We don’t get to see much African cinema here in the U.S. With a continent that, alas, is more often than not presented to us decked out in layers of stereotypes and perceived ideas (and where the fate of one lion generates more American press coverage than the plight of millions of Zimbabweans), it can be enlightening to watch some of Africa’s best artists tell their own stories, as in these five excellent works of African cinema.
Title: Touki Bouki (Senegal, 1973).
Plot: Eschewing the didacticism present in so many African films, director Djibril Diop Mambéty brings the freewheeling spirit of the French New Wave to bear on Touki Bouki, a stylish and exhilarating take on some very serious subjects. When exuberant young man Mory falls in love with Anta, a student in Dakar, they pursue various schemes to earn enough money to immigrate to France. But is Paris worth the price? And is the lure of the former colonial power stronger than the bonds that tie Mory and Anta to their home country of Senegal?
Historical context: Touki Bouki, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s first feature film, arrived on the scene at a critical time for Senegal and for Africa. Following the hope and excitement that attended independence in the late '50 and early '60s, African countries increasingly found themselves confronted with the cruel realities of neocolonialism, a system in which their economies stagnated and remained dependent on their former colonial masters. To this day, Africa is plagued by a so-called “brain drain,” as promising young people like Mory and Anta seek out better opportunities abroad, often in the land of the colonizer. Mambéty is also an exemplar of a sad reality faced by African filmmakers: a lack of funding. He would only complete one more feature film, 1993’s Hyenas, although he succeeded in making a number of beautifully crafted short films.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu.
Title: Faat Kiné (Senegal, 2000).
Plot: In this late career gem from “Father of African Cinema” Ousmane Sembène, he explores a number of the issues facing Senegal, and Africa more broadly, at the turn of the new millennium (which is to say, some 30 years after Touki Bouki). Our heroine is the titular Faat Kiné, an independent businesswoman and single mother (the fathers of her two children both left her in the lurch). In the slice of her life on display in this film, we see her charting a course for herself in a male-dominated society still struggling with the legacy of colonialism.
Historical context: Ousmane Sembène made what was arguably the first African feature film, 1966’s La Noire de… (known in English by the less subtle title Black Girl). It contains the themes that would occupy him for the rest of his cinematic (and parallel literary) career: feminism, emigration, and the economic and psychic scars inflicted by colonialism. His next film, Mandabi (1968), was shot entirely in the Wolof language, and was the first feature ever to be made in an African language. In a career spanning 40 years, Oismane made eight features, which is quite a feat on a continent where even the most respected filmmakers struggle for years to secure funding for their films.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: A Screaming Man (Chad, 2010).
Plot: In a seemingly simple story reminiscent of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic The Last Laugh (1924), Mahamat Saleh Haroun presents us with Adam and Abdel, father-and-son pool attendants at a posh Chadian hotel popular with foreigners. It is a respectable job that Adam takes pride in. However, when the hotel’s owners question whether having two pool attendants is really economical, Adam is demoted to gatekeeper. If only there were some way to get his son out of the picture! As it so happens, Chad is in the grips of civil war, and Adam has a friend who is eagerly recruiting young men for the army…
Historical context: Since achieving independence from France in 1960, Chad has been plagued by chronic political instability and civil wars fought along regional and religious lines. One of the things that is especially striking about this film is that director Mahamat Saleh Haroun keeps his focus firmly on the individual drama at the heart of the story. The civil war draws our attention only to the extent that it effects Adam and his family. We receive virtually no political and strategic context for the conflict raging in the background, which makes it appear just as senseless as it probably is.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon, Fandor.
Title: Grey Matter (Rwanda, 2011).
Plot: This metafictional tour-de-force follows three stories of post-genocide Rwanda. In the first, Balthazar, a young filmmaker, tries to secure funding for a film about the genocide, but the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Culture (who control the purse strings) would much rather he make a film about water access or the prevention of HIV. You know, something less provocative. The next two vignettes, which constitute the film Balthazar was working on, focus, respectively, on a paranoid génocidaire and a traumatized brother and sister who are the only survivors of their family. These modernistic films-within-films present a vivid picture of how individuals and nations carry on living in the wake of appalling horror.
Historical context: In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide that killed between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people, international filmmakers have tried to come to grips with the subject with varying degrees of success. There were English-language films like Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April, which tried to lighten the horror with inspiring tales of Hutu heroes saving their Tutsi neighbors. There was 2007’s Munyurangabo, the first feature film to be made in the Kinyarwanda language (although it was still directed by an American). But it is only with Grey Matter, Rwandan auteur Kivu Ruhorahoza’s début feature, that a Rwandan filmmaker has emerged from his country’s small but growing film infrastructure to tell the story of his people’s national calamity.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon, Fandor.
Title: Timbuktu (Mauritania, 2014).
Plot: In 2012, the Islamist group Ansar Dine overran northern Mali, capturing the classical university city of Timbuktu and imposing its own draconian interpretation of Islamic law on the town’s inhabitants. Following several different plot strands, Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako shows us the fate of the townspeople — scholars, musicians, people just trying to pursue a normal life — under the yoke of a multinational band of would-be jihadists who know little about Islam and can barely communicate with each other (if this film has any comic relief, it’s the scene where an Islamist tells his deputy to “just speak English,” because he can’t understand his Arabic).
Historical context: In 2011, when Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi was faced with a revolution, he called on the various ethnic separatist groups that he’d supported throughout the region to come to his aid. Touaregs from northern Mali heeded the call and, when Gadhafi was defeated, returned to their homeland, now well-armed with Gadhafi’s arsenal, to stage an uprising and establish a Touareg state. Their movement was rapidly co-opted, however, by the Islamists of Ansar Dine, who sought to impose their version of sharia on all of Mali. A French military intervention drove them out of the cities they’d taken, but they left a trail of destruction in their wake (they destroyed shrines and classical manuscripts in Timbuktu which they considered to be “un-Islamic”). It’s this disaster for the people of Timbuktu that Abderrahmane Sissako, one of the most esteemed African filmmakers working today, so sensitively explores in this French-Mauritanian coproduction.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.