How Ousmane Sembene Invented African Cinema
This year’s Sundance Film Festival was filled with movies about the love of movies: The drama smash Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and the documentary The Wolfpack both featured characters whose lives centered around a fascination with classic films, and who strove to re-create those films in their own way. But no film demonstrated the power of cinema more resonantly than Sembene!, directed by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, which screened as part of the world-documentary competition.
The Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (1923–2007), often called the father of African cinema, had a seismic career. He effectively created an African film industry out of nothing: In 1963, with a used 16mm camera and leftover film stock sent by friends from Europe, he made a short called Borom Sarret (The Wagon Driver), considered the first African movie made by a black African. Until the independence of French West Africa in 1960, French colonial authorities had made it illegal for Africans to make films of their own, so countries like Senegal had no film equipment, no professional actors, and no funding; Sembene used friends and family to put the film together. “Any time I hear an American independent talking about his war story in getting a film made, I have to smile to myself and think of Ousmane Sembene,” says co-director Silverman.