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Review: ‘Sembene!’ a candid portrait of the ‘father of African cinema’

The man often called the father of African cinema is the subject of “Sembene!” a richly crafted documentary that serves as an enlightening tribute to the filmmaker who masterfully tapped into the medium’s wide-reaching socio-political potential.

Born to a Senegalese fisherman, author-turned-director Ousmane Sembène set out to “bring a voice to the voiceless” of his country with features that were initially made using donated leftover film stock. The movies grew increasingly incendiary in their topicality.

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Taking aim at the likes of Islam (1977’s “Ceddo”) and female genital mutilation (2004’s “Moolaadé"), Sembène became a fixture of prestige international festivals from Cannes to Berlin even as his films were heavily censored or banned outright.

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Co-directors Jason Silverman and Samba Gadjigo, the Mount Holyoke professor and Sembène biographer, etch a candid portrait of the man whose wife and children were often made to feel like they took second place to his “creations.”

Although his behavior wasn’t always exemplary, his work, vividly on display here in black-and-white and color footage, makes a convincing case for cinema’s ability to transcend mere storytelling.

Sembène died in 2007 at age 84, and the discovery after his death of corroded film reels and crumbling memorabilia left to rot in his shuttered home prompted Gadjigo to devote himself to the considerable task of preserving his symbolic uncle’s legacy.

“Sembene!” is a rewarding step in that continuing process.

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“Sembene!”

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena.


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