Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Top African Films of All Time

The challenge in making any top films list from a country or region is accessibility to quality works from that specific country/region. The problem of accessibility to quality African films has certainly gotten better over the last two decades but it is still not enough. Many African films (contemporary and classics alike) are out of reach due to lack of proper distribution or a proper quality transfer with adequate English subtitles. Still, this is my attempt at highlighting some of the remarkable African films I have seen over the last few decades.

Note: almost all the films in this list are co-productions but I had to leave out some co-productions due to the source of main production funding. For example, Rungano Nyoni’s stunning I Am Not a Witch would have made this top 10 but it was UK’s entry to the Oscars so it couldn't be included. Jessica Beshir’s hypnotic Faya Dayi is an American-Ethiopian co-production but it appears to be ineligible for inclusion and the same goes for Abou Leila, a personal favourite. The Battle of Algiers is included in my Italian films list.

Top 10 African Films of All Time

1. Touki Bouki (1973, Senegal, Djibril Diop Mambéty)

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s landmark film Touki Bouki gives a good slice into an emerging African nation complete with street shots dripping with poverty, heated arguments at the market, youths looking for jobs and trouble, a young couple dreaming of a better future, corruption and payback lurking around the corner with a club in hand and unflinching slaughter shots. The relaxed lingering shots, mixed with carefully spliced scenes give this movie a surreal feel. In addition, plenty of symbolism in the movie with a cow's capture and slaughter being the most commonly used symbol to echo the mental and physical entrapment of the citizens. An incredible film that was ahead of its time.

2. Soleil Ô (1967, Mauritania/France, Med Hondo)

At its core, Timbuktu is about the centuries old problem of people from one nation/culture using violence/force to impose their ways onto another culture. As the film shows, violent exchanges often results in victims not getting justice and creates a perpetual circle of violent reactions to avenge the violent act. As a result, the film has an an air of inevitability around it.

Even though the film rejects any notion of a happy ending, Sissako has infused his film with plenty of dark satire which results in a few comical scenarios, yet the implications are nothing to laugh at. For example, in one scene, the militants want the local women to cover every part of their body, including wearing gloves on their hands. Yet, as one fish seller points out, she cannot handle the fish if she is wearing gloves. Her protests draw attention to the absurdity of the situation yet similar situations happen everyday where people are killed for not listening to the absurd demands of their invaders. Another such absurd moment happens when the militants forbid the local boys from playing soccer. This results in one of the most beautiful scenes in the film where the kids play soccer without a ball. The kids move around pretending they are passing an invisible ball or taking a shot at goal. This scene is one of the most powerful political protests ever filmed in cinema.

4. Black Girl (1966, Senegal/France, Ousmane Sembene)

Ousmane Sembene’s sharp debut feature is just over an hour long but it packs a punch. The film manages to draw a line between colonialism and post-colonial life and the associated discrimination, racism, prejudice that goes along with it.

5. Moolaade (2004, Senegal co-production, Ousmane Sembene)

Ousmane Sembene's brilliant Moolaade highlights oppression of women by depicting a village’s old practice of female circumcision. Problems arise when a local woman supports the decision of a handful of girls to avoid the ritual. Her defiance leads to a mini revolution which shakes the patriarchal society.

In order to oppress the villagers and regain control, the elders decide that radios should be banned because they are influencing the minds of the people and exposing the villagers to dangerous foreign ideas. So an order is issued to collect all the village radios and burn them. This scene echoes the burning of books depicted in Fahrenheit 411.

6. Atlantics (2019, Senegal/France/Belgium, Mati Diop)

A haunting film that adds a new dimension to examine the reason why people undertake risky journeys across treacherous waters and the emotional impact on those who are left behind.

7. Félicité (2017, Senegal co-production, Alain Gomis)

Alain Gomis’ lovely film gives a pulsating tour of the Congolese capital Kinshasa complete with lively sights and electric sounds. We see the extremes in the city from the poor who are trying to make ends meet to the wealthy. The film is powered by an incredible performance by Véro Tshanda Beya who plays the titular character Félicité. Music is a core part of the film and there are scenes which feature live performances by the Kinshasa Symphonic Orchestra which lends a poetic feel to some of the sequences.

8. This is Not a Burial, it's a Resurrection (2019, Lesotho/South Africa/Italy, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese)

Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese's film is a cinematic wonder, both in form and content. Visually, the film evokes Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela while the topic of a dam and destruction of a village in the name of progress recalls Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life. However, Lemohang’s film has its own unique tone and rhythm enhanced by the setting of the film in landlocked Lesotho.

9. Tilaï / The Law (1990, Burkina Faso co-production, Idrissa Ouedraogo)

The air of inevitability that hovers over Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Tilaï is similar to that in Sissako’s Timbuktu. The reason for the similarity is due to human’s need to maintain their honour and traditions. The film’s alternate title ‘A Question of Honour’ emphasizes that as well. The need to maintain this honour comes at all costs and including killing of family as shown in the film or the taking of one’s life.

10. Yeelen (1987, Mali co-production, Souleymane Cissé)
Souleymane Cissé's Yeelen beautifully depicts an ancient Malian myth about a battle between father and son (Nianankoro). Set in the 13th century Mali Empire, Nianankoro must tackle an entire cult group along with his wizard father while trying to restore his family name. The folk story is peppered with elements of magic and witchcraft in depicting the family battle. Because Nianankoro holds the power of magic, he is equally feared and respected.
Top 10 by Country:

Senegal: 5
Mauritania: 2
Burkina Faso: 1

Lesotho: 1
Mali: 1

Safe to say, Senegal easily wins this.

Honourable mentions (alphabetical order):

Abouna (2002, Chad co-production, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)
Adanggaman (2000, Ivory Coast, Roger Gnoan M’Bala)
Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul (2005, Tunisia co-production, Nacir Kemir)
Cairo Station (1958, Egypt, Youssef Chahine)
Hyenas (1992, Senegal, Djibril Diop Mambéty)
Life on Earth (1998, Mali/Mauritania/France, Abderrahmane Sissako)
Son of Man (2006, South Africa, Mark Dornford-May)
A Summer in La Goulette (1996, Tunisia co-production, Férid Boughedir)
Viva Riva! (2010, The Democratic Republic of Congo co-production, Djo Munga)
Waiting for Happiness (2002, Mauritania/France, Abderrahmane Sissako)

Top 20 by Country:

Senegal: 6
Mauritania: 4
Tunisia: 2
Burkina Faso: 1
Chad: 1
Democratic Republic of Congo: 1
Egypt: 1
Ivory Coast: 1
Lesotho: 1 
Mali: 1 
South Africa: 1

Senegal holds on for most titles per country. Mauritania finishes close courtesy of 3 titles by Abderrahmane Sissako.

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