Directed by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman

Starring Ousmane Sembene

Meet Ousmane Sembene, the African freedom fighter who used stories as his weapon.


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  • ★★★★★ review by MovieMavenGal (aka Pardesi) on Letterboxd

    Before the film Sembene! began, Samba Gadjigo told us that until the age of 12 he had never seen a movie, seen television or heard a radio in his village in Senegal. All he had were storytellers. He said he was giving us a gift - the story of Ousmane Sembene. And what a gift it was.

    My husband and I knew absolutely nothing about the father of African cinema, Sembene. He started life as the son of a fisherman in Senegal. He left Africa for France and was a dockworker. He broke his back when a huge bag a coffee landed on it, and during the 6 months he spent lying on his stomach in a hospital, he educated himself, reading as much French literature as his union's library contained. He was a communist, and was sent to Russia to learn filmmaking.

    He arrived back in Senegal with a 16 mm camera, and made the first African film -- told from an African perspective. His films were a sensation at Cannes, and he was the first African jury member. His films tackled racism, corrupt government in Africa and female circumcision.

    In his later years, he became somewhat forgotten in his own country. In the Q and A, the director said there is only one run-down theater left in a major city in Senegal. Mostly, his films have been shown at international film festivals.

    The movie is also the story of Samba Gadjigo's long friendship with his "Uncle" Sembene, and how he is trying to share his work with the world. Samba Gadjigo grew up in Senegal, and is now the foremost expert of Sembene. He teaches African Studies at Mt. Holyoke College.

    The documentary was wonderful. Very well edited and put together with many clips from Sembene films. Sembene was quite a colorful character! We were lucky to have his son, Alain, at our showing, and he participated in the Q and A after the film. English is not Alain's first language, but he expressed very movingly what it means to him to have his father's work honored with this film.

  • ★★★★ review by Sharon Rwakatungu on Letterboxd

    Gladly saw this during the 'Sembene Across Africa' screening and it was fascinating to know more about Ousmane Sembene and watching him speak so passionately about portraying Africa the way it is made me realize how much his heart is in the same place as his mind.

    We discuss this documentary and Sembene's first feature film 'Black Girl' on my podcast this week;

  • ★★★★ review by Kino McFarland on Letterboxd

    This is a great introductory documentary on the father of African cinema, but I wish it went into more detail on Sembene's life and filmmaking style. With that said, it got me interested in a filmmaker I wish we had covered in film school and now it is my mission to watch his work.

  • ★★★½ review by ReedRothchild on Letterboxd

    Most of these 'portrait of the artist' docos do little to justify their own existence as anything other than a guide on which of the subject's pieces of work one should approach first. Sembene! is better in that it puts his work in the context of colonial Africa and how his lived experiences impacted his filmmaking. It gets the balance right in its depiction of his complicated personal life, neither over or underexplaining its significance on his work. I have never seen any of Sembene's films before but this film has given me an understanding of how I should approach them as well as an idea of where to start.

  • ★★★½ review by asexual flower on Letterboxd

    Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival

    It’s at this stage in the day when I’m debating whether I should actually watch another film. I want to sleep. I want to eat and I don’t want to eat. I don’t want to sleep either. I toy with the idea of catching something more simple like ‘VHS Massacre’ than I can disengage with, but I’m glad I didn’t. I grab a burrito and probably ruin my digestive tract as I rush off to the cinema on the other side of town.

    It’s a shitty cinema known as Hollywood Cinema that I haven't been to in five years, but it makes up my childhood memory of films, from 'Spider-Man 2' to 'The Muppets' to 'Fred Claus', and far too many more to count. Fifteen years on, their exterior still displays Shrek and Spider-Man FROM MY OWN CHILDHOOD, as if I were still 5 years old, still watching films projected on celluloid than on digital. They are the last place I expect to screen a documentary about a Sengelese director.

    The dreaded Screen 4: once a bar, now a cinema screen no bigger than a flat screen TV. I last sat here nearly a decade ago when I was watching ‘Bee Movie', a film I still contend as an absolute masterpiece, and I'm disgusted at how TomSka hates it. When the words ‘Kino Lorber’ appear on screen, suddenly I feel this is slightly illicit, sitting watching this film outside the US.

    I know about Senmbene thanks to the BFI’s release of ‘Black Girl’ last year, which still remains on my excessively long watchlist, but I knew very little about the man himself. The films refuses to be a ‘talking heads' documentary, instead relying on lots of archival footage and the reminisces of academic and friend Samba Gadjigo, who managed to get Sembene's name out there and distribute his films through festivals, before becoming a confidant and ally, who is now the holder of Sembene's legacy, holding onto his estate.

    I’d have liked to have seen more of Gadjigo's journey after Sembene's death, exploring through the world he left behind in his house: art, paperwork, film reels, and exploring the local neighbourhood and the people who once knew him. We see some of this, but perhaps not enough. We never hear enough words from the personnel and the actor’s who worked on his films.

    Often it feels like a generic career retrospective, the tragedy being, I won’t be able to see his most interesting films for years to come. The film launched alongside the restoration of ‘Black Girl’, and at points feels no more than a commercial for his filmography. This isn't a bad thing necessarily. I feel a thirst to watch his most overtly political work, like 'Camp Thiaroye', 'Guelwaar' and, most of all, 'Moolaadé'. There's something inspiring in how Sembene continued on in his old age to deliver a powerful film despite his disabilities, touching the issue of FGM where no other would. We glimpse these new HD masters, but it's a shame I'll have to wait to see them in full.

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