a while, Ousmane Sembene was a Senegalese B. Traven. While working on the docks
in Marseilles, the expat became of a self-taught novelist and radicalized Communist
Party member. Although his early films reflect those class prejudices, Sembene
would become the leading critic of the Islamization of Africa. His cinematic
legacy is particularly challenging to fully digest and analyze, so Samba
Gadjigo & Jason Silverman mostly hit his career high notes in Sembene! (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
long-admired Sembene’s films and novels, Gadjigo eventually became his
assistant, protégé, companion, and spiritual son. He assisted the auteur on his
later pictures and now oversees efforts to restore and promote Sembene’s oeuvre.
Much like Quincey Troupe’s work as Miles Davis’s biographer, Gadjigo’s story
will become fundamentally intertwined with Sembene’s, at least while he is
doing the telling. While that might not make for the most objective documentary
filmmaking, it gives viewers an emotionally resonant relationship to grab hold
when it comes to surveying Sembene’s work, Sembene!
(with the Broadway-style exclamation point) mostly relies on film clips and
archival interview footage, proceeding forward in an orderly film-by-film
manner. Still, what we see of Ceddo is
undeniably intriguing. Chronicling a village’s forced conversion to Islam, it
was duly banned by Socialist president Leopold Senghor’s government. Decades
later, it is easy to see it as an eerie predecessor to Abderrahmane Sissako’s
devastating Timbuktu. If all that is
not interesting enough, it also has an original score performed by Manu Dibango.
& Silverman probably devote the most time to Sembene’s final film, Moolaadé, which makes sense considering
Gadjigo helmed the “making of” documentary. It was also one of Sembene’s most
controversial works, directly attacking the practice of female genital
mutilation. The mere fact he was helming an eventual Cannes award-winner while
losing his eye-sight is also rather dramatic.
Throughout the documentary, Gadjigo &
Silverman emphasize Sembene’s stature as a pan-African icon, but hint at his increasing
frustration with the corruption and brutality of the newly independent African
states. Yet, they are obviously treading on eggshells whenever addressing this
tension. As a result, Sembene! often feels
too sanitized and not nearly messy enough. Still, there are not a lot of
feature length profiles of Sembene out there. Gadjigo & Silverman give
viewers a solid survey and leave them wanting to see more, which probably
constitutes a mission accomplished, given their plans to restore and re-release
Sembene’s work. Recommended for Sembene’s fans and film snobs looking for the
Cliff Notes on the Senegalese filmmaker, Sembene!
opens this Friday (11/6) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza.
Labels: African Cinema, Documentary, Ousmane Sembene