Photo Credit: Screengrab from Lingui: Les Liens Sacrés

The Best African Films of 2021

From an Egyptian film about women empowerment to an imagination of quintessential Nigerian folktales, here are the best African films released in 2021.

We are going into year three of the coronavirus pandemic. And only recently has the film business regained a sense of normalcy. Physical film festivals are back within and outside the continent. While productions have seen a headway, with prominent filmmakers continuously teasing about their projects for next year.

Despite the challenges of the last couple of years, it was a good year for filmmakers throughout the continent. This year’s list of the best movies of 2021 consists of seven brilliant films from various parts of Africa, most of which explore everyday life and how certain factors knowingly or unknowingly are at play. Most excitingly is the fact that there are a few new directors on the list, serving fresh perspectives around some of the most pressing issues. (There are also quite a few veteran directors — used to wearing big pants on the set of a film project — on our list.)

From an Egyptian film about women empowerment to an imagination of quintessential Nigerian folktales, here are the best African films released in 2021.

Feathers (Egypt)

Feathers is a slow-paced story of a downtrodden housewife who has to take on the role of breadwinner (in addition to her other roles) when her good-for-nothing husband is irreversibly turned into a chicken at their child’s birthday party. The movie offers a look at the very evident subjugation and marginalization of women.

Omar El Zohairy’s black comedy debut has gathered its fair share of press since its release to the public. It has gained recognition from various film festivals all over the world including Cannes, Carthage, and El Gouna. It has also received backlash mostly by Egyptians due to the representation of the country and its people in the film.

Juju Stories (Nigeria)

Juju Stories is a three-part feature film exploring supernatural themes based on urban legends in Nigerian superstition. Directed by a trio popularly known as the Surreal16 Collective, each film re-imagines a popular aspect of Nigerian folklore and tells a unique story. In "Yam," there are repercussions when a street urchin picks up random money from the roadside. "Love Potion," on the other hand, is about an unmarried woman who uses juju to find herself an ideal mate. While "Suffer the Witch" is a tale of love and friendship morphed into obsession.

​The Gravedigger’s Wife (Somalia)​

The Gravedigger's Wife has a lot of firsts going for it. It is director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s debut and also the first Somali film to be entered for the Best International Feature Film at the Oscars. The film — which looks at Guled.(Omar Abdi), a gravedigger in Djibouti who struggles to raise money when his wife, Nasra (Yasmin Warsame), becomes ill with a terminal disease — made its grand appearance at Cannes and, like most films on this list, has traveled through the festival circuit. It also won the highly coveted Étalon de Yennenga at the 2021 edition of FESPACO.

Freda (Haiti)

For Freda (Nehemie Bastien) and her family every day is a fight to escape the cards they have been dealt. The film explores their desperate hope for a better life. The big question for them is whether this better life includes their hometown or not, especially with the state of affairs. Freda is a celebration of doggedness, and allows us to take a look at Haiti today through the multi-faceted characters.

The film has traveled across festivals including Cannes and FESPACO. It was also selected as the Haitian entry for the Best International Feature at the 94th Academy Awards.

A Tale Of Love and Desire (Tunisia)

Leyla Bouzid’s second feature follows Ahmed (Sami Outalbali), a young French-Algerian man in Paris who meets Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor), a Tunisian girl. It is the classic boy-meet-girl story, only that this time around, it plays around with very interesting themes of identity and sexuality. Like most coming of age stories, this film dances around some very existent tropes. Nonetheless, it is very warm and has its way of drawing you in with rapt attention to Ahmed and Farah’s love story.

Casablanca Beats (Morocco)

There’s something beautiful about freedom and breaking the odds. And director Nabil Ayouch knows about these things maybe a little too well. His latest, Haut et Fort (or Casablanca Beats) is Morocco’s entry for the International Feature Film at the Oscars and tells a personal story about his life growing up in a suburb in Paris.

In this musical drama, former rapper Anas Basbousi takes a job at a cultural center in a working-class neighborhood in Casablanca. His job entails dealing with students, most of whom already are bound by religion, tradition, and more to follow the status quo. Annas' job is to help them live their passion and break odds through hip-hop.

Lingui: Les Liens Sacrés (Chad)

Mahamet Saleh Haroun’s Lingui tells the story of Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), a Muslim woman who lives with her 15-year-old daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio). When she realizes that Maria is pregnant and wants to abort the child, they face an impossible situation in a country where abortion is legally and morally condemned.

Lingui, which is the Chadian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the Oscars, shines a bright light on the patriarchal laws in Chad. It shows the importance of community and how powerful the connections that women form.

Photo: Neptune Frost

The African Filmmakers Who'll Be Part Of Sundance 2022

The festival returns with both in-person and online events in January next year.

The Sundance Film Festival remains one of North America's most coveted places to premiere a film. Over the years, it’s been a place where a handful of African filmmakers and stories have also found a welcome reception. Before she made her Cannes-debuting second film Rafiki, Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu premiered her sci-fi short film, Pumzi, at Sundance in 2010, while the South-African-set Searching for Sugar Man won the Audience Prize in 2012, and in 2017, The Wound (Inexeba) starring singer Nakhane started its journey there too.

This year, 82 features representing 28 countries will premiere at Sundance, with 15 New Frontier projects too. The offerings from African filmmakers, however, are quite slim. Still, they represent a coup for the filmmakers involved.

Some of the most highly anticipated films of the coming year make up Sundance’s slate of world premieres. Included in this showcase is South African director Oliver HermanusLiving. Adapted from the 1952 Japanese film Ikiru, directed by the great Japanese auteur, Akira Kurosawa, Living is set in London and stars Bill Nighy as a civil servant facing a fatal illness. It also stars Alex Sharp (The Trial of the Chicago Seven) and Tom Burke (Mank), with Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell taking care of the costumes.

Sharing the news on Facebook, Hermanus said: "We’re going to Park City to premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and we’re in really great company! Mad proud of team LIVING."

Hermanus, who has found great success at international film festivals in the past – Skoonheid won the Queer Palm in Cannes in 2011 – has also lined up Josh O’Connor (The Crown) and Paul Mescal (Normal People) to star in his next feature, a WWI love story titled The History Of Sound, while his most recent film Moffie opened in the US and France earlier this year.

Nigerian-American director Adamma Ebo’s Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul, will also premiere at Sundance. Ebo worked on the film as a Screenwriters Fellow at the Sundance Institute in 2019. Co-produced by Daniel Kaluuya and Ebo’s twin sister, Adanne, the film stars Regina Hall as the first lady of a Southern Baptist megachurch who attempts to help her pastor husband, played by Sterling K. Brown, rebuild their congregation.

In the Short Film program, Nigerian filmmaker Olive Nwosu will share Egúngún (Masquerade) which she also wrote, and it tells the story of a young woman, in search of healing, who returns home to her birthplace, Lagos. Malian director Moïse Togo brings his non-fiction short film about albinism, titled $75,000, to Sundance, while multidisciplinary artist Elijah Ndoumbe will debut the South African short, Prayers for Sweet Waters, about the worlds of three transgender sex workers living in Cape Town during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Rwandan actress and playwright Anisia Uzeyman’s collaboration with Saul Williams, Neptune Frost, is part of Sundance's Spotlight section, a tribute to the films it loved from the past year. Neptune Frost, which has been described by one critic as an “Afrofuturist musical,” and counts Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kara Walker among its producers, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.

The Sundance Film Festival returns to Park City, Utah from January the 20th to 30th, 2022.

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