A few days ago, The Criterion Collection announced they’d be releasing a movie called Mandabi, by one of the true deities of world cinema, the late Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène.
This is significant for a number of reasons—partly because Sembène is so influential he’s been called the father of African cinema, being credited with kickstarting the cinema of an entire continent, not just his own country; partly because Mandabi was the first movie made in Sembène’s native language of Wolof; and partly because movies from African countries seem to be really, really hard to get ahold of.
I’ve only seen a handful of Sembène’s films even though I’ve put forth what I would say is a pretty decent effort to find them—only one of his features is readily available, his 1966 debut film Black Girl. I’ve seen a few more from him and other African luminaries by having a little bit of success through interlibrary loan, and also through an internet database with YouTube links to poor-quality versions of films, but I have to move kind of quickly before they’re taken down.
All of this is terribly disappointing, because we’re missing a lot from a continent of filmmaking that is vibrant, creative, and, from what I’ve seen, produces the most lethal social and political criticism in the world-- particularly, in my extremely limited experience, by filmmakers from Senegal, including Sembène’s contemporary Djibril Diop Mambéty, and more recently, Mambéty’s niece, Mati Diop, whose debut film Atlantics is on Netflix.
Sembène’s Mandabi will be out in February, but right now, you can at least watch Black Girl on disc, through HBO, or through the Criterion Channel, and after it’s blindsided you, you’ll know you’ve seen one of the great films of all time. Also just as accessible is Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 film Touki Bouki, another landmark in the history of African cinema.
It is not smooth sailing, pursuing African films, but if you’re willing to take it on, the rewards are massive.