Here are 11 Oscar-Worthy African Feature Films to Watch
While Ivory Coast's 'Night of the Kings' and Tunisia's 'The Man Who Sold His Skin' have been shortlisted for the "Best International Feature Film", here are 9 additional films that made strong contenders for an Oscar.
The Oscars are only a few months away. While Tunisia and Ivory Coast were the only African countries to have been shortlisted for the Oscars in the "Best International Feature Film" category, there are a number of African feature films that are certainly Oscar-worthy and a must-watch. Africa is no stranger to the Oscars party having triumphed in this category three times already, starting with 1970 when the Costa-Gavras Algerian-French co-production, Z dazzled the world. The latest win arrived in 2006 with South Africa's crime drama, Tsotsi.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the professional organization that awards the Oscars, put forward, at the beginning of this year, an approved list of ninety-three countries that submitted films eligible for consideration in the "Best International Feature Film" category for the forthcoming 93rd Oscars. In order to qualify for the category, the film must be feature-length (more than 40 minutes), produced outside of the United States with a predominantly (more than 50%) non-English dialogue.
This year had African films being some of the strongest Oscars submissions they have ever been. Eleven African countries were initially represented in the Academy's approved list. Algeria had submitted its entry, Heliopolis earlier but it was curiously missing. Sources report that the country voluntarily withdrew its submission but the reason is yet to be made clear. Among the countries, Sudan and Lesotho were first-time participants in the process. Although Tunisia and Ivory Coast ultimately outcompeted the rest, the high quality of submissions this year is a reflection of the filmmaking talent on the continent despite severe structural limitations.
The 93rd annual Academy Awards are scheduled to take place on April 25. In the meanwhile, here is a list of 11 African feature films that were initially submitted to this year's Oscars and made (or still make, in two instances) strong contenders for an award in the "Best International Feature Film" category.
The Fisherman's Diary (Cameroon)
Cameroon has been quite inconsistent with competing at the Oscars. Previous submissions were OurDaughter in 1981 and Yahan Ameena Bikti Hai in 2017. The country's third attempt is a long-winded drama about a 12-year-old girl Ekah (a solid Faith Fidel) from an impoverished fishing village who is inspired by Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. Ekah then goes against the wishes of her father and community when she insists on getting an education. Enah Johnscott directs this well-acted and well-meaning if still, conventional, drama.
The Letter (Kenya)
Directed by the wife and husband duo of Maia Lekow and Chris King, The Letter is Kenya's fifth entry in the international feature category. Debuting at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam in November 2019, The Letter is a personal yet socially relevantinvestigation into how superstitious beliefs and religious overzealousness are weaponised to displace and dispossess vulnerable people—particularly the elderly of their homes and property. A young man returns to his village to find out why his beloved grandmother has been accused of killing babies. His investigations uncover an epidemic of land grabs and forced evictions in a society that is powerless in protecting its citizens.
The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia)
The Man Who Sold His Skin, the second feature length film by Kaouther Ben-Hania offers up a striking and provocative angle on immigration and the attendant human rights conflicts. Ben-Hania considers the refugee crisis through the point of view of a Syrian man desperate enough to get to Europe by using his body as a canvas for a controversial Belgian artist. Debuting in the Horizons section at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, The Man Who Sold His Skin is Tunisia's seventh submission with no previous nominations.
The Milkmaid (Nigeria)
Nigeria rebounds gingerly to score its first ever submission in this category after last year's attempt, Lionheart, was disqualified by the Academy for not being quite "foreign" enough. Even though Lionheart has passages of Igbo and Hausa languages, the film was made predominantly in English. Written and directed by Desmond Ovbiagele, The Milkmaid is an ambitious and finely wrought film that traces the human and material cost of the protracted Boko Haram insurgency that has crippled the country's north eastern region. Despite some initial resistance from the country's censor board, The Milkmaid swept the Africa Movie Academy Awards winning five prizes including Best Film.
Nafi's Father (Senegal)
A big winner at the 2019 Locarno Film Festival where it premiered, Mamadou Dia's Nafi's Father is Senegal's third ever submission. Previous entries, Félicité (2017) and Atlantics (2020) made huge impressions within the Academy even though they both failed to go all the way. Intimate and minutely observed, yet epic and ambitious in scope, Nafi's Father is the story of an epic clash between radicalism and moderation, conservatives and liberals in a small town. The human tragedy at the centre lends Nafi'sFather its quiet power.
Night of the Kings (Ivory Coast)
Night of the Kings is Philippe Lacôte's second feature since his 2014 Cannes Un Certain Regard debut, Run, premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival before making stops at Toronto and Sundance. Night of the Kings is a fabulist and utterly beguiling meditation on the power that stories have in shaping outcomes. A young man (newcomer Koné Bakary) spends his first day in La MACA, the infamous Ivorian maximum security prison. He is anointed as the Roman and to avoid death, must entertain his audience as the designated storyteller until the next morning. Ivory Coast is a previous winner in this category having claimed the prize in 1977 with Jean-Jacques Annaud's Black And White In Color.
This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection (Lesotho)
This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection is a powerful meditation on life, death and the power of the human spirit. The film, haunting and poetic, is helmed by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese and tells the story of Mantoa—the late Mary Twala Mhlongo turning in a powerful performance—an 80-year-old widow in the Lesotho highlands fighting to rest peacefully with her ancestors after losing her only son. Lesotho's first ever Oscar submission has been a hit in the festival circuit, playing and picking up prizes at the Venice, Sundance, Rotterdam and Durban film festivals.
Toorbos (South Africa)
Based on the novel by the late Afrikaans author Dalene Matthee, Toorbos, directed by Rene van Rooyen, is a stunning blend of period romance, folklore, and environmental parable. South Africa's Knysna forest region occupies pride of place in this poetic tale of displacement. As far as the International Film category is concerned, South Africa is an Oscar heavyweight and must never be sidelined having won in 2006 with Gavin Hood's Tsotsi and having scored a nomination the previous year with Darrell Roodt's Yesterday. Two other films (Life, Above All and The Wound) have also been previously shortlisted.
The Unknown Saint (Morocco)
Writer-director Alaa Eddine Aljem's debut feature film is a crime comedy caper that debuted at the Cannes Critics Week. The Unknown Saint is an absurdist tale that confronts superstitious beliefs and bad luck head-on. An unnamed criminal, after a stint in jail, returns to the fake grave where he buried his loot years before only to discover that the site has become a shrine to an unknown saint. Morocco has no previous nominations in sixteen attempts but in 2012, Omar Killed Me came close, making the January shortlist.
When We're Born (Egypt)
Egypt has a long history of competing in this category, one that goes back at least 60 years since Youssef Chahine's classic Cairo Station was submitted in 1959. Tamer Ezzat's second narrative feature connects the hopes and dreams of three characters facing difficult decisions: a son who wants to pursue a singing career against his father's will; a Christian woman in love with a Muslim man; and a newly-wed personal trainer who may have to compromise their principles for the chance to own a gym. When We're Born debuted at the El Gouna Film Festival and won prizes at the Malmo Arab Film Festival and Cairo Film Society awards.
You Will Die At Twenty (Sudan)
Amjad Abu Alala's transfixing coming-of-age tale considers the notions of mortality and predestination with the story of a sensitive teenager Muzamil (Mustafa Shehata) who has been doomed to a short life on earth by the prediction of a local Sheikh. Dreamy and delving into magical realism, You Will Die At Twenty is Sudan's first Oscar submission in this category. Alala's debut premiered at the Venice Film Festival and has had quite the run since, playing everywhere from Toronto to Carthage where it won the FIPRESCI prize.
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