Sembene once said that he would sleep with the Devil to make his films, and that attitude is reflected in some less than admirable behavior in his life.
The 2016 African Film Festival at Washington University concluded with a screening of a comedy from Tunisia and a documentary from Burkina Faso. La Maison Mauve (“The Purple House”), a satirical short film directed by Selim Gribaa, is set during the Jasmine Revolution of 2011 in Tunisia. Hassan, a fiftysomething unemployed laborer and all-around sad sack, visits a local politician, Si Ammor, to ask for a job. Rather oddly, Si Ammor says he will have something for Hassan in about a month, but first Hassan must paint his house purple, because it’s the favorite color of the president of Tunisia. Hassan complies, selling his wife’s jewelry to pay for the paint and brushes, but before a month is up the president has been deposed and Si Ammor has become a religious leader. Needless to say, the promised job is nowhere to be found, but a quite unexpected development works to the benefit of everyone in the neighborhood.
The documentary Sembene!, directed by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, honors the Senegalese novelist and director Ousmane Sembene, who is often called the father of African cinema. Sembene led quite a life even before he became a film director, leaving school in his early teens and joining a Senegalese contingent of the Free French and fighting in Africa and Europe during World War II. After the war, he became a union activist in Marseilles, suffered a serious injury that required him to stay in the hospital for 6 months, and used that period of forced rest to begin writing novels, eventually becoming one of the most celebrated of African writers. After deciding that he could reach more Africans, many of whom were illiterate, through film rather than literature, he went to film school in Russia and brought back a 16mm camera. Sembene’s films became darlings of the international festival circuit and helped to draw attention to political and social issues in sub-Saharan Africa, including government corruption, female genital mutilation, and the discarding of African traditions in favor of copying Western customs.
Gadjigo got the idea to make this film after discovering that Sembene’s home had fallen into disrepair and that no provision had been made for preserving his films, many of which were lying about in rusty canisters. Appalled at this state of affairs, Gadjigo decided to take charge of Sembene’s legacy, in part because of the way his own life was transformed by Sembene’s films. As Gadjigo puts it: “When I was 14 I dreamed of being French, like the characters in the books I read in high school” but after exposure to Sembene’s films, by age 17 “I no longer wanted to be French. I wanted to be African.” With this documentary, he’s repaying that debt with interest, weaving the story of Sembene’s life and work with that of his own political and artistic coming of age, and including many clips from Sembene’s films as well as other archival materials.
Sembene once said that he would sleep with the Devil to make his films, and that attitude is reflected in some less than admirable behavior in his life, such as terrifying a young girl for the purpose of recording her on film, neglecting his family so he could concentrate on his work, and misappropriating funds meant for young African filmmakers to spend on his own work. While Gadjigo clearly admires Sembene, it is to his credit that he includes some negative information about the man he considered an honorary uncle as well. | Sarah Boslaugh