Out of Africa
A NEW DOCUMENTARY PAYS TRIBUTE TO FILMMAKER OUSMANE SEMBÈNE
In 2007, the world lost Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, “the father of African cinema.” Four years later, documentarian Samba Gadjigo set out to preserve the legacy of Sembène, whose life’s work has been neglected in his home country. Gadjigo, along with the Center for Contemporary Arts’ Jason Silverman, co- directed Sembène!, a moving, informative documentary that chronicles the filmmaker’s life and career as he rose from simple village life to become a celebrated and outspoken critic of postcolonial Africa, and his father-son relationship with Gadjigo. Sembène! screens at 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 29, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as a benefit for CCA before starting a regular run at CCA on Saturday, Jan. 30. On the cover is a photo of the director in action.
HE TAUGHT ME TO SEE MY PLACE IN THE WORLD, WHAT STRUGGLES I WAS FACING ALONG WITH MILLIONS OF OTHER PEOPLE. THAT’S WHAT I OWE TO SEMBÈNE. I AM AN EXAMPLE OF HOW ART AND CULTURE AND LITERATURE AND FILM CAN INFLUENCE PEOPLE’S LIVES. — SAMBA GADJIGO, “SEMBÈNE!” CO-DIRECTOR
Young senegalese growing up in Africa in the turbulent 1950s, ’60s, and ’ 70s entered a different world from the one they called home as soon as they crossed onto school grounds. Senegal was under the control of the French since the mid-19thh century, and French culture dominated the curriculum in the Senegalese schools. Young men like Samba Gadjigo, a native of Senegal and now a professor specializing in French-speaking Africa and African cinema at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, dreamed of becoming French. Gadjigo was taught to have only scorn for his native language and culture. “The only culture was the culture of imperial power,” he told Pasatiempo. “We were not allowed to speak our own language once we crossed the gate of the school. There was punishment attached to it. French culture, French literature took center stage. I was black, but inside I was as white as anyone from white culture could be.”
But in 1972, when Gadjigo was in high school, all of that changed. He rread a novel, God’s Bits of Wood, written by a fellow Senegalese, Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007) and, although he would not meet the man who changed his life for many years, Gadjigo would go on to become a close friend and confidant of the novelist and filmmaker who is now regarded as the father of African cinema. Sembène’s book was first published in 1960, the same year Senegal gained its independence from France. “It was really a mental, cultural, and psychological fracture for me in the sense that — as a kid who was used to seeing blacks as always the wretched of the Earth, who were beaten up, were only shadows, were denied humanity — for the first time I read a book in which blacks were humanized and seen from a black perspective,” he said. “Moreover we were empowered. For the first time, in the confrontation between blacks and whites, blacks came out as winners.”
Sembène is the subject of the documentary Sembène!, which is co- directed,, co-written,, and co-producedp by Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, director of the Cinematheque at the Center for Contemporary Arts. The film has its first New Mexico screening at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Friday, Jan. 29, followed by a regular run at CCA beginning Saturday, Jan. 30. The Lensic screening is a benefit for CCA and the filmmakers will be present.
Silverman was first introduced to Gadjigo in 2004 when he approached the professor to write an article promoting Moolaadé (2004), Sembène’s last film, when it showed at the Telluride Film Festival where Silverman works (in addition to CCA). Soon after, Silverman put together a CCA festival program of his own — “The African Effect” — and it became an annual tradition for Gadjigo to bring one of Sembène’s films to the festival. “He did that for the next four years,” Silverman told Pasatiempo. “When Sembène died in 20007, I called to give my condolences to Samba because they had a father-son relationship. He said, ‘I’ve got all of these tapes I’ve made of Sembène over the last few yeears. Do you want to do something with t hem?’ So we decided to make this movie.” Sembène!, which was completed in Santa Fe, premiered in 2015 and has been well received at film festivals in the U.S. and abroad. Last year, it screened at the Cannes Film Festival in the “Cannes Classic” section for heritage films with a restored version of Sembène’s first feature, La Noire de … ( Black Girl).
