we see the making of Moolaade (2004), showing that Sembene, even in his 80’s and losing his eyesight, remained fiercely determined to accomplish his vision. The film explores resistance to female genital mutilation in a small village, and includes scenes of both beauty and frank brutality towards women. Sembene worked through the day, surviving by staying on an IV each night. Ultimately redemptive, and a prizewinner at Cannes, Moolaade connects Sembene with his widest audience. “This is the way to do it in Africa,” Moolaade star Fatoumatah Coulibaly tells us. “You put your finger in the wound. People see, think and react.”
But Moolaade is also the final act for Sembene. He never regains his health from the strain of the production. Three years later, he dies, as was his wish, upright, in the arms of his maid. Gadjigo is there on the day of Sembene’s death, capturing the emotional burial and pledging to carry his work forward.
What will become of African cinema after Sembene, the man who created it and took it to its heights? Gadjigo begins what represents a step forward, traveling to rural Senegal to show African films to audiences who have never seen them. These are films about Africans, made for Africans and, finally, being seen by Africans.