An interview with the co-director of "SEMBENE!", a movie about "the father of African cinema"

During Cinetopia Film Festival, which takes place from June 3 through 12, over 50 movies will be screened at 11 different theaters in metro Detroit and Ann Arbor. One of those films, "SEMBENE!", is about the life and work of Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, often considered "the father of African cinema."

Sembene confronted highly charged subjects related to colonialism that upset Western nations, particularly Senegal's colonizer, France. Despite their beauty and artistic merit, Sembene's films were never widely seen. His mission was to tell Africa's story to the world and its own people. "Black people need a black cinema. We need our own heroes," Sembene says in the film.

"SEMBENE!" is being screened at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on June 3 and at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor on June 10.

Model D spoke by phone with Jason Silverman, co-director of "SEMBENE!" about the movie, Sembene's importance to Africa, and what it means to screen the film in Detroit.

Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, co-directors of "SEMBENE!"

Model D: How did you get involved with this project?

Jason Silverman: I'd been working on the fringes of the film industry for years doing festival work, working for theaters, writing about films. For a long time I've been interested in films made outside a commercial setting. When I started in film, before the digital revolution, it was hard to make movies. I made a couple low budget features with friends in early '90s, but it was hard -- you had to get your hands on a good camera, make sure you handled the film properly, and so forth. It wasn't something that you could do in both a casual and professional way. So it was always interesting when a director took on that challenge and told a noncommercial story. Because that takes a lot of commitment. That led to my interest in indigenous cinema. I started a festival of indigenous cinema in coordination with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 2001. I ran a film festival in Taos that focused independent cinema.

When I heard about Ousmane Sembene, I was fascinated. Not only is it hard to make films in general, say if you're an American kid with resources and access to rental houses. But he started making movies in a place where oftentimes there's no electricity, no place to buy film or process film, no trained crew, no funding. So his motivation had to be really strong. And it was.

I met [co-director] Samba Gadjigo, who's the man in terms of Sembene's work, in 2004 during the Telluride Film Festival. We did some curating projects together and started talking about this film when Sembene died in 2007. We wanted to tell this story of a filmmaker who was more committed to his storytelling project than any other artist we could think of.

MD: Why is this project so important to you?

JS: I'm concerned about the way the media shapes the way we see the world. Commercial media, commodity-driven media, has always been focused on selling a product. Before modern media, people told stories in communal settings. The stories being told were local. With the invention of the printing press, they became regional. With modern media, it became global. Up until recently, the machinery that allowed people to tell stories was controlled by a small group of people—people with resources. So they get to tell the stories that shape our decisions. Many who resisted that system became heroes to me.

There's a quote at the beginning of our film: "If Africans don't tell their stories, Africa will disappear." And that was Sembene's motivation. Someone else, people far outside Africa, were telling the stories defining Africa. What he did was heroic. He tried to tell stories about Africa, to Africans, and do his little part to stem the flood of foreign stories. That's great for Africa, of course, but as a model for any kind of resistance, it's powerful. It's something that could be done in communities in Detroit, for example, which may be facing the same kinds of challenges as the citizens of Senegal. People who've lost their local sense of community identity, and are getting their cues elsewhere. Sembene became for me the greatest media activist the world had ever seen.

Sembene on the set of his final film, "Moolaadé" - photo courtesy of Jason Silverman

MD: What makes the films themselves so special?

JS: The first thing I'd say is that they are made out of a true commitment. They have real, visible passion in them. They're not calculated, market-tested products. They didn't make money. He was trying to make films that mattered.

Second, he was self-taught; he had a hungry mind; he tried to understand how things worked. His films are not what I'd call "naive cinema"—some describe them as "social realism," which is almost denigrating. No, they're intensely crafted films. He was a huge fan of European cinema, of Charlie Chaplin. He knew Hollywood very well. He knew how to tell a good story on film. But he also knew a lot about African storytelling traditions. So he used what he knew from other traditions to tell African stories that were distinctly African.

As a side note, when thinking about the degree of difficulty, not just in making the films—all the things he had to do on set and in post—the guy had a 5th grade education and yet basically invented the African cinema aesthetic. It's pretty amazing. If you're a Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut, you've got all of European and Hollywood cinema history to bounce against. There were westerns before John Ford. If you were Ousmane Sembene, what are your points of reference for African cinema? You have none. He had to develop them from scratch. It's amazing to see what he did.

His first feature, "Black Girl," was released in New York last week. We helped with the restoration along with Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation. It's also going to get the Criterion treatment. But you should see the reviews for it. People are seeing it 50 years later and are being floored by it—"Black Girl" hasn't lost any of its timeliness.

MD: What does it mean to screen "SEMBENE!" at Cinetopia in Detroit?

JS: We're incredibly flattered to be at Cinetopia. The festival invited us last year, and we really wanted to go, but had other commitments. We figured we lost our chance. The fact that they extended an invitation again is an honor. It says to me that this is a festival that loves the movies that it shows and is committed to them. I know some people with the Michigan Theater crew, and they have a sterling reputation in the world of independent exhibition. And I went to school at the University of Michigan and graduated in 1990. For me, personally, it's great to have this little homecoming.

And playing at the Charles Wright Museum, for an audience from a city that has a huge African American community, will be amazing. Because this film powerfully speaks to people outside the mainstream. So it's gonna be a great venue for the film.

Check out the trailer for "SEMBENE!"

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
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