“Frankness is not my downfall … it is my freedom.”
– Ousmane Sembene
Interview with Samba Gadjigo (November 2015)
An exclamation point is the correct punctuation for this documentary on Ousmane Sembene! Sembene! is a vital new perspective, made over a period of seven years by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, on Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese director known as the “father of African cinema,” but a man whose work has such a broad scope that he is one of cinema’s greatest thinkers and artists. Sembene, starting with little, rose into the film world with a drive to speak to and for African sensibility with an African point of view, something unknown in cinema until his movies were made in the early 1960s.
Sembene! tells its story through a method best described as woven. A man even appears early in the film, in a 1960s newsreel of village life, weaving on a portable loom, the shuttle going back and forth. The film, as it goes through Sembene’s life, is constructed similarly, interweaving today with yesterday; clips of Sembene’s films, in sometimes out of release sequence, with footage of African life; interviews with direct address; classrooms with film sets; voice over with cut-up animation; and video Gadjigo had taken during his seventeen years as Sembene’s close friend, translator and quasi-agent. Somehow nothing seems forced together because Gadjigo and Silverman create a thread, in this portrait, that has a continuity that imbues the documentary with warmth, pleasure, and intimacy.
The film makes obvious that today’s world mixes with the past and that Sembene’s drive and extreme talent still electrifies and will always influence culture. It also underscores, in its direct approach to Sembene’s life and work, that the reality of what Sembene faced and from what he drew energy underlies all lives.
For all Sembene’s uniqueness, the film manages to show him as both singular and extraordinary and as part of the large ordinary world. Sembene addressed his problems and spoke to the problems he saw around him and found the best way to communicate that. The film, in its plainness in its story telling and its respect for Sembene’s greatness, suggests that all people also can do that in their individual ways.
A unique documentary on Ousmane Sembene. Must see.