AFRICAN STORIES FOR AFRICA
Europeans dominated African culture until African independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They ran the schools, newspapers, TV and movie theaters. African language was outlawed in many places; in French West Africa, the birthplace of Ousmane Sembene, Africans were evenb forbidden to use cameras.
Many Africans lost their connection with their cultures, but Sembene, an unlikely Senegalese hero, was determined to give African stories back to the African people. Sembene was kicked out of school at age 13 and worked for nearly 25 years as a manual laborer. He taught himself how to write at the age of 30, and soon was writing novels that inspired the battle for African independence.
In 1962, Sembene completed his first film, Borom Sarret. This was the beginning of a 45-year effort to use movies as what he called “an evening school” for Africans. The films he made—Black Girl, Mandabi, Emitai, Ceddo, Xala, Camp de Thiaroye, Moolaade—portrayed African history and society from an African perspective, calling out corrupt leaders and celebrating "the heroes of the everyday."
THE MANDELA OF STORYTELLING
For 50 years, Sembene was Africa’s most tireless and forceful cultural hero. Unfortunately, 10 years after his death, his work is unknown to most Africans. However, our ocumentary, SEMBENE!, co-directed by Sembene's biographer, the potential to help reintroduce Sembene to Africa. After premiering in competition at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, this film has toured the world. New York magazine named it one of the top ten films of the year. But, outside of festival screenings, Africans have been largely unable to see it.
That will change June 9-11, 2017, when Sembene Across Africa shares SEMBENE! with audiences, free of charge, throughout Africa; with public screenings in schools, theaters, cultural centers and public plazas; with house parties; and through free streaming. The goal is to screen the film in all 54 African countries, in several cities in the Diaspora, and to give Africans a chance to experience a real-life hero, one who fought immeasurable odds to return African stories to the African people.
WE ARE SEMBENE
Please join this continent-wide celebration of Sembene's message of African self-empowerment, African culture and independence. Your support makes these free screenings — hosted by fans of Sembene —possible.
Risks and challenges
As a teenager, Ousamane Sembene's novels altered the course of my life. They taught me to be proud to be African. When, as an adult, I saw his films, I gained a new perspective on Africa—on both its problems, and what we needed to move forward. For many, Sembene is the cultural equivalent of Mandela: a tireless, visionary African liberator.
That's why I've spent nearly 30 years helping secure Sembene's legacy, first as his collaborator, and now as his biographer. In 2008, Jason Silverman and I started to make a film about Sembene, motivated by the desire to continue his work: telling African stories to the African people.
In the two-plus years since we finished the film, we’ve had an unbelievable run, with 100+ festivals, including Sundance, Cannes, Telluride, Sydney and London, a U.S. theatrical release, a U.K. tour of 50+ venues, and lots and lots of acclaim. The film was on seven different best-of-2015 lists, and has won five festival awards.
But our central mission—to inspire Africans with this story of African commitment and heroism—remains incomplete. The film has played for appreciative African audiences, at the Durban and Luxor festivals, and at the legendary FESPACO, but has remained out of reach for most Africans.
That’s no surprise: the infrastructure challenges in Africa are daunting. Movie theaters have become a rarity in most cities, and those that do exist play largely Hollywood blockbusters or B-movies. Television remains the province of European entities, with a small percentage of Africans having access. Educational institutions do not have funding to build film libraries. Mailing a DVD from one place to another can be a challenge. Sembene knew these problems well. “Africa is my audience,” he once said, “but Europe is my market.” With no easy way to reach large numbers of African viewers, Sembene would load up a van with a projector and generator and drive to villages around Senegal to show his films. Scholars in America were more likely to have access than those in Africa.
But the arrival of the Internet to the continent brings new opportunities. With much of Africa online, the potential for digital delivery has arrived. Films can be streamed or downloaded, on computers or phones. Had Sembene been alive, he may well have taken to the Internet to share his stories. After his passing, it falls to us—to all of us—to connect Africans with African stories. Our first attempt, one that we hope will set an easy-to-follow precedent for other African storytellers, is ready to go. We’ve got 50+ screenings in 24 countries already set. With your help, we can blanket the continent.
So, what could go wrong? Anyone who has worked in Africa knows the answer to that: anything! Sembene faced power outages, equipment failures, funding disasters, shipping breakdowns, political repression and even social unrest during his creative projects.
Can we pull this off? We are cautiously confident. Our film SEMBENE! was a leap of faith. We didn’t realize the challenges we would face in researching, filming, funding, completing and releasing the film. It took us seven years, and, though we had moments of deep doubt and frustration, we never considered giving up. There was too much at stake: Sembene’s story needed to be told. We needed to tell it. In the same way, we are confident we can bring this historic project to fruition. Sembene never let the challenges interfere with his vision. And, we will walk in those footsteps. Failure is not a viable option.
–Samba Gadjigo, co-director of SEMBENE! and official biographer of Ousmane Sembene
- (24 days)