In creating a list like this so many factors have to be taken into account, not least whether or not it should actually exist. Africa has long been oversimplified as a monolith, taking little account of the myriad experiences, cultures and languages on the continent. It could be argued that by placing all African cinema under the same umbrella this list is propagating that over-simplification. However, almost all of the borders within Africa are colonial constructs, and pan-Africanism is a heartfelt movement that seeks to strengthen each country through solidarity.
In 2021, UK cinemas saw a new release of Mandabi (1968), the landmark film from Senegalese trailblazer Ousmane Sembène. Said to be the first Black African to make a film (1963’s Borom Sarret) and the first to make an internationally acclaimed feature (1966’s Black Girl), Sembène was himself a great proponent of pan-Africanism, who strived to create a uniquely African language of film. This list celebrates that legacy, featuring films made by Africans for Africans, spread across the nearly 60 years since Sembène picked up a film camera, and looking to every corner of the continent.
Outside of the major industries in Egypt and Nigeria, the struggle for African filmmakers is two-fold, both in the challenges in getting their films financed and made, and in having their work acknowledged on a world stage. Despite that, extraordinary work has been accomplished, the results of a continent filled with talent and brimming with stories. The 10 films below offer some first steps for beginners.
Director: Ousmane Sembène
Sembène’s second feature, following his groundbreaking debut Black Girl, sees the ‘father of African film’ firing on all cylinders. Adapted from his own novella of the same name, this funny, trenchant, tragic satire was the first African film to be made in colour and the first in an indigenous African language (Wolof).
Mandabi tells the story of Ibrahima Dieng (Makhouredia Gueye), an unemployed man living on the outskirts of Dakar. He receives a money order from his nephew in France, who has sent over 25,000 francs (a couple of hundred pounds in modern money) hard-earned sweeping the cold Parisian streets. At first, Dieng and his family are rapturous at the news, but he slowly realises that it has entrapped him in a nightmare of surreal bureaucracy, debt and a cruel colonial legacy. With this milestone release, Sembène created a film to galvanise and speak directly to Africa’s underserved working class.
The Land (1969)
Director: Youssef Chahine
There’s a tendency to afford a director just a single masterpiece. For Youssef Chahine, the most internationally celebrated director from the massive Egyptian national industry, common wisdom has it that that film is his 1958 neorealist drama Cairo Station. It’s an undoubtedly exciting piece of work, yet his later film The Land surpasses it in scope and ambition. Set in rural Egypt in the 1930s, Chahine’s film centres on a dispute between farmers and their landlord when a planned railway line threatens to disrupt their community.
The Land’s breadth is incredible, giving each of the relationships between the villagers their own weight, while tackling themes of nationalism and corruption. As with all his films, The Land is also beautiful to behold: Chahine fills each frame with painterly depth, colour and care. The director’s own progressive politics are to the fore, but his warm, apolitical empathy for each of his characters enriches every scene.
A season of Youssef Chahine films plays at BFI Southbank in July 2023, with a selection also available on BFI Player from 3 July.
Soleil O (1970)
Director: Med Hondo
Med Hondo’s audacious debut starts with a bang, with an animated spectacle telling the history of colonial subjugation from the point of view of the African. We then turn to our protagonist (Robert Liensol), a Mauritanian recently arrived in Paris, lost and searching for an address in Marseille. He hopes to find work as an accountant, but has his ambitions slowly crushed.
Filmed over four years, Soleil O highlights the absurdity of colonial attitudes while laying bare their cruelty. Hondo weaves an inventive stylistic tapestry around his narrative, incorporating faux documentary, animation and slapstick. The results played to great acclaim in International Critics’ week at the 1970 Cannes Film festival and would win Locarno’s Golden Leopard. Grappling with colonialism, racism and identity, this key African film of the early 1970s may have timeless themes, but it’s quite unlike anything that came before or since.
- Soleil O is currently on The Criterion Channel (US)
Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975)
Director: Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina
Few terms are misused more in describing films than ‘epic’, but it would certainly apply to Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina’s 177-minute film about Algeria’s path to independence. The first African winner of the Palme d’Or starts with the conscription of a poor Algerian man to the French army during the Second World War, which later radicalises him to free his country from colonialism in the Algerian war of independence.
The scope of this film is vast, both in the more than two decades of Algerian history it covers and the thematic complexity of what it truly means to break free of the colonial yoke. The debate and battle sequences are extraordinarily realised. Lakhdar-Hamina approaches Algeria’s martyrs with biblical intensity, both celebrating their bravery and preserving their dignity.
- Chronicle of the Years of Fire was restored in 4K digital by The Film Foundation in 2018
Director: Souleymane Cissé
Where so much of this list in some form deals with the legacy of colonialism, Yeelen is set long before Europe’s scramble for Africa began. Based on a Bambara myth that emerged from the Mali Empire around the 13th century, Souleymane Cissé’s film proceeds at a languid pace, but conjures pure visual poetry.
