As a film lover, I love watching the development of cinema in foreign countries, particularly those that do not have a long-standing film tradition. With the development of cheaper filmmaking equipment and the advent of the internet, many fledgling movie industries have been able to introduce their work to the rest of the world. One such industry is that of African cinema. Abandon all of your preconceptions, because Africa has one of the most diverse and vibrant film industries in the entire world. But it can be daunting to outsiders who have no idea where to look for good African cinema. Therefore, I have compiled this list in order to help those who wish to explore one of the world’s most exciting arenas of cinematic expression.
The ten movies listed here should be considered as entry points into African cinema. They represent all different kinds of genres, from comedies to historical dramas to experimental films. I have tried to compile a list that is both geographically diverse while respecting the historical developments and ground breaking directors that have sent shock waves throughout the industry. Each one of these films has a distinctly African voice that bestows itself with its own ethnic identity. It’s true that some of these films may be difficult to watch by Western standards. But they are the perfect starting point for those who wish to broaden their horizons and explore the wonders of African cinema.
Editor’s note: I found a few of these films for rent at the African Film Library.
10. La Noire de…
Directed by Ousmane Sembène
Perhaps it’s only appropriate to start this list off with what is considered to be the first Sub-Saharan African film by an African filmmaker to catch the eye of the international community. More commonly known as “Black Girl,” it is the first film by Ousmane Sembène, quite possibly the most influential and important African director in history. It tells the story of Diouana, a young Senegalese woman from Dakar who moves to France in order to be a nanny for a rich French couple. As time goes on, they begin to mistreat her and make her do other tasks. Eventually, Diouana realizes that she is more of a slave than a nanny. A powerful film, it deals with one of the most common themes in African cinema: the after-effects of colonialism and racism. But it also deals with another common trope in African cinema: characters who wish to move from Africa to either Europe or America in order to start a better life only to have their dreams shattered. Shot in beautiful black and white, it is a haunting tale of cultural alienation which engages the viewer all the way to its tragic climax.
9. The Silences of the Palace
Directed by Moufida Tlatli
Significant because it was the first full length movie directed by a woman in the Arab world, The Silences of the Palace received multiple awards at international film festivals from Cannes to Toronto. It is the story of a Khedija, a servant in the Kings Palace in French controlled Tunisia, and her daughter Alia. Set against the backdrop of the end of French colonial rule, Alia returns to the palace where she and her mother worked for years. She confronts the memories of her mother being forced to perform sexual favors for her master and the misery that it caused. The film is a heartbreaking story of one mother’s struggle to provide a life for her daughter where she will not have to suffer the same fate. It is a bit dry and at times confusing due to its non-linear storytelling, but it is a must see for those interested in Arabic film.
8. Faraw! Mother of the Dunes
Directed by Abdoulaye Ascofaré
The family is one of the most important themes in African cinema. Nowhere is this more evident than in Faraw! Mother of the Dunes. It tells the story of Zamiatou and her family who live in North Eastern Mali. Her husband was a political prisoner who was returned in a broken mental and physical state. She has two boys who constantly fight and a daughter who might be too pretty for her own good. As their money runs out, Zamiatou must seek out work for herself and her daughter. In the process, she refuses to compromise her own dignity, even when she is reduced to looking for work from wealthy foreigners from the West. It is the story of a proud woman who refuses to stop struggling for her family no matter what the cost may be.
7. Touki Bouki
Directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty
Djibril Diop Mambéty was one of the bravest directors in African history due to his constant experimentation in film technique. He once said, “Cinema is magic in the service of dreams,” and his most important film, Touki Bouki, which translates to The Hyena’s Journey, is a testament to this belief. A daring and unconventional film, it is frequently compared to the French New Wave. It centers on the lovers Mory and Anta who dream of leaving their home and traveling to France. One of the film’s most famous scenes shows the two returning to their village dressed in Western clothes in an automobile to hand out money to the people who once mistreated them but now worship them. As so often happens in African cinema, they are unable to leave for the West. But this film is more about the journey than the destination. It flows using dreamlike logic as it sways from one situation and local to the next. While most African movies are generally known for slowly paced, linear narratives, Touki Bouki is a one-of-a-kind kaleidoscope of cinematic technique that keeps the viewer hypnotized until the very end. This film was recently restored by the World Cinema Foundation and can be viewed legally and for free at this link: http://www.theauteurs.com/films/2036
Directed by Roger Gnoan M’Bala
Another one of the most common themes in African cinema is the cultural impact of the European slave trade. Some dramas focus on individuals who are forced to leave their homeland to work for Westerners for the rest of their lives. Others, like Adanggaman, deal with the impact that the slave trade had on African society. At the center of this film is a man named Ossei whose village is destroyed by the warriors of King Adanggaman who wages war against his neighboring tribes in order to sell them to European slave traders. Ossei follows the warriors back to the court of King Adanggaman in hopes that he can rescue his captured mother. Along the way, he is joined by Naka, a warrior of Adanggaman, who eventually befriends him. While the ending could probably do with some editing, Adanggaman is an interesting reinterpretation of the quest story that is so familiar to Western filmgoers. It should not be missed.
