Often credited as “the father of African cinema,” Ousmane Sembène has nonetheless gone unknown to wider audiences, though his films are beloved by art house aficionados. There’s a lot to cover about his life, from his humble origin as the son of a dock worker to his time as a union activist in France, yet the biographical documentary Sembene! doesn’t seek to act as an easy introduction to him or his work. It treats the Senegalese director’s story as just that, a story.
That doesn’t sound like it should be an unusual approach, but by relating Sembène’s upbringing, development and evolving career while neither assuming the audience is already familiar with him nor simplifying anything for their benefit, the movie is treading fresh ground.
Additionally, the film is told from the point of view of several of Sembène’s close friends, rather than through interviews with experts on history or cinema. This lends it an intimate feeling that’s absent from most biographical docs. When Sembène’s protege talks about uncovering reams of neglected documents and materials in the director’s house shortly after his death, the event actually has weight and poignancy. In coming to care about the man and understanding the contexts from which he made his art, we also come to care about that art.
I’ve only seen one of Sembène’s films (Black Girl), but this documentary gave me a far greater appreciation for him, even though I’ve still yet to delve into the rest of his work. Again, a rare feat for a film about an artist. If Sembène! doesn’t make you want to fill your Netflix queue with its subject’s films, well, I don’t know what to tell you.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2015.