SEMBENE! Film Review

As somebody whose own awareness of African culture (and I suspect many other UK film fans of a certain generation) is limited to Euan Lloyd’s Boys Own adventure THE WILD GEESE (1978), it is fitting and timely that people are about to get a real sense of the real Africa through a wonderful new, perceptive and enlightening documentary. It is scheduled to be shown as part of a mini-film festival this month through Aya Distribution, REBEL WITH A CAMERA – THE CINEMA OF OUSMANE SEMBENE, which is commemorating screenings of the late great ‘Father of African Cinema’ alongside this analysis of the director, with screenings of some of his key films also being shown at venues across the UK.

BLACK GIRL (1966), XALA (1974) and MOOLAADE (2004) form the basis for the event, and all have considerable potential to reignite a thoughtful and powerful debate amongst film-makers and writers of all cultures.

When somebody like Scorsese places him alongside Cecil B. De Mille and Alfred Hitchcock as someone ‘we are all walking in their footsteps’ to, you do have an obligation to at least see what the American director legend means.

Co-directed by Sembene’s official biographer, Samba Gadjigo, with Jason Silverman, I cannot think of a more fitting expose of the creative journey of an individual who, after being expelled from school, moved to Marseilles and – after suffering a back accident which laid him on his belly for six months – used his time and opportunity to read and discover the black writers and artists of both Africa and the world. SEMBENE is a movie that reveals as much of the creative heart, as it does the contradiction of a maverick not just in the African creative community, but also across the world. The most notable contradiction comes in the form of an episode where Sembene used funds intended for another film-maker to make a movie about a particularly sobering moment in African history and then made the same kind of film.

Professor Samba Gadjigo
Professor Samba Gadjigo

Sembene’s struggles mirror in some ways the likes of Hollywood mavericks like Sam Peckinpah, whose own output was spurned by the establishment, particularly with his masterpiece THE WILD BUNCH (1969), which in time redefined the art of montage and violence in films. Sembene’s own output was banned for some time by the French and African governments, but in time became a greater voice in the global consciousness, endorsed by the likes of Spike Lee and Danny Glover, who had to fight for their own place in the industry.


Having just had the pleasure of watching Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s excellent documentary DE PALMA, which reveals more in 107 minutes about film-making (and probably saves thousands of pounds in student fees for potential film school attendees), SEMBENE is another classic in the making – and a film that all students and lovers of film, regardless of sex, gender, race or culture, should seek out. Like the legacy which Gadjigo is trying to preserve (with heart-rending images of rusty film cans on show early on in the film), it is up to everyone to give this film a chance – and to really embrace and appreciate what a true voice of individuality was trying to create in a culture divided and united by the political and emotion changes that constantly rage throughout. It also has something significant to say about the uncertainty brought on by recent terrorism factions.

Review by John Higgins