Last Thursday evening, guest speaker Samba Gadjigo presented his film “SEMBÉNE!” before an eager crowd of students, faculty and admirers. The event was hosted by a group of departments in the School of Arts and Sciences, including Comparative Literature and Culture program, African Studies and the Honors Program in Global Humanities.
“SEMBÉNE!” is a documentary about the life and legacy of Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, who is often recognized as “The Father of African Cinema.” The film was released in 2015, eight years after Sembène’s death. Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, wrote, directed and produced the film.
Gadjigo traveled to California from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where he is a professor of French-speaking African and African Cinema, to present his long in the making documentary to students at Stanford and USF.
The event was an effort brought together across departments and administrations, initially suggested by Dean Rader, Professor and Department Chair of English. It was sponsored by the African Studies, Film Studies, and Humanities programs.
Born and raised in Senegal, Gadjigo has long admired Sembene’s films and his revolutionary portrayals of African life and culture. Gadjigo spoke to the crowd about his own experiences growing up in Senegal.
“I was born in a family of storytellers and woodcarvers,” he began. Raised in a small village, Gadjigo grew up listening to his grandmother’s colorful stories of Africa. “My perception of the world and myself was shaped by those stories,” he said.
Once he was old enough to be in school, however, Gadjigo’s world view was shifted by French and Western literature, with narratives that had little or no reminiscence of Africa. In the opening moments of “SEMBÉNE!” Gadjigo declares, in a voice-over narration, that by the time he was 14, he dreamed of being French.
Years later into his studies, Gadjigo had a “life shattering experience.” He read a book by a Senegalese author titled “L’Aventure ambiguë.” The book was about the interactions between African and Western cultures. Except in this book, “Africans were the actors of history,” Gadjigo told the crowd. It was then that Gadjigo felt compelled to change the biased Western perception of Africa. This is where filmmaker Ousmane Sembène became a major influence and inspiration for Gadjigo.
In many ways, Gadjigo story mirrors Sembène’s. Both men grew up in Senegal, acquired Western educations, and were ultimately inspired to portray real African stories, with real characters, fighting real social battles that were unseen to the Western world.
In the film, Gadjigo says Sembène wanted to “give a voice to the voiceless.” He realized that Africa was absent in Western art, film and literature.
Sembène knew that since most Africans did not have the resources to learn how to read (85 percent of the population were illiterate at the time) and therefore, the best way to give them a voice was through film. Sembène’s style drew influences from French noir and German expressionist films, and therefore gained critical acclaim from Europe and Hollywood. Sembène brilliantly used his talents to capture the attention of the West, while bolstering the profile of films that portrayed African life and culture in a radically new light.
In the film “SEMBÉNE!”, Gadjigo talks about one of Sembène’s most famous and influential films, “Black Girl” (1966). The film is from the perspective of a young Senegalese woman who goes to France to work as a maid for a white couple, and is basically treated as a slave. This film was profound and influential on artistic, historical and most importantly, social grounds. “Black Girl” depicted racism from an African woman’s perspective, which up until then, had been essentially unheard of.
“You see her from the way she sees herself,” Gadjigo says in “SEMBÉNE!” over the black and white rolling images of “Black Girl.”
“SEMBÉNE!” goes through the making of Sembène’s most influential films and highlights Sembène’s own personal life. During the later years of Sembène’s career, Gadjigo was able to get to know him. Gadjigo saw the vital importance of Sembène’s films.
“I realized he was valued outside of Senegal more than at home,” says Gadjigo’s voiceover narration. Gadjigo believed Sembène’s work could educate and empower Americans, especially African-Americans.
Gadjigo was determined to bring Sembène to America to speak to his students at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. Over the years, Sembène and Gadjigo formed a close relationship, considering each other family. Sembène made an influence throughout America, beyond university circles of film and African studies.
After the screening, there was a Q&A with Gadjigo. Students had a range of positive reactions and evoking questions.
Anna Foster, a freshman international studies major, attended the screening for an honors class. “It was a fabulous film. I felt inspired by seeing advocacy through an artistic perspective,” she said after the screening Q&A.
When asked what was the most important thing to take away from Sembène’s films and legacy, Gadjigo responded, “In developing countries, film has a social role. It’s not just entertainment. Sembène used his camera as a weapon to fight injustice.”
In the past months, the fervency to speak out against social injustice and hateful rhetoric has shaped the discourse from within and outside of our classrooms. Students from all around have been utilizing their art, their voices and their education to fight against injustice. To those students, Gadjigo has a lesson to share, a lesson influenced by the work of Sembène. “If you want to change the world, refuse the notion of fatality and destiny. Take destiny into your own hands,” he said.
Photo: FESTIVAL DE CINE AFRICANO