American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"After I die, I'll have plenty of time to rest. Let's go to work." According to the documentary "Sembene!", the Sengalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene said that to a friend during the production of his final, masterful feature, 2004's "Moolaade," which Roger Ebert called "the kind of film that can only be made by a director whose heart is in harmony with his mind." It was a drama about a young woman who had miraculously escaped the ritual of female genital mutilation in her family, only to be threatened by it after getting engaged to a villager who had returned home after a period in France. Sembene, one of the most influential filmmakers and political figures produced by the African continent in the 20th century, was almost 80 when he directed the film, and had seen several of his serenely confrontational films banned in Senegal, France and elsewhere. He was so tired and sick that at night he would sleep hooked up to intravenous drip bags of nutrients and then wake up the next morning and continue filming, wearing his young colleagues out.
This is but one of many stories in "Sembene!" that make the director, who died in 2007, sound not just like a great artist and relentless person, but a figure out of a legend or folktale: an invincible juggernaut of a storyteller; the man who gave voice to African stories that, until the early post-colonial period, had been largely voiceless on film. It is unabashedly celebratory and mainly concerned with the work and the meaning of the work, at times coming on like an episode of the generally worshipful PBS series "American Masters" about somebody who is not American, and either ignoring or glancing over uncomfortable aspects of
Sembene's personal life. These include an account of the collapse of his marriage to Carrie Moore,
a woman he once described as his "muse"; and the time he helped initiate a
fund for new African filmmakers and then essentially hijacked one of the most interesting projects, the 1988 military mutiny drama “Camp de Thiaroye,” from his protege Bouboucar Boris Diop, and helped himself to a lot of the development fund to make it. ("My contradictions are trivial compared to the necessity of getting the film made," he said soon after.)
This approach might become tiresome, or seem suspect, if "Sembene!" didn't frame the story in terms of the necessity of bearing witness and keeping a legacy alive. It's not making a tough, probing look at the psychology of an artist, and even the interplay of Sembene's personal life and art is somewhat minimized compared to other filmed biographies in this vein. It's all framed in terms of representative images, the right to be heard, and the ability to tell stories that challenge official narratives of power.
Sembene himself told the Guardian in a 2005 profile that "Moolaade" "...isn't just entertainment: I call it 'movie school,'" and that the point is to present Africans with images of Africans dealing with African realities, so that cinema becomes a "mirror" for them. This documentary is very much made in that spirit, although it lacks Sembene's sly humor and his knack for poking holes in puffed-up official images, and it largely ignores much of his output as a novelist and poet (except for key works represented onscreen by animated "paintings" and stray lines of narration).