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“If Africans lose their stories, Africa will die”: The Sembene Across Africa Project


© Sembene Project Website 

Ousmane Sembene is commonly referred to as the Father of African cinema. At the forefront of ‘nationalistic cinema’, his films aimed to counterbalance common Eurocentric views on Africa, represent African realities and emancipate the African people. Yet, despite the significance of Sembene’s works for African cinema today, his work is still little known by Africans. That is why Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman launched the Sembene Across Africa project in 2017, the year of the 10th anniversary of Ousmane Sembene's passing.

With the objective of promoting its cinematographic legacy, up to today the project has organised local screenings in 23 African countries: from Cairo to Capetown, from Dakar to Dar Es Salaam. Besides showing Sembene’s major movies, the screenings also include Sembene!, a documentary on Sembene’s life and work that Jason Silverman and Samba Gadjigo directed and produced in 2015. Following Sembene Across Africa’s latest edition - which took place online from the 19th until the 25th of October 2020 - Cinewax met with Samba and Jason to get more insights into their impressive initiative and to hear their perspective on the African cinema industry today. 

Cinewax: What is the Sembene Project all about?

Samba: The aim of the Sembene Project is to tell African stories which could not be told for many reasons. Take for example Senegal between 1980 and now and you see that 90% of all their movie theatres have closed. The effect is that when you are in Paris, Berlin or Santa Fe you have more chances to see and hear the stories than Africans whom they are meant for. So our core mission is to use Sembene as a launching pad. We don't tell people what to do but we provide the material to the communities. These are community initiatives, the way Sembene intended it to be.

Jason: It's also not just about Africa. The whole world that has seen its cultures eroded from the flood of outside stories. The media monoculture is a reflection of the fact that people from distant places were out of touch with what was going on in their small world. We are losing a lot of wisdom and necessary diversity. In the Sembene documentary, we use a quote at the beginning in which Sembene says: “If Africans lose their stories, Africa will die”. There are places that have a strong local culture that year by year become more endangered. So the idea of finding models to share the stories that have already been created with those communities is really powerful. 



C: How did the Sembene project come about?

J: Me and Samba met at a Film Festival and I was really fascinated with the story of Sembene. He had to deal with all of the logistical challenges of making movies in a place where often electricity wasn't reliable, where there were no materials, no equipment, no financial resources and on top of that he wanted to make films that were different to what he had seen, movies that were representative of Africa. So he had to invent a whole new language to do it. But he also had to deal throughout his career with political oppression as he made films that were very difficult for the ruling class to swallow, making him lose that kind of support quickly. All of his struggles were made uphill. 

He wanted to make films that told the truth. There are not a lot of filmmakers who are really driven by the desire to share their deeper truths, even hard truths. His films also have an aesthetic formatic unity that is unique. I don't know if there is another major artist in modern history who had such a clear agenda and followed it with such determination over such a long period of time. Preserving his legacy is more than just the story of one filmmaker. It's a fight for cultural survival.

“Preserving the legacy of Ousmane Sembene is more than just the story of one filmmaker. It's a fight for cultural survival”.


© Harvard Film Archive. Ceddo (1977)

C: What is the best option for the African continent: online or onsite screenings? 

S: Cinema onsite probably best reflects Sembene's conception of cinema as an evening school. As a recreation of traditional African storytelling which are not solitary experiences but collective experiences. Although there is always an originator, those stories belong to everyone. But we have also discovered the potential of online screenings. So I think the future belongs to a combination of both. Those stories are essential to our survival as a continent, as a culture. Why? Because we are not only made of flesh and blood but also of our stories. To sustain Africa and to liberate it we need to change those stories. We need stories which can also galvanise our liberation. Not with the goal to isolate us from the rest of the world but to bring something to the table of universal communication and culture

C: You talked about the need to change global narratives and to promote local stories, but why did you choose cinema as the medium to do so? 