Soma’s father Nianankoro wants him dead, having prophesied that Soma will one day kill him. With his mother’s help, Soma flees and embarks on a magical odyssey of self-discovery across dusty savanna and rocky clifftops, all the while pursued by his murderous father. Yeleen won a jury prize at Cannes, universal acclaim and received previously unprecedented international distribution. Much like Sembéne before him, Cissé succeeded in making a pan-African work by developing a distinctly African cinematic language.
- Yeelen is currently on DVD
Director: Mahamat Saleh Haroun
Sometimes the most power comes from the smallest moments in simple narratives, and this is certainly true of Chadian director Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s second feature, Abouna. A gentle connection with a grasshopper or the passing of a football in the street have tragic resonance without the need for melodrama.
Abouna (‘Our Father’) focuses on two young brothers (Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa and Hamza Moctar Aguid) who, in the disquieting opening scene, are abandoned by their father. The subsequent fallout has so much more to it than most ‘coming of age’ tales, with Haroun giving us almost unbearable intimacy with his devastated subjects. The film follows both their attempt to find their absent dad and their subsequent banishment by their mother to a strict Islamic school. At all times Haroun’s poetic film gently alludes to widespread disillusionment of Chad’s young population. This film’s elegance and quiet confidence are hypnotic and heartbreaking.
- Abouna is currently on Mubi
Director: Gavin Hood
Perhaps the most conventional film on this list, the Oscar-winning Tsotsi manages to feel authentically South African even though the influences of Boyz n the Hood (1991) and City of God (2002) are clear. It’s a striking evolution of a street-gang narrative where, in this case, a young man, Tsotsi (South African slang for thug), and his group of friends live in abject poverty in the Soweto township. The path of getting in over your head followed by tentative steps towards redemption is a well-travelled narrative, but Tsotsi breathes new life into it, with a phenomenal central performance from Presley Chweneyagae that brings authenticity and gravitas to the film.
Gavin Hood’s film stops short of sentimentalising poverty and each of Tsotsi’s misdeeds are albatrosses around his neck. In a cruel twist of fate, he’s forced to take care of one of his victim’s babies, which burdens him with taking pause, awakening a suppressed conscience. The lingering feeling of hope as the credits roll is a well-earned testimony to Hood’s direction and South Africa’s wealth of stories.
- Tsotsi is currently on DVD
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
When we think of ‘jihad’ in cinema it’s largely tied up with depictions of blood-thirsty Muslims versus symbols of American exceptionalism. Rarely, as in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, is the reality of jihadism examined: the absurdity and cruelty of enforcing a new set of standards on a group of people.
The acclaimed Mauritania-born director’s account of a jihadist occupation is a mesmerising and extraordinarily beautiful tragedy. Through crimes – both real and imagined – and their consequences, Sissako looks at the human cost rather than the political implications. The new rulers of Timbuktu – during the city’s brief occupation by Islamists in 2012 – are hypocrites barely able to communicate with one another, let alone create a comprehensive structure of law on a group of already devout Muslims. The farcical question of whether one can play football with an imaginary ball or sing if it’s praising Allah makes the casually enforced capital punishments all the more horrifying. With Timbuktu, Sissako made one of the most poignant tragedies of the 21st century and confirmed himself as one of modern cinema’s great directors.
- Timbuktu is currently on BFI Player
I Am Not a Witch (2017)
Director: Rungano Nyoni
The Africanness of this film could be debated. In many respects, it’s a British production – indeed it was the UK’s entry for the 2017 best foreign language film Oscar. But the local specificity of Zambian-Welsh writer-director Rungano Nyoni’s debut feature is undeniable. Inspired by real-life incidents of witchcraft in Zambia, where she grew up, Nyoni brings a kinetic musicality to this tragic tale of a little girl labelled a witch and sent to work in a labour camp.
The young actress Margaret Mulubwa is eerie and captivating as the unnamed girl eventually labelled ‘Shula’, silently radiating both her past and present trauma. Nyoni is able to play up both the tragedy and the absurdity of her situation with incredible vibrancy, while never undermining either. Visually, the film is a kaleidoscope of colour and movement that makes each moment of stillness resting on Mulubwa’s face all the more powerful. Mulubwa, in her first acting role, created one of modern African cinema’s most compelling protagonists.
- I Am Not a Witch is currently on BFI Player
Director: Mati Diop
Mati Diop’s directorial debut made her the first Black woman to compete for the Palme d’Or, a feat that’s as remarkable as it is depressingly recent. Diop, the niece of the legendary Djibril Diop Mambéty who directed comic masterpiece Touki Bouki (1973), brings magical realism to this story of two lovers who are forced apart by poverty. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) boards a boat to head across the Atlantic to seek opportunities in Spain, having not been paid in his Senegalese construction job for many months. His lover Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) has no choice but to marry Omar, who offers the wealth and security that Souleiman couldn’t.
When tragedy strikes, social realism become entangled with mystical vengeance, but with a subtle filmmaking approach that makes even the violence romantically lyrical. It all culminates in a poignant, mournful finale – one that leaves space for optimism about the future both of Diop’s career and of African cinema more widely.
- Atlantics is currently on Netflix
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