If you haven't already seen these 10 exceptional films, consider this list your reminder to add them to your movie queue!
A Screaming Man (Un homme qui crie), Mahamat Saleh-Haroun (Chad/France/Belgium, 2010).
This list could not begin with any other film. Un homme qui crie has been the revelation of the year, sweeping festivals from Cannes to FESPACO, and lauded by the public and critics. As in his previous works, it is an analysis of the father-son relationship and of the violence that has burdened Chad for decades. Unwilling to proffer easy answers to these intractable dilemmas, Saleh-Haroun opts for a series of touching personal and poetic reflections.
Pumzi, Wanuri Kanhiu (Kenya/South Africa/USA, 2009).
A short adaptation of Logan’s Run, Pumzi is proof positive that the special effects on which the science fiction genre typically rely do not require exorbitant budgets: with modest funds, attention to detail, and a thorough mastery of the directorial idiom, Kanhiu has put together one of the most impressive short films of recent years. The film is available on the Focus Features DVD compliation Africa First: Volume 1 as well as online. We also feature Pumzi in our OKA TV piece on Africa First.
The Athlete, Rasselas Lakew and Davey Frankel (Ethiopia/USA, 2009).
Though the replacement of the colonizers’ ideals with symbols of an indigenous character is a necessary step in the (re)construction of Africa’s identities, both at the national and supranational levels, there remains a sad dearth of information about the great figures of African history. It is encouraging, therefore, to see this portrayal of Abebe Bikila, a world-class marathon runner from Ethiopia, which serves as an occasion for reflection on the history of this country through the twentieth century. To the film’s detriment, the authors stray little from the conventions of the typical Hollywood biopic; yet it is to be lauded for its measured narrative and its often beautiful camera work.
Witches of Gambaga, Yaba Badoe (Ghana/UK, 2011).
Remarkable for its lack of sentimentality and its refusal to rush to judgment, Witches of Gambaga exposes the marginalization and violence suffered by women branded as witches by a society that deems them inconvenient. The fruit of five years’ collaboration with women’s rights activists and a community of women condemned to live as witches, this documentary recalls the work of such pioneering female African filmmakers as Safi Faye and Sarah Maldoror in its intimate treatment of its subjects.
Kinshasa Symphony, Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer (Germany, 2010).
Though released in 2010, it was not until a year later that this documentary on central Africa’s sole symphonic orchestra achieved worldwide distribution. Through a focus on the long tradition of Congolese music and its international success, the film examines the lives of a group of citizens in the capital city of Kinshasa. Straightforward, with little pretension to experimentation, it is a worthwhile addition to the growing field of documentaries examining indigenous musical traditions.
Black Venus (Vénus Noire), Abdellatif Kechiche (France, 2010).
After the enticement of his earlier works Cuscus, La faute à Voltaire, and L’esquive, the Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche brings to life the story of the so-called Hottentot Venus, Saartjes Baartman, a South African slave whose anatomical peculiarities were put on display for gawking Europeans at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and marking the film debut of the talented Cuban actress Yashima Torres, Vénus Noire will remain a touchstone in the coming years for the understanding of the traumatic effects of colonialism. It is particularly for its refusal to sugar-coat the extraordinary brutality of its subject matter that Venus Noire merits a place in the present list.
Solo andata, il viaggio di un Tuareg, Fabio Caramaschi (Italia/Niger, 2010).
Representing others with objectivity, as though this were possible, respecting their reality without lapsing into paternalism: these are the challenges that have plagued outsiders’ documentary treatments of Africans since Jean Rouge began filming there more than fifty years ago. In his portrait of the lives of a family of taureg immigrants in Italy, Fabio Caramaschi arrives at a novel solution: passing the camera to one of the children, who interviews the family members in collaboration with the director, he attempts to bridge the distance between author and subject, provoking direct and sincere reflections on the complicated lives of Africans living in the European diaspora.
Restless City, Andrew Dosunmu (USA, 2011).
The story of a young Senegalese immigrant in Brooklyn and the difficulties that arise when a woman enters his life, Restless City is a film of unquestionable quality, even if its conventionality and stylized imagery are at times tedious. The story is pure indie in its realization and perhaps too self-consciously “artistic,” particularly in a reliance on filters that gives away the director’s background in fashion photography. Still, its technical accomplishments are far from negligible and it makes for very pleasant viewing; and the acting, on the part of the photogenic and talented young cast, is magnificent.
Viva Riva! Djo Munga (Democratic Republic of Congo/France/Belgium, 2010).
Far from a formal breakthrough, this film merits recognition nonetheless for having attained a level of international recognition that continues to elude the majority of African productions. A story of love, sex, and violence, it clears a path for African films to be appreciated not only in terms of their artistic and experimental potential, but also for their sheer drawing power in both local and foreign markets. Though its foremost end is entertainment, Viva Riva! faithfully renders aspects of daily life in the Congo with which the average cinemagoer is unacquainted.
Le Havre, Aki Kaursmäki (Finland/France, 2010).
It may seem odd to have a Finnish film rounding out this list; but many aspects of Le Havre, not least of them the director’s far from coincidental naming of one of his protagonists Saleh-Haroun, speak of his sincere engagement with both the themes and the formal advances of contemporary African cinema. It is difficult to imagine a more humane, more sensitive, or more technically accomplished portrait of the conditions of African emigrants in France.