MHC's Gadjigo on Ousmane Sembène

Posted: November 6, 2007

In September, French professor Samba Gadjigo published his long-awaited biography of Ousmane Sembène, widely considered the "father of African film." The book, titled Ousmane Sembène: Une Conscience Africaine, covers the first part of Sembène's life, from his birth in 1923 to the writing of his first book in 1956. Sembène, who died this past June at age 84, started out working as a bricklayer, fought in World War II as a colonial infantryman, and then became a trade union organizer and a political activist in the French Communist Party and in pro-independence African parties in Marseilles, France, before turning his attention to writing and filmmaking in the 1960s.

Born and raised in Senegal, Gadjigo had his first taste of Sembène's work in high school 34 years ago, when he read God's Bits of Wood. From that point on, he was an avid follower and scholar of Sembène's writing and films. The two did not meet until 1989, when Gadjigo invited the filmmaker to participate in a Five College African Studies Consortium conference on his work. When Gadjigo approached Sembène in 1994 about writing his biography, Sembène anointed him his official biographer. "He entrusted me with his memory," Gadjigo said. "There's a fine line between trust and honesty. I wanted to take an objective line on his personal experiences, which inform his worldview and clarify his oeuvre."

Once the biography was under way, the filmmaker took the unusual step of relinquishing all control over Gadjigo's work. "I was completely independent," Gadjigo said. "He and his family left me alone; no one told me what to do." Sembène invited Gadjigo to watch the filming of his final movie, Moolaadé (2004), about the impact of female circumcision on adolescent victims and on the families of young girls who resist the practice. "I was the first scholar who was allowed onto one of Sembène's sets," Gadjigo explained. He took time off from writing the biography to make a documentary about the experience titled The Making of Mooladé(2006), which detailed the arduous labors of the filmmaker, then aged 79, shooting long hours on location in remote African villages where the temperature often exceeded 100 degrees.

Indiana University Press will publish Gadjigo's book in English in 2008. The book has received favorable reviews from a wide range of international sources. The French version is already available at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. Gadjigo is participating in a series of Sembène tributes, including ones at the Harvard University Film Archive, at Boston University, Brown University, and Hamilton College. Gadjigo will attend the Amiens, France, Film Festival in November, where The Making of Mooladéand the new biography will be showcased.

Gadjigo is also working on a second documentary about Sembène, chronicling his life, political vision, and work. "Sembène understood that film allowed us to reappropriate and rehabilitate images of Africans," Gadjigo said. "He was one of the first to see the vital necessity for Africans to reappropriate and rehabilitate our self-image, an image of resistance, and 'a call to action,' a sine qua non for our freedom and dignity around the world." Gadjigo is grateful to Mount Holyoke College for its generous support of his work.

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