About this project
Friends, Old and New
In my village, there was no TV and no newspapers. The first time I heard a radio, I went around the back to see who was talking. Instead, my stories came from my grandmother, told each night around the fire.
But when I was sent away from my village to attend school. French school, it didn’t take long for my European-style education to alienate me from who I really was. Like so many people of my generation from around the world, I had forgotten my grandmother’s stories and had also grown increasingly desperate to become someone I could never become—a white, a Frenchman.
Then, a book changed my life, my first African book: God’s Bits of Wood, by Ousmane Sembene, who was, like me, a Senegalese. The characters in a book I read were just like me—one character’s name was Samba! The black characters and were just as smart, just as resourceful, just as brave, just as loving and just as powerful as the white characters. This book literally changed my life. Suddenly, I felt pride, not shame, at being African. Suddenly, I knew my role: to celebrate Africa, to teach Africa, to share Africa with others, just as Sembene had done.
I am one of millions who have been touched by the stories of Sembene. But those stories are endangered. And few know Sembene’s own remarkable life story, which has as much drama as a Hollywood epic. That’s why Jason and I have spent most of the last seven years, working as volunteers, to make the documentary SEMBENE! This is a biography, with a personal touch, that we fully believe can have the same impact on young people that Sembene’s work had on me. It’s a story about self-empowerment, about perseverance, about fighting for what’s right. We have had remarkable partners take us this far—the Sundance Institute, Cinereach, the Ford Foundation and our executive producers Impact Partners, New Mexico Media Partners and SNE Partners. Now, we need your help to finish the film and get it out into the world.
The edit is nearly complete, and we are beginning the many (and expensive) tasks to complete the film: writing the music; licensing the archival materials, including from Sembene's films; performing the technical, legal and administrative tasks necessary for the film to look and sound fantastic and be played at festivals and on TV stations around the world. We are working with a group of extraordinarily talented and committed professionals in each arena.
Sembene’s own journey is remarkable: Kicked out of school in fifth grade, he worked as a manual laborer for 20 years. After he broke his back in an accident, he taught himself to write, with his novels of African working-class struggles becoming a sensation among a European readership. Then, Sembene taught himself to make movies, hoping to create what he called “a night school” for the African working class. During the next 40 years, he did the impossible, making incredible films about oppression and resistance in Africa. (Whenever we feel daunted by the challenges of making our film, we remind ourselves of what Sembene accomplished!) His films were banned and censored, but Sembene kept pushing.
Years after finding God’s Bits of Wood, I went on a journey to find Sembene. Ultimately, we worked together for 17 years, and he became more than my hero: he became my mentor and friend. I joined him on set when he was 83 years old, going blind and still determined. The film he made, Moolaade, was his most passionate and widely seen film yet.
But today, Moolaade and Sembene’s other films are being forgotten. And I am determined to make sure that never happens. This project represents more than 20 years of my research. As for us, after nearly seven years of work—finding footage from dozens of sources, traveling to Africa, raising money and editing the film—we are nearly to the finish line. Our film tells story that's both entertaining and empowering. Please join the SEMBENE! family and support our project. Our stories matter. Sembene's is an essential one.
Risks and challenges
This project is one of both high risk, and of no risk at all. What do we mean by that? When we set out to make SEMBENE!, we knew the odds were long. Here was a film about a forgotten African political artist ... not, at first glance, the stuff of Hollywood. Who would fund such a thing? Could we find the materials we needed to tell Ousmane Sembene's story? How do you even make a feature-length documentary? We've been out on a limb for these many years, not knowing how we'd get the film done. That's the risk part.
But as for the "no-risk" element? Failure was not an option. Sembene made his films against the longest of odds, working with zero resources. He never gave up. We couldn't either. In those sleepless moments where it seemed the film could collapse, when the bank account was empty, when we couldn't find the footage we needed, when Africa seemed to defy our needs, we had our doubts. Yet we shook them off each time.
Yes, Jason has production experience, but when this film began I did not know what a camera angle was. I understood nothing about the process. We did not have the resources to do anything but dream.
In that sense, there was no real risk—we were doing our best to achieve something against very long odds. No one would blame us if we failed. If we failed, it would be only because we set out to do something beyond our capacities. And, like Sembene, that failure could only be temporary. What we didn't know how to do, we'd learn. What resources weren't available, we would find. Our commitment is deep.
After these many years, we are nearly to the end of this process. What is at risk? Only our time. We will finish this film. We fully intend to do so by the end of 2014. Our main obstacle: a lack of financial resources.
Our edit is very nearly done. Every dollar, at this crucial moment, has a high-impact. Your contribution will go directly to the (very expensive) finish work necessary: licensing of materials from archival houses, the conversion of some material to high-definition quality, the excellent finishing editors who will make the film look and sound beautiful.
Will it succeed in the world? Yes, it will. As it turns out, the world is eager to hear Sembene's story. Broadcasters, festivals, distributors and institutions have all expressed their support and interest.
Can we fail? Of course. But only temporarily. We are motivated to share Sembene's story with the world, and we won't stop until we do.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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