Sembene! (2015), dir. Samba Gadjigo

sembene

Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival

It’s at this stage during the festival where I’m debating whether I should actually watch another film. I want to sleep, and I don’t want to sleep. I want to eat, and I don’t want to eat. I toy with the idea of catching something more simple like VHS Massacre (2015) that I can disengage with, but I’m glad I didn’t. I grab a burrito, and probably ruin my digestive tract as I rush off to the cinema on the other side of town.

It’s a cinema known as the Hollywood Cinema that I haven’t been to in years, but it makes up my childhood memory of films, from Spider-Man 2 (2004) to The Muppets (2011) to Fred Claus (2007), and far too many more to count. Their exterior still displays Shrek and Spider-Man, as if I were still 5 years old, still watching films projected on celluloid. They are the last place I expected to screen a documentary about a Sengelese director.

The dreaded Screen 4: once a bar, now a cinema screen no bigger than a flat screen TV. Nearly a decade ago, I watched Bee Movie (2007) in this screen, a film I still contend as an absolute masterpiece.

I knew about Sembene thanks to the BFI’s release of Black Girl (1966) last year (which still remains on my excessively long watchlist), but I knew very little about the man himself. The films refuses to be a ‘talking heads’ documentary, instead relying on archival footage and the reminisces of academic and friend Samba Gadjigo, who managed to get Sembene’s name out there and distribute his films through festivals, before becoming a confidant and ally; now, after Sembene’s death, Gadijo is the holder of his legacy, holding onto his estate. There’s something meta about watching a documentary about a director who became famous through film festivals within a film festival itself.

As we see footage of Sembene directing his last film, Moolaadé (2004), in his old age, there’s something inspiring in how he continued on despite his disabilities, delivering a powerful film on the issue of FGM when no one else would.

I’d have liked to have seen more of Gadjigo’s journey after Sembene’s death, exploring the world he left behind through his house: art, paperwork, film reels, and the local neighbourhood that once knew him.We never hear enough words from the personnel and the actor’s who worked on his films, either.

Often, it feels like a generic career retrospective. The tragedy being, I won’t be able to see his most interesting films for years to come. The film launched alongside the restoration of Black Girl, and at points feels no more than a commercial for his filmography. But this isn’t a bad thing. I feel a thirst to watch his most overtly political work, like Camp Thiaroye (1988), Guelwaar (1992) and, most of all, Moolaadé. We glimpse extracts from these new HD masters, but it’s a shame I’ll have to wait to see them in full.

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