Widely regarded as the father of African cinema, the formidable Senegalese writer and director Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007) is now the subject of a film. Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s documentary “Sembène!” chronicles his life and work, informatively and engagingly demonstrating how he pioneered a new language of cinema that was both by and for Africans.
A fisherman’s son with an elementary school education, Sembène became politicized while laboring as a dockworker in 1950s France, emerging into the international spotlight with his 1966 feature debut, “La Noire de . . .” (“Black Girl”). The first feature film by a sub-Saharan director, the black-and-white New Wave film revolved around a young Senegalese maid working for a wealthy family in France.
In Sembène’s groundbreaking body of work — nine features, plus shorts and literary works — he fearlessly took on such contested topics as Islam, French colonialism and post-independence political corruption. His last feature, “Moolaadé” (2004), confronts female genital mutilation. France banned his 1988 film “Camp de Thiaroye” for a decade, while Senegal outlawed or censored others.
The filmmakers tell Sembène’s story through interviews, film clips and firsthand recollections and narration by Gadjigo, a Senegal-born French professor at Mount Holyoke College who became Sembène’s professional collaborator, biographer and a sort of adopted son over a 17-year period. Although aggrandizing at times, this approach also humanizes Sembène, revealing his personal weaknesses.
The director is shown as a domineering figure who put his art ahead of everything else, including family, relationships and sometimes even principles. For a filmmaker who believed in giving Africans their own voice, it seems appropriate to offer such an unvarnished portrait.
Larson is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains brief disturbing images of violence. In English, French and Wolof with subtitles. 86 minutes.