We curated a list of 13 films that centre the queer experience and prove that non-conforming people have always existed among us.
Recent developments in Ghana and Uganda where LGBTQI persons have been persecuted and human rights rolled back should be a source of worry for everyone. These attacks often pin themselves on the (false) logic that same sex relations are un-African and are being unleashed on moralistic societies, this side of the world, by the developed and depraved countries of the West. Thankfully, cinema is alive.
Film has always been one of the most important safe spaces where queerness has found genuine expression. African cinema has played this role for a long time. Below is a list of 13 films that prioritise the LGBTIQ+ narrative.
There is Power in the Collar (2021)
July 2019. In a major victory for LGBTQI rights across the continent, Botswana's High Court determined that a law criminalizing sexual relations among queer persons was unconstitutional. There is Power in the Collar, directed by Lodi Matsetela and Vincent Moloi, chronicles some of the key players at the center of this landmark ruling. The filmmakers interrogate the role of the church in propagating homophobia, while acknowledging the potential power of the pulpit in helping reverse the tide.
Screened at Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival (10-20 June)
The Legend of the Underground (2021)
Directed by Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey, The Legend of the Underground which showcased at the Tribeca Film Festival before arriving on HBO this June is a thrilling look at the lives of several charismatic non-conformist Nigerian young men. Facing state-enabled discrimination and a hostile living environment, these men must choose to fight for their freedom — through creative expressions, social media and celebrity — or flee to the USA where there is a chance that they might be able to live freely.
Where to watch: HBO/HBO Max from 29, June
I Am Samuel (2020)
It isn't quite criminal to be queer in Kenya, but an intimate act between people of the same sex is considered a criminal offence. Confusing, right? Pete Murimi's debut feature length project is an intimate and sharply drawn portrait of a gay man negotiating his right to exist and be seen. Using warm, observational takes, Murimi brings Samuel directly to audiences as he balances the relationship he shares with his lover Alex, against the expectations of his elderly parents. At its core, I am Samuel is a story of love and acceptance.
Screening July 22 to August 1 at the Durban International Film Festival
In Moffie, the fourth feature length by Oliver Hermanus, a young man comes to terms with his sexuality while participating in compulsory military service. Based on the autobiographical novel of the same title penned by Andre Carl van der Merwe, this big screen adaptation is filtered through Hermanus' famously singular gaze. The result is a powerful and heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of homophobia — both internalized and state sanctioned — and a country trapped in the throes of hate.
Walking With Shadows (2019)
It is a small tragedy that this big screen adaptation of the 2005 novel, written by Jude Dibia, hasn't found major distribution almost two years after it debuted at the London Film Festival. Starring Ozzy Agu as a married man who is pushed to the brink when he receives an unexpected phone call, Walking with Shadows in the hands of Irish director Aoife O'Kelly, is gorgeously shot and tenderly realized. The film delineates the tragedy of living a lie in order to conform to society's expectations and pleads for release.
Where to watch: TBD
I Am Sheriff (2018)
Produced by the Steps for the Future program, and directed by Teboho Edkins, I am Sheriff is a reflection of tolerance and understanding. The title character is Sheriff Mothopeng, a gender non-conforming activist from Lesotho. Edkins films Mothopeng as they travel from their hometown to the surrounding areas in the mountain kingdom, exhibiting their film. This film has Mothopeng discussing their gender identity and audiences respond with copious levels of warmth and acceptance.
Where to watch: Youtube
Wanuri Kahiu's sophomore feature was banned upon release in Kenya, never mind that it was the country's first film to compete at the Cannes Film Festival. Two adolescents confront the romantic attraction brewing between them. If it weren't for the disapproving parents and scandalous gossip that the ladies have to reckon with, Rafiki would feel like just another day in the neighborhood. Kahui keeps things fresh enough to ensure that Rafiki's shelf life extends long after the controversies have settled.
Where to watch: Showmax
Inxeba (The Wound) (2017)
The controversy that surrounded the release of John Trengove's Inxeba might have undercut the film's box office chances, but boycotts have done nothing to derail the film's future as an African cinema classic. Inxeba charts a forbidden love story between two men who meet up annually for a few days while working as trainers to young Xhosa boys on the brink of manhood. Sensitively realized, Inxeba is a potent exploration of the role that cultural practices play in advancing toxic masculinity.
Stories of Our Lives (2014)
Stories of Our Lives is an arresting anthology of five shorts created by members of The Nest Collective, a Nairobi-based multidisciplinary arts collective. Directed by Jim Chuchu, Stories of Our Lives documents personal stories as well as the larger community histories that characterize the Kenyan queer experience. A man visits a hotel room to fulfill a sexual fantasy. A woman visualizes a daring escape plan from her neighborhood as it tethers on the brink of violence.
Salvation Army (2013)
Acclaimed Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa caused quite the stir when he came out as gay. His film debut is an adaptation of his autobiographical novel of the same name. Salvation Army is a richly imagined but inconsistent dramatization of a young gay man navigating the sexual, racial and political climate of Morocco while coming of age. Despite the emotional remove, Salvation Army has a thing or two to say about sexual autonomy and the power dynamics embedded in Arab-European relations.
South African auteur Oliver Hermanus' sophomore feature centers on a racist middle-aged Afrikaans businessman, who is attracted to men but refuses to publicly acknowledge this part of his life. He engages in secret sexual liaisons with other men who, like him, are also in denial. When he meets the handsome young son of an old friend, he becomes infatuated and his tightly controlled, privileged life spirals out of control. Beauty is a challenging tale of obsession and repression.
Mohamed Camara's groundbreaking Dakan has the distinction of being the first film from Sub-Saharan Africa to deal frankly with homosexuality by centering the love story between two gay men. Dakan opens boldly, with the two protagonists making out in a car. This caused outrage in Camara's native Guinea where the film's progressive approach to queerness forced several conversations. Dakan has aged quite well too, inspiring the slate of films that came after.
Where to watch: Kanopy, Vimeo
Man of Ashes (1986)
The first film by Tunisian director Nouri Bouzid, despite some outdated tropes, remains an intriguing look at the experience of otherness in Arab culture. Shot with a nervous energy that echoes the anxiety of the protagonist, a groom with a serious case of the wedding jitters. On the eve of his arranged marriage, the hero embarks on a personal journey that uncovers sexual identity, sexual abuse and repressed trauma.