S: For obvious reasons. Even though there have been Africans who themselves have been writing their own stories, we also know that any written message in a Western language is going to leave out the majority of the African population. The cinema medium is not only closer to our oral traditions but the one that can be a vector of diversity and enrich people the most. The proof is the example of Sembene who started writing books in 1957 when he was still in Europe. Of course his desire was to communicate with African people to participate in the liberation of the continent. But when he returned to Africa in 1961 he  asked himself: “My God, who am I talking to?” Because even if people know how to read, many of them either do not read for pleasure or cannot afford buying books. So Sembene considered that in one evening, in one movie theatre he could reach more people than under the roof of the Church and the Mosque combined


© Mtg Image. La Noire de… (1966)

I think especially cinema in African languages is key. I myself happen to speak seven languages. But only one language speaks to me which is my native language. We should not close ourselves to other stories as we should not close ourselves to other languages. But like Europe and the US, we should be the centre of our own universe. Take for instance Molari's later film, which is in dioula. I've seen it screened in London, in Massachusetts, Philadelphia and in Ouagadougou, where 90% of the population speaks dioula. In Ouagadougou, it was a totally different experience. It was unfiltered, in their own language, they identified more with it

Today, more and more films are made in native languages. But it is a structural problem - those films are not reaching people as they should. However, while technology support is becoming cheaper and more widespread.

“Today, more and more films are made in native languages. But it is a structural problem - those films are not reaching people as they should”


C: How well known is Sembene in Africa today? 

S: Well, I conducted a survey at the University of Dakar. Out of the ten students I interviewed only three knew about Sembene. And it is not just about Sembene - they didn't know about Cheikh Anta Diop who was the first person to write a landmark historical work on Africa. They didn't know anything about Ali Mazrui from Kenya, Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, but like me, they knew everything about Flaubert, Molière, Voltaire, and so on. I ingested a lot of writers of the Pléiade which is good, but it's also essential that those people are known in Africa


© DR. Camp de Thiaroye (1987)

C: What tendencies do you see today? How has the cinema landscape in Africa changed as opposed to the 1960s in terms of infrastructure, new directors, etc? 

S: Numerically, you have more Africans now who are making films because the technology is more available - with your cell phone you can make a film. Today, Nigeria produces more films than Hollywood. But what is the content of those films? They are all trying to do the commercial Hollywood type of cinema which leans away from Sembene's idea. As a result, they are not succeeding because there is no message. Hollywood is so central that the Nigerians call it Nollywood, the Indians call it Bollywood. Let's get out of the "wood" and invent our own "woods'' or whatever it is

C: Why did you choose Mandabi and Xala from the impressive filmography of Sembene? 

S: It’s just a coincidence but there are elections going on in Côte d'Ivoire, we just came out of elections in Guinea and we had a military coup in Mali. All of these elections were about "troisième mandat" [third term], meaning old presidents who manipulated their countries' constitution so that they could run a third time. But when we are talking about the president's terms, on parle de [we are speaking of] mandat, mandabi! Even today, more than 50 years after the film was made, it is still speaking to African people. It is still dealing with issues that are central to their political economy and their social lives

“Even today more than 50 years after the film was made, [Mandabi] is still speaking to African people. It is still dealing with issues that are central to their political economy and the social lives”

J: [Mandabi and Xala] are the most generalised political critiques as opposed to Ceddo which is about islam, Camp de Thiaroye which is about a particular moment in French oppression, and Moolaadé which is not only about female circumcision but also about freedom. Mandabi and Xala are eternal because they talk about the same kind of man failures and exploitations as Greek plays. They also cross national lines pretty easily.

© Cinemag. Le Mandat (Mandabi) (1968)

C: What other initiatives that promote African cinema are you seeing? 

S: They are plenty. There are initiatives such as Coeur Sembene, Le Cinema Ambulant in Niger, in Mali, Fumikoria in Uganda, the Mongo Beti Library in Cameroon. What we need now is some kind of synergy, to make sure that we coordinate and avoid repetitions because that would be a waste of resources. Pour nous, ce n’est pas de la compétition, c’est de l’émulation [For us, it's not competition, it's emulation]. It’s about how we can cross-fertilised, communicate, exchange and support each other to see our common dream come true.

“Pour nous, ce n’est pas de la compétition, c’est de l’émulation. It’s about how we can cross-fertilised, communicate, exchange and support each other to see our common dream come true"

By Ysé Auque-Pallez and Caroline Cornier

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