10 African Documentary Films You Should Check Out
Featuring Music Is Life, African Moot, Cesária Évora and many more.
For its 24th edition, the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival,running from June 23 to July 3, returns to physical locations in Johannesburg and Cape Town for the first time in two years. OkayAfrica took a deep dive into the festival’s program and presents ten of the most anticipated films playing. You don’t want to miss these titles.
Directed by Shameela Seedat, African Moot follows a pan-African group of over a hundred Law students who have assembled in Botswana to participate in the prestigious African Human Rights Moot Competition. The rights of refugees on the continent will be debated in high stakes simulated court hearings at the African Court of Human Rights. Here, the next generation of legal minds on the continent will prove that even with the current difficulties, there is still an abundance of hope for the continent.
Music is My Life
The opening film is also one of the buzziest titles at Encounters this year. Directed by Mpumi “Supa” Mbele, Music is My Life”pays convincing homage to the late music icon Joseph Shabalala and the Grammy-winning band he founded, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The film tracks the life and times of the maestro from his early years in rural South Africa to the band’s worldwide success after contributing significantly to Paul Simon’s Graceland album. Mbele’s film including chronicles the complex history of isicathamiya music and places Shabalala’s legacy in context.
The Double Futures of Athlone
Premash Lalu’s delightful film- years in the making- revisits and contextualizes the cultural history of Athlone, Capetown, a town once infamous for housing victims of forced removals in Apartheid South Africa. The Double Futures of Athlone is a love letter to a bygone era, one in which the local Kismet theatre played a powerful role in uniting people through movies and music. Lalu assembles an engaging, nostalgic narrative using interviews and historical anecdotes, highlighting the communal power of the arts.
The Radical is an intimate portrait of 54-year-old Muhsin Hendricks, recognized as the world's first openly gay Imam. Richard Gregory’s film chronicles Hendricks’ stance of defiance, his fight for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ Muslims within Islam across the continent and his refusal to separate his sexuality from his religious beliefs. The Radical is quite the experience, one that challenges viewers to rethink biases and questions orthodox conclusions.
Summer of Soul
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Oscar-winning, Sundance record-setting debut feature film is a triumphant revisiting of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem. Using professional footage of the festival, stock news footage, and recent interviews with attendees and musicians, Questlove’s film, an exhilarating cultural and historical document, provides historical background and social context to a previously forgotten landmark event and brings it back to the mainstream where it rightly belongs.
Tear Salted Sea
Directed by Riaan Hendricks, Tear Salted Sea takes viewers on an adventure. The film stitches together personal accounts of a cohort of Western Cape sailors as they operate on the South African coastline. 10 years after the tragic events of a deadly storm, the surviving fishers and their loved ones are still making sense of the tragedy. Tear Salted Sea explores the powerful relationship that the sailors share with the sea and examines the bonds and support structures that keep them united as a community.
Directed by Portuguese filmmaker Ana Sofia Fonseca, Cesária Évora— which premiered at the SXSW festival in March— is a full-throated, multifaceted portrait of the legendary Cape Verdean singer who leveraged her international fame to empower her community. The film comprises never before seen archival material that paints the picture of the barefoot Contessa as a progressive leader, feeding and sheltering the impoverished in her home islands and fighting for the rights of women through her own personal example.
George Bizos Icon
A comprehensive chronicle of the life and work of legendary South African lawyer and human rights advocate, George Bizos. Directed by Jane Thandi Lipman and Peter Goldsmid, George Bizos Icon revisits the life of one of South Africa’s most illustrious citizens. From his beginnings as a WW2 refugee from Greece to his early friendship with Nelson Mandela as well as his central involvement in significant national affairs like the Rivonia Trial plus his role in the authoring of the South African constitution, Bizos’ life was so intimately linked to key political events that this film also works as snap national history.
If you ever wondered about the bizarre true story that inspired Netflix’s two season Blood & Water, then do no not miss Girl Taken. Directed by the duo of Francois Verster and Simon Wood, Girl Taken is the incredible story of the three-day old baby Zephany who was kidnapped from her hospital bed in 1997. The case fascinated South African media for years and the documentary, at least six years in the making, goes behind the scenes to obtain exclusive and intimate interviews with the key players- including Zephany herself- in the complex drama.
Lobola, A Bride’s True Price?
When a progressive thinking filmmaker agrees to marry her long-term boyfriend, she must decide if she will break with tradition and reject the settlement of her pride price. Sihle Hlophe’s engaging reconsideration of a common traditional rite of passage questions the idea of the lobola. Confronting her feminist beliefs and squaring them against her responsibilities to family, Hlophe asks the difficult questions about tradition, identity and shifting gender roles