In broad narratives of film history, all too often we see particular auteurs used metonymously with their respective national cinemas – Ingmar Bergman as a stand-in for Swedish cinema, Theo Angelopoulos with Greek – in generalised descriptions that are at best unhelpful, and ignorant to rich cinematic histories at worst. So it is with some apprehension when one approaches Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese director who is generally considered not just a central figure in his own country’s filmic heritage, but as the ‘father of African cinema’ more widely. In Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s documentary Sembene!, the great director’s career and incalculable influence over the continent’s history of film is examined in a fitting (if occasionally broad) tribute to an important figure while never losing sight of his clear flaws, instead making a clear attempt to contextualise those in a well-rounded and compelling portrait of an essential filmmaker.
“I have a job that I love,” Sembene states in an archival interview, “that no-one asked me to do.” To say he wasn’t asked to make films is a wry understatement, and to talk of an African cinema before his first film, Black Girl, is to talk of nothing at all; in Senegal and most sub-Saharan countries Africans were banned from making films. Sembene, originally a novelist and entranced by the Western art he saw through Europe, sought to tell African stories. Literature, however, wasn’t an appropriate medium as long as 85% of his compatriots were illiterate, and he saw an opportunity to do with a camera what he couldn’t with a pen. Sembene! traces the career of the director through his subsequent controversies; his films weren’t just the first times Africans saw themselves on screen, but damning critiques of colonialism and corrupt governments, of evils derived from outside influences as well as intrinsically African customs and practices. He wasn’t merely a filmmaker, but a public intellectual and commentator at home and abroad, courting the ire of higher powers and dividing social opinion throughout his career.
The film contexualises Sembene’s early career quite well, and is a compelling and clearly plotted out trajectory of his life and work. Co-director Gadjigo wears multiple hats in the film, acting as our guide throughout. The biographer and friend of Sembene, he takes us through his early career up until his death, offering enough personal anecdotes and opinions that give the film a personality, though he almost directly gives us a disclaimer of the film’s potential foray into hagiography as he rarely hides his clear admiration for the man and the effect his films have had on his life. However, as a creative force in the film as well, he doesn’t steer away from or gloss over Sembene’s personal shortcomings. Through interviews with Sembene’s son and (through archival footage) wife we learn he was clearly lacking as a father and husband, obsessed with his craft at the expense of those around him. The lengths he would go to produce these films likewise shock- in an infamous incident he stole money and a script idea from a student to make a film, and at another instance calmly rationalised that putting a young girl through terror in the filming of Moolade, a scathing film about female circumcision, was a necessary tradeoff in order to attempt to liberate millions of viewers. Whether or not these sociopathic tendencies are justified by the necessity of his art is a question the film poses (and doesn’t really hide the filmmakers opinion of ‘yes’). Unlike so many artist documentaries that consist of talking heads throwing the word ‘genius’ around, in simple terms we hear quite simply from African people why his films resonated, as well as learn his own limitations and flaws, and this is juxtaposed with some fascinating archival footage of Sembene himself – articulate, intelligent, charismatic and seemingly self-aware, urging us to judge him by his films rather than his character.
Some may wish the documentary delved just a little bit more into the films themselves, as anyone unfamiliar with his work will likely be a little lost as the filmmakers tend to rely on relatively context-less excerpts when going through his career. Likewise, those that have seen the films may be disappointed in the lack of analysis of the filmmaker’s style and content; it feels a bit more like a documentary about an important figure who made films rather than a great director whose body of work has resonated. Ironically, this of course runs counter to Sembene’s and the filmmakers’ ostensible plea to judge his films and not him as a person. And although Sembene’s influence is legendary, sadly there is no real discussion of the films and filmmakers that followed in his footsteps in Senegal and wider Africa – in these respects, this can’t clearly be considered a definitive look at Ousmane Sembene the artist. But the story of Sembene is intimately connected with that of African cinema, and African cinema is connected with the artform as a whole, which is to say, parameters and limitations in scope have to be set somewhere. As it stands, Sembene! is a compelling and well-made documentary that works best as an overview and primer to a legendary career and an enigmatic figure; anyone looking for an entry point into discovering African cinema would be well served with this look at its most essential director.