Which African Films do you remember? Out of Africa? Tania Blixens story about her farm in Nairobi? Sarafina, the musical with Whoopi Goldberg? Hotel Ruanda, the story about the genocid in Rwanda? Amistad, the movie about the slave ship Amistad? or Goodbye Bafana, the story about Nelson Mandela and his warden James Gregory? All those movies are based on true stories, and all are produced with the know how of the best of Hollywood’s actors and directors. Too bad, that these films about black heroes are made by white people for a white audience.
We researched which African movies have been produced by African directors for the African audience und show you the best of African filmmakers.
The Beginning of African Filmmaking
La Noire de… Director: Ousmane Sembène
The Senegalese author Ousmane Sembène returned to Senegal after a long stay in France. There he had written the short story The Black Girl, back in Senegal he raised money to make a movie of his story. The story is about Diouana, a poor girl who comes from a village outside of Dakar. One day, a French woman looking for a servant, comes across Diouana and hires her to care for her children in Dakar. As a gift, Diouana gives her new employers a traditional mask that she had bought from a small boy for 50 guineas. The employers display it in their home. Diouana is thrilled, when Monsieur and Madame offer her a job working for them in France and immediately begins dreaming of her new life. But in France Diouana is overworked. The couple treats her harshly and doesn’t allow her to rest. One night at a dinner party, one of Madame and Monsieur’s friends kisses Diouana without her consent, explaining “I’ve never kissed a negress before!” Diouana refuses to work and in a moment of total desperation she commits suicide. The film ends with Monsieur returning Diouana’s suitcase and mask to her family in Senegal. He offers Diouana’s mother money, but she is insulted and refuses to take it. As he leaves the village, the little boy with the mask runs along behind him, symbolizing how Monsieur is haunted by his own memories.
Sembène addresses the effects of colonialism and racism in Africa and Europe. As an author concerned with social change, he wished to touch a wide audience. He realized that films could reach a much broader African audience than written books.
La Noire de… was the first feature film ever released by a sub-Saharan African director. Ousmane Sembene was considered one of the greatest authors of Africa and he has often been called the “father of African film”.
Finding the spirit of true African storytelling
Touki Bouki Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Mory, a charismatic cowherd who drives a motorcycle mounted with a bull-horned skull, and Anta, a female student, meet in Dakar. They dream of going to Paris and come up with different ideas to raise money for the trip. Mory eventually contrives to steal the money, and much clothing, from the household of a wealthy homosexual while the latter is taking a shower. Anta and Mory can finally buy tickets for the ship to France. But when Anta boards the ship in the Port of Dakar, Mory, poised on the gangplank behind her, is suddenly seized by an inability to leave his roots. He runs away madly to find his bull-horned motorcycle, only to see that it has been ruined in a crash that nearly killed the rider who had taken it. The ship sails away with Anta but not Mory who sits next to his hat on the ground, staring disconsolately at his wrecked motorcycle. In Wolof, the language of Senegal, Touki Bouki means “The Journey of the Hyena” which is a metaphore of a reunion in another world.
Touki Bouki was a milestone in African filmmaking. Djibril Diop Mambéty was influenced by the French New Wave but his film Touki Bouki displays a style all its own. Its camerawork and soundtrack have a frenetic rhythm. Through jump cuts, colliding montage, and the mixing of pastoral and modern sounds, Touki Bouki conveys the change of Senegal. The movie was shown in almost all international film festivals and was awarded with a lot of prizes.
Xala Director: Ousmane Sembène
Ten years after La Noire de… Ousmane Sembène did a satire on the African Bourgeoisie which tells about the dawn of Senegal’s independence from France. As the citizens celebrate in the streets we soon become aware that only the faces have changed. White power and white money still controls the government. One official, Aboucader Beye, known by the title “El Hadji,” takes advantage of some of that money to marry his third wife, to the sorrow and chagrin of his first two wives and the resentment of his nationalist daughter. On his wedding night he discovers that he has been struck with a “xala,” a curse of impotence. El Hadji tries to find the cause and remove the xala, resulting in a scathing satirical ending.
Yeelen Director: Souleymane Cissé
Yeelen means in the Bambara language light or brightness. The movie is based on a legend told by the Bambara people in the time of the Mali Empire. It is a heroic quest narrative featuring magic and precognition. Nianankoro’s father Soma is a part of the order of Komo, who practice magic, but he uses his powers for self-gain. He becomes determined to kill his son after receiving a vision that his son will cause his death. Aided by his mother, Nianankoro leaves his village to seek out his uncle for help. Soma tracks his son’s location and breaks all barriers that deter it. As he travels, Nianankoro encounters a hyena who tells him his destiny is to be great. His journey takes him to hidden and strange places, he meets friends and fights against powerful enemies. Finally he reaches his father and faces his final mission.
Yeelen is one of the most important African movies. It offers a look at a traditional African society that we in the west don’t often get to see. In this case, it’s the Bambara people of Mali and their myths and beliefs. The old legend seems to be exotic but if you watch the movie twice you may find out that some parts of the narrative resemble western myths.
African Filmmakers tell Political Stories
Lumumba Director: Raoul Peck
Raoul Peck, who grew up in Congo, did the doku-fiction Lumumba on the life and death of the Congolese politican Patrice Lumumba. Peck begins with Lumumba’s assassinated body being dug up by Belgian soldiers so it can be hacked into smaller pieces and burned in oil drums. Lumumba’s disfigured corpse begins the narration that runs through the film. He recalls his early days as a beer salesman, a trade that helps him develop a talent for speaking and leadership. As it happens, the beer he promotes has a rival owned by Joseph Kasa Vubu who later becomes president while Lumumba is named prime minister and defense minister. It is Kasa Vubu who eventually orders the arrest that leads to Lumumba’s murder.
