Out of Africa

A NEW DOC­U­MEN­TARY PAYS TRIB­UTE TO FILM­MAKER OUS­MANE SEM­BÈNE

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Michael Abatemarco The New Mex­i­can

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.”

MOOLAADÉ

CAMPDE THIAROYE

BLACK GIRL

ON THE SET

THE DI­REC­TOR

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)

Sem­bène!

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