Three Revolutionary Films by Ousmane Sembène

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Synopsis

Having blazed a trail for African filmmakers to tell their own stories on-screen, Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembène took his career-long project—to unlock cinema’s potential as a vehicle for social change—in increasingly urgent and provocative directions in the 1970s. Searing critiques of colonialism, political corruption, patriarchal arrogance, and religious indoctrination, his three features from this decade—the radical call to resistance Emitaï, the wickedly subversive satire Xala, and the controversial historical epic Ceddo—confirmed his standing as a fearless truth-teller for whom the camera was the ultimate weapon in the fight against oppression in all its forms.

Picture 9/10

The Criterion Collection presents three groundbreaking films by the "father of African cinema," Ousmane Sembène, in a box set titled Three Revolutionary Films by Ousmane Sembène. Across three dual-layer discs, the set showcases the films Emitaï, Xala, and Ceddo, all meticulously restored in new 4K transfers sourced primarily from scans of the original negatives.

To my pleasant surprise, all three films look absolutely stunning. The restoration work has impeccably revitalized them, though a few noticeable flaws remain, likely due to their complexity. While there are occasional shots that seem to stem from a secondary source, they are rare and don't significantly detract from the overall visual quality.

The base scans have captured an astonishing level of detail, and the encodes are generally robust, albeit not flawless. Some minor buzzing effects are present at times, particularly noticeable in Emitaï, but overall, the grain looks clean, contributing to a delightful film texture across all three presentations.

In summary, the visual quality of all three films greatly exceeded my expectations, making for a truly impressive viewing experience.

Audio 6/10

All three films come with lossless PCM monaural soundtracks, each maintaining consistent quality. While they are clean overall, there's a fairly persistent hiss present in all of them, with Ceddo's being the most noticeable. Additionally, they are somewhat flat with limited dynamic range. However, they remain clear and sharp throughout.

Extras 5/10

I'm quite fond of this set, but where it falls short is in its supplements; there’s very little here.

For Emitaï, there's a new 38-minute conversation between writer Amy Sall and Mehen Bonetti, founder and executive director of the African Film Festival. They begin by sharing their initial encounters with Sembène's work (both first saw Ceddo), followed by discussions about the inaugural African Film Festival in 1993 and Bonetti’s collaboration with Sembène. The conversation delves into each film, exploring their representation of specific points in Senegal’s history and the commentary embedded within. Xala, with its blatant satire, receiving special attention (spoilers ahead, so watch after viewing all the films).

While engaging, the conversation's brevity limits the in-depth coverage of each film. This wouldn’t be a major issue if it weren’t the sole supplement proving an academic angle. Additionally, there are no film-specific features beyond a 27-minute documentary about the making of Ceddo, titled The Making of “Ceddo,” assembled by Sembène’s friend and fellow filmmaker, Paulin Soumanou Vieyra. It features plenty of behind-the-scenes footage that proves interesting, including footage showing how jovial things appeared to be on set, refuting the film’s darker tone, alongside some fun test footage of some of the film’s effects. But the real gem here is the insightful set of interviews with Sembène, the director sitting at the editing table as he works on the film.

Despite its brevity, the documentary impressively delves into Sembène's intentions behind the film, as well as his filmmaking philosophy. Unfortunately, outside of a booklet featuring a comprehensive essay by Yasmina Price, that’s all the set offers. Xala, despite being one of Sembène’s better-known films, lacks any special features. No commentaries, no essays, no additional historical context. Nothin'.

While I appreciate the set for bringing together these three remarkable films and presenting them in sharp new transfers, the lack of effort put into the bonus features is almost unforgiveable.

Closing

It’s a lovely set with excellent presentations for all three films, but with only a few supplements, it feels like an unfinished release.

Part of a multi-title set

BUY AT: Amazon.com Amazon.ca

 
 
Directed by: Ousmane Sembène
Year: 1971 | 1975 | 1977
Time: 101 | 123 | 116 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1217
Licensor: Janus Films
Release Date: May 21 2024
MSRP: $99.95
 
Blu-ray
3 Discs | BD-50
1.66:1 ratio
1.85:1 ratio
French 1.0 PCM Mono
Wolof 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Regions A
 
 New conversation between Mahen Bonetti, founder and executive director of the African Film Festival, and film writer Amy Sall   The Making of “Ceddo,” a 1981 documentary by Paulin Soumanou Vieyra   An essay by film scholar Yasmina Price