The true story of the rise to power and brutal assassination of Patrice Lumumba is based on newly discovered historical evidence. Raoul Peck renders an emotional and tautly woven account of the mail clerk and beer salesman with an uncompromising belief in the capacity of his homeland to build a prosperous nation independent of its former Belgium overlords.
Sankofa Director: Haile Gerima,
Burkina Faso 1993
Mona is a young black American fashion model first seen posing for a callous white photographer on a beach in Ghana. She is dressed in a pseudo-Tina Turner getup complete with blonde wig. Obviously she has lost her connection to her past, that slavery still shapes her life as she is enslaved by contemporary images. Among drums and chants, a voice invokes ancestral ghosts. “Spirit of the dead, rise up,” the voice says, “and claim your story.” Suddenly she is spiritually transported back in time to a plantation in the West Indies where she experiences first-hand the physical and psychic horrors of chattel slavery, and eventually the redemptive power of community and rebellion as she becomes a member of a freedom-seeking Maroon colony.
Haile Gerima is an Ethiopian-born film maker who has lived in the United States for decades. His poetic film takes its audience into its heroine’s life and mind as her moral sense is challenged and changed. No viewer can avoid the discomforting questions the film so eloquently raises. The film’s title is a West African term meaning to reclaim the past in order to go forward, and “Sankofa” stumbles only in its depiction of the present.
(c) Ethio Youth Media TV
African Filmmakers Today
Tsotsi Director: Gavin Hoods
USA/South Africa 2005
Tsotsi is a teenager in an Alexandra slum in Johannesburg. He leads a street gang which includes his friends Butcher, Aap and Boston. After getting involved in a murder committed by Butcher during a mugging, Tsotsi and Boston get into a fight which leaves Boston badly injured. Tsotsi later shoots a young woman, Pumla, while stealing her car, only to discover a three-month-old baby in the back seat. He takes the baby back to his shack. Pumla survives the attack and works with a police artist to create a sketch of Tsotsi’s face, which is then run in the newspapers. Realizing that he cannot properly care for the baby on his own, Tsotsi spots the young mother Miriam, and forces her to feed the kidnapped child. The next six days bring about a change in Tsotsi’s life that couldn’t be foreseen.
The movie is an adaptation of the novel Tsotsi, by South African writer Athol Fugard. The soundtrack features Kwaito music performed by popular South African artist Zola as well as a score by Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker featuring the voice of South African protest singer/poet Vusi Mahlasela.
District 9 Director: Neill Blomkamp
South Africa 2009
In 1982, a massive star ship bearing a bedraggled alien population, nicknamed “The Prawns,” appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. The aliens were treated as refugees. In order to accommodate them, the government of South Africa set up a makeshift home in District 9. Twenty-eight years later, the initial welcome by the human population has faded. A private company called Multi-National United is assigned the task of controlling the aliens. But this company is less interested in the aliens’ welfare than attempting to understand how their weaponry works. Should they manage to make that breakthrough, they will receive tremendous profits to fund their research. Unfortunately, the highly advanced weaponry requires alien DNA in order to be activated. When the company’s field operative Wikus van der Merwe is exposed to biotechnology that causes his DNA to mutate, the tensions between the aliens and the humans intensifies. Wikus is the key to unlocking the alien’s technology, and he quickly becomes the most wanted man on the planet. He retreats to District 9 in a desperate bid to shake his pursuers.
Director Neill Blomkamp teams with producer Peter Jackson for this tale of extraterrestrial refugees stuck in contemporary South Africa.
Beasts of no Nation Director: Cary Fukunaga
The story follows the journey of a young boy, Agu, who lives in a small West African village with his parents, older brother, and two younger siblings. The country is shattered by a terrifying civil war. With rebel forces headed towards the village, many people flee to the country’s capital for safety. Agu’s father is able to buy safe transport for his wife and two youngest children, but has to stay behind himself with Agu and his eldest son. As they are about to be executed, Agu escapes into the jungle. After wandering for an unspecified amount of time, he is caught up in a guerrilla skirmish. The rebels adopt Agu into their ranks. After undergoing a brutal initiation process, Agu becomes a fully-fledged member of the militia.
Beasts of No Nation is based on the novel of the Nigerian writer Uzodinmal Iweala, who was forced to join a group of soldiers. His report depicts the mechanics of war and does not shy away from explicit, visceral detail, and paints a complex picture of himself as a child soldier.
Félicité Director: Alain Gomis
Félicité works in a bar in Kinshasa, a vibrant megacity, in which modern und traditional Africa collide. When she sings she seems to forget about her hard life. Félicité is a tough woman and mother who raised her 14 year old son Gamo alone. When Gamo has a motorcycle accident and is severely injured, she goes on a frantic search through the streets of Kinshasa, to provide the money for his treatment. Félicité undergoes a tour de force to save the life of her son. This tour in and around the city is depressing but it is also serving as a social commentary on its inhabitants. Her path crosses that of Tabu, who has a special role in getting Félicité’s son out of the hospital.
Alain Gomis is a French-Senegalese writer and director, known for Aujourd’hui (2012). His movie Félicité was awarded the Silver Bear at Berlin filmfestival 2017 movie is a trip through the streets, markets and slums of Kinshasa, to end in a surprising, heart warming love story.
The panafrican filmfestival FESPACO, founded in in Burkina Faso in 1969, to support the African filmindustry
The Carthage Film Festival or JCC
is a film festival that takes place in Tunis. Created in 1966, it is to date the oldest event of its kind still active in Africa.
Africa Film festival in Löwen, Belgium