Sunday, February 14, 2016

Out of Africa

We went recently to a film, titled simply “SEMBENE”, that I would not have bothered seeing if we were not friends with Jason Silverman, the co-writer, co-director, and co-producer.  He was also credited as being one of the cameramen on the film.  He is well known in Santa Fe as director of Cinematheque, a division of the Center for Contemporary Arts which also includes a Kunsthalle and a public arts program.  His made-in Santa Fe documentary has been on numerous “best of 2015” lists, among them New York Magazine , RogerEbert.com, and it is a top contender for the Cannes Camera d’Or best first feature .

The film is about Ousmane Sembène  (1923-2007), author, filmmaker and activist from Senegal.   Jason met Samba Gadjigo, Sembène’s biographer, when, as editor of a film magazine, he commissioned an article on Sembène.  In Jason’s words, “Sambène used his camera as a weapon better than anyone I can think of ... I then invited him (Gadijigo) to co-curate a festival of African cinema I was producing and curating in Santa Fe. He brought a series of Sembène films to Santa Fe and we had the opportunity to talk about Sembène’s life and work. I found Sembène’s life to be incredibly dramatic and worthy of documenting.”  Here we have a picture of Samba and Jason together.


Sembène was the son of a fisherman who never made it past 5th grade.  Senegal was a French colony and he served in the French free forces led by Charles de Gaulle during World War II. Later he went to Marseilles where he was a dockworker for a decade.  In 1960 when Senegal became independent he went home.  While he was in Marseilles he wrote several books but when he went back he wanted to make films.  He wanted to reach the mostly illiterate population of his country.  He received a scholarship to the Gorky Film Institute in Moscow.  When he left there he had only two problems, no equipment and no funds, but it doesn’t seem to have stopped him.  He became Africa’s first filmmaker and director.


He finally did acquire a 16 mm camera and made 3 short films one of which was “Niaye” (1964) denouncing the hypocrisy of traditional African Chiefs.   Sembène used his artistic talents to attack injustice wherever he saw it and his first full-length feature was “La Noire de …” translated “Black Girl”, 1966.  It was about a Nigerian woman hired by a white French family as a domestic, all alone in a strange world she was taken advantage of by being continually hounded to do more and more house work and given little in return.  Here is an excerpt from Black Girl:



Each of his films exposed one kind of injustice or another.  One went up against the African bureaucracy, another the French military, and another the corrupt African business community.  In the words of Jason Silverman, “when he attacks the Islamic leadership and by extension, the President of Senegal which is beholden to them…he has bitten every hand that fed him.”  Therefore there was a long hiatus in his movie making.  During his lifetime Sembène made only nine films.

The documentary “SEMBENE” does not depict a man you want to sit down and have a beer with but someone driven by his sense of right and what should be.  He never seems to have lost the idealism we all have when we are young, before cynicism sets in!

Samba Gadjigo is a professor of French at Mount Holyoke College and according to Mount Holyoke’s website his research focuses on French-speaking Africa, African Cinema and particularly the work of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène.  Gadjigo sought out his hero and they became good friends.  Gadjigo even accompanied him on a world tour to meet many celebrities and other famous people in the movie industry.  After Sembène’s death  Gadjigo launched a project to  restore and re-master his films and keep alive his memory.  Here is a short interview with Gadjigo.



This all brought back memories of the early 60’s when I was a young idealist and wanted to learn about Africa.  I looked in my library and found a couple of college text books from that time and my history of Africa course.  Remember this was just in the middle of the civil rights marches and sit-ins.    By 1965 most of the countries had been liberated and changed their names.  A bit like, the New Mexico pueblos that have gone back to their original native names.

I asked Jason how and why he got involved with this project and he replied, “I have always been interested in how our stories - our culture - impacts the way we lead our lives, and in this age of commodity-driven storyteller, am concerned about how we are being taught to be consumers rather than citizens or community members.  Any storyteller who uses their art as a means of resistance is to me a hero.

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