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Roger's Favorites: Ousmane Sembene

Each day during this special week we will be highlighting the filmmakers and actors that Roger championed throughout his career. A table of contents for all of our "Roger's Favorites" posts can be found here. Below is an entry on the cinema of Ousmane Sembene


Ousmane Sembene, known to many as the "Father of African Cinema," hailed from Senegal, the country that would be the setting of most of his films, including "Guelwaar" and "Moolaade," a pick for Ebertfest in 2007. His often-satirical films enlivened by honest portrayals of real people, he was also the author of six novels, a mechanic, a bricklayer, an autoworker and more. ("Sembene!", a documentary recently made about his life and work, was reviewed by Matt Zoller Seitz on November 5, 2015.

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Roger's reviews show a striking growth in his appreciation for Sembene. When Roger reviewed Sembene's first feature on October 9, 1969, "Black Girl" ("a slow, pedestrian affair"), he preferred the short that came with it, "Borom Saret," ("a powerful piece of filmmaking"), also by Sembene. It was on June 12, 1976 that Roger called Sembene "the best of the handful of African film directors," while awarding three stars to Sembene's "biting satire" "Xala." 

On April 22, 1994, Roger gave four stars to Sembene's "Guelwaar," a film that he cared deeply about. He called the satire of religion and politics "astonishingly beautiful," its message about the source of Senegal's poverty "thought provoking." And it was in this review, among others, in which Roger was compelled to express a frustration with the audiences that wouldn't see this movie, in spite of its values. Even with a striking bitterness, Roger said, "Moviegoers have little curiosity ... Most of them will never have seen a film about Africans, by Africans, in modern Africa, shot on location. They see no need to start now." But, one can see the passion that drives his distinct excitement, especially in his closing sentence: "He reminds me that movies can be an instrument of understanding, and need not always pander to what is cheapest and most superficial."

That sentiment carried over to the first two sentences of his next Sembene review for "Moolaade," published December 2, 2004: "Sometimes I seek the right words, and I despair. What can I write that will inspire you to see 'Moolaade?'" His favorite film of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Sembene's drama about female circumcision was a movie that Roger adored, so much that he programmed it for Ebertfest 2007. As he wrote of the film in a four-star review published on December 2, 2004, "'Moolaade' is a film that will stay in my memory and inform my ideas long after other films have vaporized."

On July 1, 2007, almost a month after Sembene died on June 9 of the same year, Roger indoctrinated "Moolaade" into the Great Movies collection. Going deeper into the film (and still urging you to see it), Roger opened his review with, "'Moolaade' is the kind of film that can only be made by a director whose heart is in harmony with his mind. It is a film of politics and anger, and also a film of beauty, humor, and a deep affection for human nature." The review's final paragraph has a particular poignancy, especially after a brief recap of an artist's life well lived: "Ousmane Sembene was born into an Africa where a black man was not expected to write novels or direct films. He dedicated his life to making brave and useful films that his continent needed to see. He did that even knowing they would probably not be seen. They exist. They wait. They honor his memory." 

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