Interview: Sembene! director Samba Gadjigo on preserving the legacy of the ‘father of African cinema

As co-director of Sembene! – the acclaimed new documentary about Senegal’s legendary film director – Samba Gadjigo has had to (grudgingly) get used to walking the red carpet. “If there is one thing I’ve hated so far in my experience with the film it is that kind of artificial world,” he admits. But he’s also had to content with the restrictions and roadblocks still hampering Africa cinema, both locally and globally: “I’ve witnessed some horrific scenes; [like] when a director is invited to a festival at the other end of the world and they’re hopping from plane to plane with a suitcase full of reels … Many of the film directors unfortunately do not have distributors or they self distribute.”

It’s not the same everywhere on the continent, of course. Nigeria is well set up with Nollywood; Ghana has Ghollywood; South Africa, Sollywood (though Sierra Leone may have something to say about that), to name just a few. But even the films of Ousmane Sembène himself, whose name is frequently prefixed by the moniker ‘the father of African cinema’, have been gathering dust. Or rather rust – as we see in a tour of the late director’s home in Sembene!.

“It’s such a shame that his films, his amazing original film copies are so dilapidated,” says Jacqueline Nsiah, programmer of London’s Film Africa festival. “I really support the cause of the films being digitalised to reach a wider audience … because I almost feel like Sembène is more known outside of the continent than in Africa itself. And I think it would help us also better to form our own identity and to be proud of us as different nations but also as a continent.”

The good news is, that’s already happening.“There is a project going on to restore all his films,” says Gadjigo. “The Film Foundation, with Martin Scorsese [under the auspices of his World Cinema Project], have been talking to the Sembène family … And I know for a fact that Borom Saret – his first short, from 1963 – has been restored, as has Black Girl [La Noire] – a beautiful copy of it.”

But even Gadjigo, who worked with Sembène for 17 years, does not have details of all the global distributors of Sembène’s films. He cites Criterion for United States, recalls that before he died Sembène signed a contract with M-Net for the African market, and suggests that Sembène’s family may be in negotiation with other distributors in Europe. It highlights the complexities of rights and distribution, which is something Nsiah came across when programming this year’s Film Africa festival. She had initially been hoping to screen Sembène’s Camp de Thiaroye alongside the Sembene! documentary, “We tried everything to find the copy and the rights for the film, but nothing!” she says. Instead they opted for Xala, which satirises post-independence Senegal – and handily links in with the festival’s celebration of 40 years of independence in Lusophone African countries.

Thinking about the difficulties they faced, says Nsiah: “It dawned on me that the trouble we had with getting the copy of Camp de Thiaroye is exactly part of the reason Samba did the documentary on Sembène and why he is … trying to make Sembène’s films accessible to everyone, particularly Africans.”

Indeed, for while the World Cinema Project is busy restoring Sembène’s classics, Gadjigo is working on finding a safe place for the director’s archive. He also has a dream of his own: to “shower” DVDs and Blu-rays of his documentary on the younger generation, particularly in Africa. Given Gadjigo’s main job is professor of French at Mount Holyoke college, just outside Boston, it’s not a surprising target group. “We hope to take it to high schools in the United States,” he enthuses. “And of course, funding permitting, we would like also to do that for African universities, high schools and also film schools, because many up-and-coming young filmmakers – and I do understand why – continue to look at the Hollywood model. The stardom, the money, the bling bling, the red carpets and so on. And we hope by showing Sembène’s example we’re going to have nice discussions, profound discussions about the social and political responsibility of the artists … they say to educate a child is to write on a rock, to educate an adult is like writing on water. So if you want to have a solid foundation of course children are first.”

Gadjigo and his Sembene! creative partner, Jason Silverman, have also fulfilled one of Sembène’s unfulfilled ambitions and hired a van and projector to screen the late director’s films in a remote Senegalese village. “The reception was just overwhelming,” remembers Gadjigo. “The film was not subtitled, it was not dubbed, it was in the original language, which the village understood. People were just mesmerised.”

For now though, Gadjigo  is fully occupied with teaching and accompanying Sembene! on the film festival circuit. Since its premiere at the Sundance Film festival in April of this year, it’s popped up at Cannes, the BFI London Film Festival and comes to the Film Africa on 7 November. It’s also due to open in New York theatres at the same time. “Then of course we are going to have DVDs, Netflix, whatever… We are dreaming big!” says Gadjigo. “I mean, I’m in the United States where you have a lot of resources. Why should I make cinema à la Calabash? … We are shopping on a daily basis. And hopefully we will get international attention through the festivals, some distributors or networks.”

And the hope is, all this attention this will inspire a resurgence in interest in Sembène’s oeuvre. Already most screenings of the Sembene! documentary are being paired or shown alongside one of Sembène’s own films, which far from being relics of a time long gone are startling fresh and relevant. “We can’t have an African film festival without talking about Sembène,” says Nsiah. “I mean if you think about the revolution that happened in Burkina Faso last year … The military dictatorship that the population of Burkina was able to overthrow … Sembène talked about this; about African leaders who were aligned with the French – and that’s exactly what [former president] Blaise Compaoré did. Can you believe that the currency in Burkina Faso is still aligned to the French Euro?

“I think there’s a shift happening on the continent really, not just in Burkina but I can also see in Ghana … the youth is looking for change and they’re particularly looking back at those pan-African leaders. So I think Sembène is very relevant.”

Gadjigo agrees: “I don’t think with Sembène’s [films] it’s a memory of a continent … the issues he dealt with are so timeless. All the issues he raised even in his first film Borom Saret  in 1963 are still current in Africa. They resonate with a lot of people. Class issues, issues of marginalisation in the world … He was not the only one of his generation, but certainly when history of cinema is written certainly his name will be among the top in Africa and I think our younger generations should not forget that.”

Sembene, a new biographical documentary about the auteur screens on 7th November as part of Film Africa 2015