By Emily Harrison Weir
As a young boy in rural Senegal, Mount Holyoke College professor Samba Gadjigo learned about the world largely from the stories of his elders. When he started school, the French-focused curriculum made those African stories recede and almost disappear.
Then at age 17, Gadjigo came across a book that changed his life.
The book was Les bouts de bois de Dieu (“God’s Bits of Wood”). Its author, Ousmane Sembène, became Gadjigo’s role model, the focus of his scholarship for two decades, and now the subject of a new documentary, Sembène!
The film, codirected by Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, profiles Sembène, the first African to make films in Africa about Africans. It is one of only 12 documentary features to be screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in January.
Teaching Africans to be African.
“At 17, my dream was to become French,” Gadjigo says. “I was black on the outside but culturally white on the inside. Then Sembène’s book taught me to be just who I am—an African, no better or worse than other people, but just myself.”
For the next 17 years, Gadjigo’s quest was to meet the man who had enlightened him about his heritage. It finally happened in 1989, when Professor of French Gadjigo helped the Five College African Studies Council bring his countryman—by then a renowned author and filmmaker—to Mount Holyoke and other Five College institutions.
“After that visit, I became his biographer, his agent, his friend and confidante, and his adoptive son,” Gadjigo says. The scholar wrote two books about Sembène’s life and work, and shot video while traveling with Sembène throughout the world.
Giving Africans a voice.
Sembène was “an ordinary man who did extraordinary things,” Gadjigo says. A fifth-grade dropout, former soldier, and dockworker, Sembène taught himself to write and went on to become Senegal’s most renowned author in the 1950s. By the 1960s, although he still wrote in the language of his country’s colonial power, France, and started making films to reach the 85 percent of Africans who were then illiterate.
“The lesson I learned from Sembène is that you reach more people through video than through books,” says Gadjigo. But when he began work on the documentary, he knew nothing about filmmaking or storytelling.
“The most difficult thing for me was to shed my skin as a scholar with my big theories about post-colonialism and put on the hat of a storyteller,” Gadjigo says. But the professor used to solitary writing learned to thrive in the collaborative filmmaking environment.
“That’s the beauty of the piece,” he says. “People who have different origins but the same vision, making one piece of work.”
Memorializing “the father of African cinema.”
Sembène is widely considered the father of African cinema, as its most prolific director and the first to urge Africans to reclaim the heritage that colonialism undervalued.
“He believed that Africans could lose everything material as long as we kept our images, since images are the way we imagine ourselves,” Gadjigo says. “To him, that was something worth dying for.”
When Sembène did pass away in 2007, Gadjigo became the carrier of his legacy and memory.
“I want to make sure the work he did for 40 years does not disappear, but is there for a continent struggling against the shadow of globalization to recover its own stories,” says Gadjigo.
When Gadjigo accompanies Sembène! for its world premiere at Sundance next month, thousands more will learn about the work of not one, but two ordinary men who became extraordinary storytellers.
• Watch a preview of the film.