Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi.
The Best African Films of 2023 So Far
Halfway through the year, African filmmakers have given us plenty of memorable, and award-winning films.
From early January, when Milisuthando Bongela drew rapturous applause at the Sundance Film Festival for her self-titled and heartfelt documentary, to the recent announcement that C.J. Obasi’s Mami Wata was picked up for distribution in the U.K. and U.S., films coming out of the continent have continued to build on what’s become known as African cinema.
Obasi and fellow Nigerian Walé Oyéjidé have been pushing the boundaries of Nigerian film, while up-and-coming filmmakers from Guinea and Sudan have shared little-known stories of their own countries with audiences further afield. There is still half of the year left, but it’s already been a strong one for African movies.
These are OkayAfrica’s picks for the best African films of 2023 so far.
South African director Milisuthando Bongela took 8 years to finish her self-titled documentary, and over the years, she came to allow the film to take its own shape. What started out as a deep dive into the subject of hair ended up becoming a vibrant visual essay into her childhood, and the unique perspective she had growing up in one of the apartheid government’s independent homelands. Complex, poetic and rich in conversation-sparking thoughts, the film has charmed audiences from Sundance to Encounters, where it picked up the Best African Feature award earlier this month.
'The Cemetery of Cinema'
How much is a country’s film culture worth? For Thierno Souleymane Diallo, it is invaluable. He believes wholeheartedly old films deserve to be preserved and archived to ensure history is a living thing that we can both enjoy and learn from. With a large boom mic in his back-pack, Diallo challenges long-held ideas about the birth of African cinema as he ventures back in time, documenting his bare-foot search for a 23-minute-long film made by fellow Guinean Mamadou Touré in 1953. It’s considered to be the true first film made by an African – a few years before Paulin Soumanou Vieyra’s Afrique sur Seine and Ousmane Sembène’s Barom Sarret (The Wagoner). It’s a fascinating, impassioned journey.
It’s been quite the year for C.J. “Fiery” Obasi. His third feature Mami Watawon the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival, and was picked up for distribution in the U.K. and U.S., plus he was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Obasi has been a staple in Nollywood horror, and is now reaping the rewards of his dedication to Nigerian filmmaking with this visually striking, irresistible film — the third of his flourishing career. And while Mami Wata has been making a splash internationally, it will head home in September to play to Nigerian audiences.
Mohamed Kordofani used to be an engineer, but when he switched careers and began pursuing his passion of filmmaking, it opened up his perspective on life in Sudan. His debut film, Goodbye Julia, is a fictional tale set against the backdrop of Sudan’s devastating political unrest in which he explores long-held prejudices and societal discrimination. It is a thrilling tale of a film, gripping as it unfolds, but it also speaks to the deep need for a solution to the country’s multi-layered divisions. Actor John C. Reilly expressed the film's profound impact on him when he, as head of Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard jury, named it the winner of the ‘Freedom Prize.’ It was also the first Sudanese film to be part of the fest’s selection.
'All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White'
Nigerian films have not always been kind in their depiction of queer characters, but a new wave of filmmakers is helping to change that. Babatunde Apalowo’s debut feature All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White is a tender portrait of two men as they experience the early moments of an uncertain relationship. Bowing at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, All The Colours received turns these outdated principles of sexuality on their head. It joins the canon of select films by valiant Nollywood filmmakers, queer and otherwise, bucking against the queerphobic stereotypes rife in older Nollywood flicks. In doing so, it gives audiences a film imbued with the far-reaching value of human empathy.
Belgian Congolese rapper Baloji has directed a number of music videos and short films, but he’s long wanted to try his hand at making a feature film. The resulting Augure (Omen) is a slice of magical realism that explores themes of sorcery and ostracization using his keen eye for detail, over the course of four chapters. After making its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, where it scooped a New Voice Award in the festival’s sidebar program, Baloji took Augure (Omen) to Kinshasa. The Belgian-Dutch-Congolese co-production has been picked up for distribution in North America by Utopia, so it should be widely available soon.
Kenyan filmmaker Angela Wanjiku Wamai’s first feature is an intense watch but it’s carried by a standout performance from Justin Mirichii, who plays a former schoolteacher struggling to reintegrate into society after he’s released from prison. Wamai, who was an editor for other films before she delved into making her own, brings her astute eye for detail to the stark landscape of Shimoni. The film made its U.S. debut earlier this year at the New African Film Festival, where it drew the same kind of acclaim it’s earned at other festivals around the world, including Fespaco, where it won the Bronze Stallion.
'Gangs of Lagos'
As Prime Video’s first original Nigerian film, Gangs Of Lagos was always going to draw a lot of attention ahead of its release. Directed by Jade Osiberu, the gritty, blood-drenched crime drama is not without its shortcomings, but it showcased high-octane performances from the likes of Tobi Bakre, Chike, Adesua Etomi-Wellington, Iyabo Ojo, and Chioma Akpotha. While controversial for its depiction of the Eyo masquerade, Gangs of Lagos elevated the action game in its tale of three childhood friends who rise through the ranks of one of the city’s most violent gangs.
Bravo, Burkina!, which follows two refugees as they settle in Italy, was a highlight at both the Sundance Film Festival and the New African Film Festival, and for good reason. Walé Oyéjidé’s imaginative debut brings together his skills and talents as a musician and designer with his vision for what storytelling can be when it stitches appreciation for art together with a loving attention to humanity. It’s simple, Oyéjidé told OkayAfrica, film is the “best sandbox in which to play.” And while anyone watching Bravo can see that the Nigerian director had fun making this film, together with its costumes and music, he also showcases the evolution of his work as one of Africa’s most exciting creative minds.
'Le Spectre de Boko Haram (The Spectre of Boko Haram)'
Cameroon-born filmmaker Cyrielle Raingou had a difficult time makingThe Spectre of Boko Haram, to the point where she was told by those around her to change the title. She didn’t, and she persevered, doing all it took to get the film into the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), where it went on to win the fest’s coveted Tiger award. The documentary is tenderly-shot and clear-eyed, as it follows a group of children who make their own world, amid the armed conflict that forms the backdrop of their daily lives.
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