The Mancunion

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Review: Sembene!

A documentary about the African culture and society, the arts, filmmaking and of course… the man himself


Sembene! is a remarkable piece of art that walks the audience through the life of the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, offering both a biographical and historical insight. Through a collection of photographs, original video footage, interviews and clips from Sembene’s films, the life and work of this significant man is presented to the audience in a way that does not hide the controversies surrounding Sembene but instead explores them.

Born in Ziguinchor, Senegal on the 1st January 1923, Ousmane Sembene was born as the son of a fisherman. After being expelled from school, he followed in his Father’s footsteps by becoming a fisherman himself before moving to work in Marseilles, France. It was there that he discovered his love for literature. When realising that there was an absence of his African culture in the literature that he was reading, he decided that he wanted to create pieces of art that conveyed the culture of the “common people” of Africa. The rest is history.

The documentary was co-directed and co-written by Samba Gadjigo, a biographer of Ousmane Sembene and Professor of French and African Studies, and award-winning film producer Jason Silverman. The journey begins by Gadjigo sorting through the old and rusty film canisters that contain many pieces of unseen footage shot by Sembene, some of which appear to have already become rotted and unplayable. It is this footage of Gadjigo as he tries to salvage, protect and maintain the film canisters that introduces what the documentary is really about, which is to protect and to maintain not only Sembene’s work but also his legacy.

In an interview included in the documentary, the phrase “Sembene came to cinema and invented a new language to represent black people” can be heard. It is this statement that sums up one of the primary aims of the documentary; to portray him as his given status as the “Father of African Film”. His controversial opinions and stances on topics such as Islam and different aspects of the African society that are highlighted in his films are addressed in this documentary truthfully and forwardly. The documentary does not try to shy away from Sembene’s true thoughts and because of this, the film is made to feel more so like a true and accurate account rather than a biased or persuasive one.

Aesthetically, Sembene! is bursting with beautiful film sequences that not only enrich the story of the life being told but also serve as pure visual pleasure for the viewer. One point of criticism would be that the documentary does not delve into Sembene’s literature, which is arguably where his artistic journey began. It would have been a lot more beneficial for both the spectator’s benefit and the narrative if the documentary was to discuss Sembene’s literary works for this reason. However, this absence does not take anything away from Sembene!. It still leaves me to believe that this documentary is an incredible piece that must be celebrated and applauded for its artistic vision and for its success of educating others about the life and work of Ousmane Sembene, a story which needs to be told. Sembene! allows a legacy to live.