5. The Gods Must Be Crazy
Directed by Jamie Uys
The smash hit that gave rise to a five-film franchise, The Gods Must Be Crazy is one of the most original and charming comedies to come from Africa. It weaves together two different stories about cultural miscommunication. The first is the infamous tale of Xi, a bushman from southern Africa, played by N!xau (the ! stands for an alveolar clicking sound) a real life Namibian bush farmer who was named Namibia’s most famous actor. Upon discovering a coke bottle that had been dropped from a plane, he takes it back to his village where it is treated as a gift from the gods. But it begins to cause discourse in the village. So, he decides to travel to the edge of the world and throw it off. Along the way he runs into a woman-shy biologist, a school teacher, a newspaper reporter, and a band of guerrillas who want to overthrow the government. Part documentary, part slapstick, and part screwball comedy, it’s a riot from beginning to end.
Directed by Idrissa Ouedraogo
One of the most troubling dilemmas in African cinema is the reconciliation of old world customs with modern day life. Should Africans adopt Western society, or can they work out their own problems themselves and maintain a sense of cultural identity? One such film to ponder this is Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Yaaba, or Grandmother. It takes place in a timeless village where Bila, and ten year old boy, makes friends with Sana, an old woman who has been cast out of their village on accusations of witchcraft. The village demonizes her, but Bila treats her as a friend, even bringing her presents. When Bila’s cousin, Nopoko, gets sick, a medicine man informs the village that her condition has been caused by Sana stealing her soul. The village sets out to Sana’s home where they discover that she has left to try and find a doctor who can cure Nopoko. Even after she succeeds in her grueling journey, gets Nopoko help, and the village learns that the medicine man is a liar, they still treat her like a witch. She dies, but the movie suggests that her spirit lives on in Bila and Nopoko. Yaaba is one of the richest human dramas ever made in Africa.
3. The Amazing Grace
Directed by Jeta Amata
I couldn’t make a list of important African movies without listing at least one Nollywood film. What’s Nollywood? It’s only the largest film industry in the world in terms of the amount of movies made every year. Centered in Nigeria, Nollywood pumps out between 1,000-2,000 movies each year. Considering how Nollywood films are cheaply made, with the rise of a global film market, Nigeria stands to become one of the future epicenters of world cinema. While many are filmed in local languages, many are done in English, allowing for a wider audience. One of the greatest of all Nollywood films is The Amazing Grace. Not to be confused with the film Amazing Grace by Michael Apted which came out the same year, The Amazing Grace is Nollywood at its finest. It tells the tale of how the slave trader John Newton came to write the most famous Christian hymn in history. But instead of telling it from the point of view of the European sailors, it is told from the point of view of the slaves. Rich storytelling, compelling characters, and believable human drama make this film one of the most accessible Nollywood films available for those who wish to introduce themselves to one of the world’s most important film industries.
2. The Nightingale’s Prayer
Directed by Henry Barakat
Easily one of the most important Egyptian films ever made, The Nightingale’s Prayer is a devastating analysis of gender inequality in Arabic society. The story surrounds Amna, a young woman who is cast out from her village along with her sister Henady and their mother when their father dies. They try to set up new lives for themselves in a new town, but Henady is cruelly seduced by a local engineer who then casts her away when he is done with her. Henady is murdered by her uncle when news of her shame reaches their old village. Vowing revenge on her sister, she employs herself in the same engineer’s house in order to kill him. It turns out that the engineer is an extreme womanizer who casually seduces all of his employees without a thought of how they will be treated in the outside world after he gets rid of them. In an unusual twist, Amna falls in love with the engineer, but her uncle hears that she has been employed by the same man who dishonored Henady. He sets out with a rifle in order to kill Amna. In this world dominated by men, women are disregarded and seen as creatures unfit to live if they bring shame to their families. This film can be difficult to watch at times because its subject matter is so intense, but it is one of the most thought provoking movies ever made concerning the role of the woman in Arabic society.
Directed by Ousmane Sembène
Senegal/ France / Burkina Faso / Cameroon / Morocco / Tunisia
We end this list with the same director that we began it with: Ousmane Sembène. He truly is the alpha and the omega of African cinema. His last film, made when he was 81 years old, Sembène’s masterpiece is a film that examines the role of women in African society. But instead of treating them as victims, they are fierce protectors capable of standing up to the males who rule their society. The film deals with the act of female genital mutilation, otherwise known as female circumcision. The film’s heroine, Colle, invokes an ancient magical protection (moolaadé) to protect a group of girls who refuse to be circumcised. The protection relies on a rope hung on the doorway of Colle’s house. Nobody can touch the girls as long as they stay behind the rope in Colle’s house. If the girls voluntarily leave it, then the spell is broken. As the community bears down on Colle and demands that she turn the girls over, she is forced to make the ultimate decision: give in to their demands and turn the girls over to a potentially fatal operation or defy ancient village custom and continue to protect the girls. If you see only one film from this list, choose this one. It is by far the most accessible film for those unfamiliar with African cinema. With one of the strongest female protagonists in the history of cinema, Moolaadé will make you laugh, cry, and cheer at this amazing story of one woman’s struggle to do what she believes is right.