In his book Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist, author Samba Gadjigo delves into the filmmaker’s formative years living in Senegal, his interest in Marxist cultural theory, and his “firm belief that the well-being of everyone had to be the work of all.” None of these topics, however, are points of interests in Sembene!, Gadjigo’s effort, with co-director Jason Silverman, to introduce Sembène’s oeuvre and legacy to a wider audience.
The film unfolds as a kind, politically soft offering of what lies beneath both Sembène’s films and the man himself, who was an outspoken activist in Senegal for workers’ rights. The first half contextualizes the director’s life prior to making his first film, 1963’s Borom Sarret, which included a stint as a fisherman and a year studying filmmaking in the Soviet Union. The second half charts Sembène’s collaboration with Gadjigo in the late ’90s, as the pair toured the world presenting Sembène’s films to diverse audiences.
As such, Sembene! is closer to a feature-length appreciation of Sembène’s life and work than an examination in the truest sense. Instead of asking questions that would reveal Sembène’s films to be, in part, the outcome of decades of violent, French colonialism in Senegal, the filmmakers historicize around these conflicts by harping on Sembène’s films as the emergence of an African voice, making him “the father of African cinema.” His films are defined by their attempt to “give voice to the voiceless,” which sounds like a weak euphemism for “correct decades of oppression and artistic censorship.”
The doc wants to make Sembène, the man, accessible, but does so by ascribing him a conventional character arc, portraying him as a cantankerous, but loveable, old man. It relies heavily upon Gadjigo’s own accounts of Sembène, who he claims “became like an uncle to me.” However, their first meeting was rocky: Gadjigo was several hours late arriving to JFK, Sembène threatened a return to Senegal, and only after a long drive to Gadjigo’s university did Sembène warm up and agree to speak about his films.
Subsequently, Gadjigo became “Sembène’s guide” for 17 years, with Gadjigo videotaping nearly every presentation and interaction the pair had. The film captures the joyous spirit of these moments, especially as audiences are visibly and audibly appreciative to Sembène’s work, from Emitai to Xala, but the results are more a highlight reel of their travels than a critical or even particularly insightful offering of excerpted moments.
Sembene! shares a kinship with Directed by John Ford, the Peter Bogdanovich documentary which was likewise made by a young admirer turned confidant, in that both are as much about coming to know the artist as much as the artist’s work. But Sembene! plays sheepish in its efforts to know Sembène because the filmmakers are hesitant to deepen the terrain. Accordingly, it’s a square-one effort, meant to ease novice, Western viewers into the idea of Sembène’s films as important works of art without explaining the pains and, by Gadjigo’s own accord, militancy of Sembène’s aesthetics.