(1923 - 2007)
Three Key Films: Xala (1975), Ceddo (1977), Moolaade (2004)
Underrated: Mandabi (1968)
Unforgettable: Ceddo, the Imam forces the community to convert to Islam at gunpoint, just after the Catholic missionary has a hilarious daydream sequence in his empty, make-shift church about leading a massive congregation. What on the surface might be read as an anti-Islam diatribe becomes a powerful condemnation of religion as an immoral excuse for colonial ambition.
The Legend: Chances are very good that you’ve never seen a Sembene film, but it’s not your fault. They’re impossible to see, and difficult to sit through. Known as the Father of African Film, Sembene had a style all his own, crafted around his specific moral arguments and with little foreign aesthetic influence. His films are impossible to compare to anyone else’s, which makes their singular achievements even greater and even more emotionally wrenching.
Sembene’s films are complicated and impossible to properly synopsize. His complicated plots are every bit as important as the political minutiae, the gender commentary, and his constant condemnation of colonialism, and even though none of these ideas are ever subtle, they are frequently ignored. Take Xala, for example. It is the story of a polygamist senator who, upon a third marriage he can’t afford, is cursed with impotence. Over the course of the film, he goes nuts trying to get his virility back, and his dilemma comes to represent his failure as a man: he is a corrupt politician, a failed businessman, a misogynist, and, desperate to become a modern man, submits to colonialism for power and what he assumes is prestige, bragging about how he washes his car with bottled water. The story in a Sembene film is always a parable, but the characters are so compelling and often, so hilarious, that they often get lost in Sembene’s subtle, primitive style. However, upon repeated viewings, the themes in Sembene’s films become so complex, yet so complete, that the films become gifts that keep on giving. Austin Dale