A voice and vision for Africa Mount Holyoke College professor’s documentary on seminal African filmmaker debuts at Sundance
Published in the January 29, 2014, Daily Hampshire Gazette. Shared with permission.
By Steve Pfarrer, staff writer
It’s a story that almost defies belief.
Ousmane Sembène, born in the French colony of Senegal in 1923, had been kicked out of school in the fifth grade for fighting, and by his teens was a laborer in Dakar, Senegal’s capital. During World War II, he was drafted into the French army, and after the war he became a dock worker in Marseille — seemingly a poor black African adrift in a white man’s world.
But all along, Sembène, a voracious reader, had been learning on his own, and he reinvented himself first as a celebrated novelist and then, in his early 40s, as a filmmaker — the first and most accomplished cinema auteur to emerge from Africa. He would go on to win international acclaim and the sobriquet “the father of African cinema” for a body of work that told African stories for Africans.
Sembène’s story is now the subject of a new film itself, co-produced and directed by a Mount Holyoke College professor and native Sengalese whose own life path was dramatically altered when, as a teen, he discovered Sembène’s work.
Last week, Samba Gadjigo was headed to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah for the first public screening of the documentary “Sembène!” It’s one of just 12 documentaries to be shown this year at the famous festival.
The film’s debut figured to mark both a renewed look at the life and legacy of Sembène, who died in 2007 at age 84, and a personal triumph for Gadjigo, who spent a good chunk of the past seven years putting the film together.
“It has been a big effort and a long road, but it’s absolutely worth it in the end,” Gadjigo said during a recent interview at his office at Mount Holyoke, where he has taught French and African studies since 1986. “I want to be sure to keep [Sembène’s] work in the public eye, and to have the opportunity to do that at a place like Sundance is really very exciting.”
Gadjigo has more than a scholarly interest in his subject. In 1972, when he was 17 years old, he read Sembène’s most noted novel, “God’s Bits of Wood” (“Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu”), a story of a famous railroad strike in Senegal and Niger in 1947-48, and he became entranced with the writer’s vision of Africans fighting for their rights against their European colonial rulers. Until he read the novel, Gadjigo had imagined going to France himself to live and study.
“I tell my students sometimes that I was like an Oreo cookie then — black on the outside, white on the inside,” he said with a chuckle. “It was my dream, and the dream of many of my countrymen, to go to France. I had been educated in French — all I knew was French culture. I didn’t know my own culture.”
But after reading “God’s Bits of Wood,” Gadjigo was reminded of the stories he’d heard from his elders as a child — stories about Senegalese and African culture and history. Years later, Sembène’s work would become a central focus of Gadjigo’s academic career, and he would also realize his dream of meeting the man and getting to know him. He would become Sembène’s official biographer, his friend, and an important link to the United States for the African filmmaker
“He was really a father figure to me, a mentor, an inspiration and a friend,” Gadjigo said. “So making the film about him is a natural next step.”
It was through Mount Holyoke, in fact, that Gadjigo first linked up with his mentor. In 1989, with grant money and support from the Five College African Studies Council, he brought Sembène to the Valley after flying to Senegal to meet him in person and convince him to come to the area.
That was the first of three visits the filmmaker made to this region and the local colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Gadjigo says he and Sembène would use the Valley as a jumping-off point for visits to film conventions, universities and cultural centers in other parts of the country and in Canada. “[North America] was always the most important market for his films,” he said. “But he particularly enjoyed coming here.”
One of the places they visited, and where Gadjigo also made presentations on his own about Sembène’s work, was the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a cinema, performance center and exhibition hall. Over the years, Gadjigo got to know the center’s film director, Jason Silverman, and after Sembène died in 2007, the two began talking about how Gadjigo might next chronicle his mentor’s work; at that point he’d already published a biography, in both French and English, and a number of other works about him.
“Jason said, ‘We’re going to make a movie about him,’ ” Gadjigo said with a laugh. “I remember saying, “What do I know about that?’ ” Silverman had considerable experience as a film festival director and was a longtime writer on film, but he had not made a movie, either, Gadjigo notes. “I didn’t know where we would even begin.”
But the two friends, who share credits as writers, directors and producers of the documentary, eventually did find their way, putting together a team that included a film editor, art director, composer and story consultants. Using hired cinematographers, Gadjigo and Silverman went to Senegal to film places where Sembène had lived and worked, and people who knew him; they’ve also incorporated archival footage of him from past interviews, scenes from his movies, narration, illustration and other information to tell his story.
Gadjigo was on sabbatical this past semester to finish up the documentary, which was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, grants and donations, and some of the filmmakers’ personal savings.
“The film turned out to be a very good means of bringing his story to life,” Gadjigo said.
‘Elder of elders’
That story is a rich one. Sembène was “the most significant force” in African filmmaking history, the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2004. The paper’s film critic, Kenneth Turan, said that in Africa’s Francophone community, Sembène was “the elder of elders, someone whose passion and commitment to societal change have inspired filmmakers and infuriated governments in Europe as well as home.”
He was an early advocate of independence for African countries (Senegal would gain independence in 1960). He took part in the railroad workers’ strike in 1947-48 in Senegal that he chronicled in “God’s Bits of Wood,” and he also became an advocate for working-class people in general during his time as a dockworker in Marseille.
Though he had achieved literary success by 1960, with three novels to his credit, Sembène became convinced, Gadjigo says, that film was a better vehicle for reaching most Africans, who had a high illiteracy rate. He won a scholarship to study film in what was then the Soviet Union and came back to Senegal in 1963 with a Russian camera and the desire “to tell the stories of people who hadn’t been heard from or were ignored,” Gadjigo said. “He fought to empower the marginalized, and women in particular.”
In fact, his 1966 film “The Black Girl,” the first feature film made by an African director, was the tale of a young Sengalese woman who goes to work for a rich couple in France; she assumes she’s been hired to be a nanny but finds herself working as a servant, suffering harsh treatment in the process. The film won a prestigious award, the Prix Jean Vigo, in France that year.
Among several films, Sembène won particular notice for “Camp de Thiaroye” in 1988 and “Moolaadé” in 2004. The first film detailed an infamous story from World War II, in which Sengalese troops at a camp in Dakar were gunned down in late 1944 by white French soldiers when they protested revocation of their back pay. “Moolaadé,” a protest against the female genital mutilation practiced in a number of African countries, won international praise.
Gadjigo notes that Sembène, even when he won wide recognition, always had to work with a limited budget, often using friends and amateur actors for his films. He was also a fierce critic of African leaders who he believed had betrayed their citizens through greed and autocratic rule. He eventually ceased making his movies in French, instead filming in Wolof and other indigenous languages from Senegal.
“He always believed that an African storyteller should be a man of the people,” Gadjigo said.
To learn more about “Sembène!” you can visit www.sembenefilm.com.