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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Sembène!’ a reminder of African cinema

Sembene! Official Facebook Page)
(‘Sembène!’ Official Facebook Page)

Though the documentary film “Sembène!” touches upon a nostalgic nerve in African cinema history, what it really does is emphasize how little progress has been made in making African voices heard since Ousmane Sembène’s death. The film highlights the many successes of the Senegalese filmmaker and writer Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007) through the lens of professor Samba Gadjigo, of Mount Holyoke College, and biographer Jason Silverman.

The film is an hour, 22 minutes full of Sembène’s works, archival footage of the personal relationship between Gadjigo and Sembène, and Sembène’s relationships with others. Having never heard of Sembène before, I was astounded by how much work he completed toward his goal of giving the African people their own voice.

The documentary first covers his childhood, where the narrator, Gadjigo, explains his own desires to be more “French” as a result of the little African representation available to him at school and in the greater public. Gadjigo explains how seeing one of Sembène’s early works changed his view almost immediately, encouraging him to want to grow up and be African, like himself.

The strongest points of this documentary film are those that actually highlight Sembène’s character, and his works themselves. The viewer is introduced to his most renowned works in order of when he completed them, giving the audience a sense of time and political relevance, and for those who are not so well versed in Senegalese or even African history, there is some synopsis included in the film as well.

The film “Black Girl,” serves as his most famous, most thought provoking and most highly acclaimed body of work. It follows the fictional story of an African girl who travels to Marseilles in search of work, much like the journey Sembène took himself.

Through clips of this film, and of others like “Moolaadé” (a film about girls suffering from genital mutilation) and “Emitaï” (a film about the effects of WWII on the Diola-speaking tribe) capture what Sembène achieved for the African people at the time, the clips also highlight the lack thereof in modern African cinema and the depiction of African cinema history as a whole.

The documentary highlights the successfulness of Sembène’s works and their relevance today, but also show that these are important issues and we have new ones still to tackle today.

“Sembène!” was also successful in creating a three-dimensional depiction of its subject. Instead of just leaving audiences thinking, “look at his works, aren’t they so great?” Gradjigo and Silverman do an excellent job of showing the different sides of Sembène.

At first it’s even difficult to like Sembène. He comes off as an angry artist who refuses to work with Gradjigo and help him learn and teach, but by the end of the film their relationship has transformed so much that they consider each other like uncle and nephew, and is very touching.

Where the film goes from Sembène and his relationship with the African people, to his relationship with Gradjigo himself, is where the audience is reminded of African cinema’s little progress today. Gradjigo’s goal to spread Sembène’s work and influence around the world, was and is an effort that I personally appreciate immensely, but it does not seem to fit right in a documentary on Sembène’s success.

Where Sembène’s real success lies is in how he became a visionary for the Senegalese people, and for the other newly freed African people as well. Gradjigo’s relationship with him comes off more as a cute side story line, or dare I say a tangent gone awry, and it left me wondering what the conclusion would be for today.

Still, this fault is fairly understandable. After getting to know such a great man, I too would want to share my personal experience.

Eden Bekele can be reached at [email protected].

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