Popwire’s Guide to World Cinema is a quarterly column, where film editor Hidzir Junaini spotlights underseen gems from around the world.
On the second installment of our guide to world cinema, we head over to a continent brimming with rich stories – Africa. Even beyond the major film industries in Egypt and Nigeria, there exists a wide variety of African auteurs doing extraordinary work. From countries as diverse as Chad, Zambia, Mali, and Senegal (among others), we’ll be highlighting 10 acclaimed films that could serve as a beginner’s gateway into the bounty that is African cinema.
Sensual, aching, and unpredictable – this Senegalese ghost love story about the migrant crisis is cinema at its most stunning. Set in Dakar, this 2019 Cannes Film Festival fave follows exploited construction workers who decide to leave the country by the ocean. Caught amidst all this are Suleiman and Ada – doomed lovers separated by the societal barriers of capitalism and tradition. This magic realist mood piece is oblique and elliptical – a mystical dreamscape of haunted romance grounded by political dimensions and internal anguish. Confounding, beautiful and tragic – Atlantics feels like a seductively hypnotic reverie.
Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine directs and stars in his teeming, sharp-eyed populist drama from 1958, which blends a sympathetic view of a wide array of characters, warmhearted glimpses of their private dramas, and audacious social criticism. Cairo Station begins as a diorama of the titular rail hub, where disgruntled porters, newspaper sellers, union organizers and unlicensed soda sellers slog away while dreaming of better lives. One such worker is the beautiful Hanuma, who catches the attention of disabled vendor Kenawi. Mocked and ridiculed by everyone, a humiliated Kenawi begins harboring dangerous fantasies of making Hanuma his. Set in a single location and running only 73 minutes, this economical mix of neorealism and Hitchkocian slasher presents a fascinating look at a newly postcolonial Cairo.
A thoroughly remarkable and disquieting film from Abderrahamane Sissako, Timbuktu is a work of almost breathtaking visual beauty that manages to ravish the heart while dazzling the eye simultaneously. The movie observes the titular Malian city being overrun by ISIS – Islamic fundamentalists who enforce Sharia Law to ban music, soccer and socializing (among other things). Nearby, on the sand dunes outside the city, a cattleman and his family live peacefully, eking out a meager (but happy) existence – unaware that their lives will soon by upended by the jihadists. A poetic and subtle story of terror sprung amidst stark beauty.
An engaging, low-key coming-of-age story from Chadian writer-director Mahamat Saleh Haroun. The film follows young brothers Armine and Tahir who are devastated when their father deserts them. As they frantically search for him all over their small town, the boys get into all sorts of trouble. Exasperated, their mother packs them off to a strict boarding school. While the pair plan their escape, Tahir catches the eye of a mute girl. Rich in understated humanity, Abouna is a tender film about love and loss, imbued with the most profound tenderness towards children. Haroun sketches out the boys’ trauma with delicate strokes, preferring to quietly linger with their situation rather than overdramatizing.
The South African sci-fi masterpiece that made director Neill Blomkamp famous. The film dramatizes aliens arriving on Earth, not to invade or give aid, but, but as refugees from their dying planet. Segregated from humans in an area called District 9, the prawn-like creatures are policed by Multi-National United, a government force that abuses the aliens and forces them to live in appalling conditions. But when a human named Wikus contracts a mysterious alien virus that begins changing his DNA, he quickly becomes the most hunted man in the world, as well as the most valuable – as he is the key to unlocking the secrets of alien technology. This smart, multi-layered and gripping social commentary on the horrors of Apartheid is one of the greatest sci-fi flicks of the 21st century.
Half a century after it was released, Touki Bouki (Wolof for “The Journey of the Hyena”) is now often cited as one of the greatest African films ever made. The story follows Mory and Anta, a non-conformist young couple fed up with the poverty of their homeland and dream of escaping to Europe. Mory devises various criminal schemes to make it work (fraud, theft, prostitution), while Anta has the smarts to put Mory’s plans into action. Like a Bonnie-and-Clyde duo, they zip like outlaws through the streets of Dakar on Mory’s moped, its handlebars emblazoned with zebu horns, desperately seeking some way out of the city. This audaciously experimental fantasy-drama is essential viewing.
Set in the 13th century, a Bambara native named Niankoro is born to the shaman Soma, who fears his offspring’s magical powers. Niankoro flees with his mother and masters his skills while staying ahead of his father’s attempts to track him down. While on a journey to ask his uncle, Djigui Diarra, for advice, Niankoro uses his abilities to help tribal king Rouma Boll defeat a neighboring tribe, thereby earning the king’s friendship. Souleymane Cissé‘s hypnotic 2007 film is a visually spellbinding masterwork of metaphysical realism. Yeelen is a distinctly African film, but because the spiritual struggles depicted here are so familiar and often central to countless religions, its scope and appeal is universal.
Director Haile Gerima ambitiously attempts to put his native country’s tragic recent history into context in Teza, which follows an Ethiopian intellectual through exile in Germany and return to his home village during the turbulent early years of the Marxist regime. Taking place over three decades, this may be modestly-budgeted but it is also handsome, intelligent and watchable. The slow-burning film is brimming with ideas, resulting in a sprawling but never tedious tour throughout modern Ethiopian history, interspersed with meditations on such subjects as personal responsibility, racism and the relationship of the self-exiled to their native lands.
Rungano Nyoni’s debut feature, the story of a girl in Zambia accused of witchcraft, is comic, tragic, and captivatingly beautiful. The girl in question is a quiet orphan named Shula who falls victim to the superstitions of a small village. She’s sent to a witch camp, a place that is part forced labor camp, part old folks’ home, and part tourist attraction. Soon, Shula is being paraded around local courts and TV stations, dispensing divine justice and hawking magical eggs – all for the profit of her keeper. Inspired by the director’s extensive research of real-life witch camps in Zambia and Ghana, I Am Not A Witch is a darkly funny satire of the con-men who prey on lost women and children to profit off the superstitions of others, and the curiosity of tourists.
After working as a babysitter for a French family in Dakar, a young Senegalese woman is invited to come to France as a governess. But in the West she is only “the black girl” for everyone. Deprived of her freedom, her dignity and her identity, she sees only a radical last act of resistance. Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 feature film debut was one of the very first African feature films and is based on a newspaper report about the suicide of an African housemaid. From this, Sembène formed a parable about neo-colonialism and the new slave trade. La noire de… balances emotion and meaning, creating a unique blend of sociopolitical and cultural commentary that morphs into an aching human tragedy.