For African cinema neophytes, there can surely be no superior introduction to the films of Ousmane Sembene than, well, the films of Ousmane Sembene: The late Senegalese novelist and director’s scorching brand of political cinema has lost none of its rhetorical and sensory immediacy over the years, setting the bar high for any filmmaker attempting a contemporary appraisal of his work. Beside its own subject, then, Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s diligent, informative doc “Sembene!” can’t help but feel a little dry in comparison. Utilitarian in construction but personally invested, it’s a duly humble career overview that doesn’t risk much individual interpretation of such rich, essential films as “Black Girl,” “Xala” and “Moolaade” — though it should leave viewers eager to make (or regain) their acquaintance. Theatrical prospects are modest; “Sembene!” will earn its exclamation point in ancillary and academia.
A Mount Holyoke professor of French and African studies, as well as Sembene’s official biographer, the Senegal-born Gadjigo brings a sturdy sense of authority to proceedings. Together with co-helmer Silverman, a producer and festival programmer, he has crafted a film that feels reassuringly close to its subject without tipping into flat reverence. Indeed, “Sembene!” is most interesting when pondering the filmmaker’s prickly social graces and sometimes contentious errors in judgment — notably one instance of artistic larceny that sours the legacy of one of his most remarkable films. Neither of these novice directors, however, brings much formal style to the table. Save for a handful of attractively naive animated title cards, the pic’s chapter-divided presentation is prosaic throughout; Sembene’s films, in turn, are evaluated in terms more textual than visual.
The pic opens with a pilgrimage of sorts, as Gadjigo returns to Galle Ceddo (“the house of the rebel”), the abandoned Dakar seaside residence where Sembene lived and worked for decades, four years after the filmmaker’s death in 2007. (Another four years have since passed; “Sembene!” is nothing if not a patient labor of love.) Shots of decaying corridors and film reels drying in the sun are as poignant as Gadjigo’s own impassioned narration; the sense of unfilled space left by an African artist who charged himself with giving “voice to the voiceless” is palpably desolate.
The film efficiently fills in Sembene’s early backstory, covering his modest upbringing as the son of a fisherman, his Second World War service and a stint as a laborer in the docks of Marseilles — which brought about a physical injury that finally led him down a path of self-education and literature. His first novel, “The Black Docker,” appeared in 1956. A decade later, following film studies in Moscow and a series of acclaimed shorts, he made his debut feature, “Black Girl” — a brief, searing snapshot of immigrant life in France that gained unprecedented international exposure for a film from sub-Saharan African cinema. “Black people need black film; we need our own heroes,” he argued. They also needed their own battles, as Sembene’s subsequent films tackled such topics as African governmental corruption (“Xala”) and Islamic religious conflict (“Ceddo”) — the latter so audaciously that it was banned domestically, threatened with seizure by creditors and followed by a decade-long, financially induced hiatus.
He returned to further controversy in 1988: His gut-churning military mutiny drama “Camp de Thiaroye” was critically well received, though the truth emerged that Sembene had pilfered the script and a measure of funding from a collective of his own proteges. Among the talking heads here is one of those filmmakers, Bouboucar Boris Diop, whose clashing reserves of resentment, forgiveness and hero worship set the tone for a more nuanced appreciation of Sembene’s career in the pic’s second half. One interviewee refers to “a complex of justification” in Africa, a notion that Sembene covered in his own work — notably his final film “Moolaade,” a 2004 indictment of ritual female circumcision — though it could be applied to his own remarkable career.
Whatever the sometimes tricky circumstances behind their making, the films themselves — generously showcased here with well-judged clip selections — justly endure. While Gadjigo and Silverman are to be commended for permitting a degree of complexity in their celebration, it’s a celebration all the same: If the film’s “father of African cinema” rhetoric can verge on the maudlin (and Gadjigo’s personal narrative a little self-serving), it’s counterbalanced by more grounded human testimonies from such figures as Sembene’s stricken long-term housekeeper. That “Sembene!” is most illuminating when it hits closest to home might have pleased its spiky subject, who wished only for African cinema to be less reliant on outside influence. “We should not be eternal guests,” he once said, though this part-American doc is gladly accommodating all the same.