Sembène was born the son of a fisherman in the town of Ziguinchor in Senegal in 1923. As a young man, he stowed away on a boat to France where he worked on the docks in Marseilles. In France he discovered the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and became a member of the Communist party. “Those were years of optimism, of energy, of fervor,” Gadjigo said. “He was intoxicated by all that fervor but also found that he could not reach African people through literature. He goes to Moscow in 1962 to learn how to make films.””
Black Girl was made in 1966. Only a few years earlier, before independence, it wasn’t possible for black Senegalese to obtain film equipment to make their own movies and tell their own stories. Sembène’s early shorts were the first sub-Saharan African films made by a black African.
Black Girl, the story of a young woman who challenges her mistreatment by a white employer, gained critical praise. It was made in the French language and was filmed in France and Dakar but his later features were often filmed entirely in Africa and his intent was to show contemporary Africans as a people with agency. “He taught me to see my place in the world, what struggles I was facing along with millions of other peeople,” Gadjigo said. “That’s what I owe to Sembène. I am an example of how art and culture and literature and film can influence peeople’s lives. That’s exactly why Jason and I made this documentary. It’s like taking inspiration from Sembène to make a film thaat will also inspire future generations: not only people from Africa, not only people from the third world, but all those people who have been excluded.”
Sembène’s legacy in his own country, where few cinemas exist that show African-made films, is in danger of being forgotten. Gadjigo, who manages Sembène’s papers and archives and also wrote a biography on the filmmaker, has been trying to correct this. “The irony is that we have been having outstanding success around the world since we premiered the documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last January. We have been to more than 20 countries but have not had any showings of the film in Senegal. We’ve showns it in only one African country, which is South Africa. You have to come to the West to see African cultural productions. They do not reach Africa proper.” In the film, we see Gadjigo as he enters Sembène’s locked-up home four years after the filmmaker’s death to find his films in rusting canisters, his papers in disarray, and his home in disrepair. It’s a shocking moment considering Sembène’s influence outside of his own nation. “I’m working with individuals of good will and with institutions to salvage Sembène’s work. At home, those works are not even valued.”
The documentary blends contemporary footage with archival material and is divided into chapters, each one introduced by an animated sequence. In addition, numerous clips from Sembène’s films as well as behind- the- scenes footage is shown. He was a man of a somewhat irascible nature, an absent father, and a driven and passionate auteur who demanded much from his actors. He strove, for instance, to make a scene in which a young girl is subjected to genital mutilation that much more real when he allowed the child , who had been through the procedure in real life, to believe it was really happening to her again. He wrung a heartbreaking and difficult-to-watch performance from the girl. The scene is from Moolaadé, a dram a about a woman who divides members of her village when she takes it upon herself to protect and shelter a group of young girls from becoming victims of genital mutilation. It was not the first controversial film helmed by Sembène, whose previous films such as Camp de Thiaroye (1988) and Ceddo (19777) took on political and religious subject matter. Cedo was banned in Senegal for several years because of the critical view of Islam it expresses. Camp de Thiaroye, a true story about the mistreatment, uprising, and subsequent massacre of French West African troops by French forces during World War II, was banned in France for a decade, a situation that did little to increase Sembène’s reputation in Senegal, where the film was also censored.
According to Gadjigo, producing a film in Senegal means acquiring funding through the former colonial power, France. “That is due to the nature of any colonial system,” he said. “Our cultural situation in the world is reflective of our economic and political situation. If you know that Affrica represents less than two percent of the world economy, you can also understand why, culturally, Africa is completely excluded .” But if Nolly wood, Nigeria’s thriving film industry, is any indication, the situation is changing .“It will take the investment of all Africans and allies of Africa, inside and outside of the continent, to make that change complete and long lasting.”
ON THE SET
7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29 Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St. $15-$100 ($100 tickets include a 5:30 p.m. reception at the New Mexico History Museum), 505-577-1317, www.ticketssantafe.org; screening benefits Center for Contemporary Arts Regular screenings from Saturday, Jan. 30, at CCA
(1050 Old Pecos Trail, 505-982-1338)