The Gravedigger’s Wife
In Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s film, a gravedigger, Guled, who is used to spending his days chasing ambulances and doing odd jobs, since “nobody is dying”, has to race against time to find money for the costly surgery needed to save his wife Nasra from a deadly kidney disease.
The Gravedigger’s Wife belongs with a burgeoning new genre about medical odysseys, in which expensive medical treatment has to be secured for a family member, as in Dieudo Hamadi’s Ladies in Waiting (2010) or Alain Gomis’ Félicité (2017). It’s a luminous film, filled with unexpected glimpses of humour, playfulness and cinematic grace. From the score to the gestures, the tone of voice and the words exchanged, it’s an ode to the radical possibilities of tenderness.
The domestic scenes are particularly endearing, as Guled bathes and feeds a sick Nasra. Alongside Omar Abdi and Yasmin Warsame, child actor Kadar Abdul Aziz Ibrahim, playing their son Mahad, delivers an impressive performance. This is a film animated by an economy of gazes – the caring, attentive and worried gazes of loved ones, but also refusals to look at estranged relatives, as in Guled’s devastating encounter with his mother.
Entirely in Somali, despite pressure from funding agencies, The Gravedigger’s Wife arrives in a moment of renaissance for Somali cinema. We’ve seen films such as Lula Ali Ismaïl’s Dhalinyaro (2017) and Aisha Jama’s short Neefso (2020), but also the return of cinema projections after decades of closure at the National Theatre in Mogadishu, which used to be one of the capitals of African cinema.
A poetic collage in black and white, Faya Dayi gestures at the spell-casting potentialities of cinema in its exploration of khat, an ancestral plant with hallucinatory effects. Khat is ritually chewed by Sufi Muslims, and is now a cash crop economy in the ancient city of Harar and its rural highlands. Disaffected Oromo elders and youths use the plant to find temporary reprieve from everyday life under Ethiopian imperial rule.
Planted, harvested, bundled, chewed, transported or sold, the rhythms of the life cycle of khat haunt the film. Its circularity mirrors the youths’ feelings of entrapment and their perilous attempts at migration. Mostly disembodied voices rise to tell myths, stories and personal experiences around khat, with the voiceover entering the terrain of conjuration. Some chants and utterances remain untranslated. The film’s multiple, unequal modes of address force viewers to relinquish usual ways of understanding.
Jessica Beshir’s debut feature, Faya Dayi confirms what was already obvious in the short Hairat (2016) – her uncanny ability to weave fleeting presences out of light, sound and texture. The distant intimacies she creates through an aesthetic of blur, glimpses and low exposure feel like a manifesto, given how much desires of conquest and possession inform the historical and ongoing relation between blackness and the camera.
Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s Afrofuturistic musical, Neptune Frost, is a cinematic riot. The death of a coltan miner ignites a rebellion that propels his brother Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse) into a community of dreamy hackers who are loosely connected by visions. Soon joined by Neptune (Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo), an intersex runaway, they form a commune in an isolated site made of electronic waste. With its gorgeous score and chants, Neptune’s Frost is a singular, hypnotic experience.
Entirely shot in Burundi with a Rwandan and Burundian cast and crew, it’s a visually exuberant offering, with sets and costumes imbued with a queer cyborg aesthetic. Intricate web-like structures pervade the costume design by Rwandan visual artist Cedric Mizero, from wired mesh face guards to sculptural headsets. While readymade associations between queerness, modernity and the futuristic have long been a double-edged sword, the film excels at probing the ecstatic possibilities of spirits and flesh liberated from the shackles of gender and racial capitalism.
Full of beautiful surfaces, but ambiguous depths, it provides no easy answer, yet suggests a seductive aesthetic for the revolution.
A short film directed by British-Nigerian filmmaker Olive Nwosu, Egungun Masquerade is set in Lagos as well as rural Nigeria. Salewa (played with exceptional presence by Sheila Chiamaka Cuhkwulozie) returns to Nigeria for the burial of her mother, and comes to terms with their complicated relationship and her own queerness. A short and subtle meditation on class, estrangement and grief, it’s also a visual fest, featuring gorgeous costume design by Gift Nwankwo.
Lingui, the Sacred Bonds
In Lingui, the Sacred Bonds, Amina (Achouackh Abakar Soulymane) fights to secure an abortion for her pregnant teen daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil-Alio), while also trying to repair the growing distance and mistrust between them. Another deceptively simple story from prolific Paris-based Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Lingui confirms his ability to fold larger scale predicaments into compassionate family dramas.
The film is most powerful in its exploration of the trials of being a single mother, its careful attunement to women’s labour in urban settings and the ambivalences of the mother-daughter relationship. A story of collective resistance in minor key, Lingui, which means ‘connection’ or ‘bond’ in Chadian Arabic, is an homage to the subterranean webs of often gendered mutual aid making lives possible within oppressive structures. It resonates widely, as questions of reproductive health remain embattled terrains throughout the world.
Juju Stories unfolds into three separate stories, each directed by a different member of the Surreal 16 collective – Michael Omonua, Abba T. Makama and C. J. Fiery Obasi. Juju is the Nigerian term for a vast set of West African spiritual beliefs. The film explores the manifold uses of juju via stories of love potions, people turned into yams after picking money off the streets and witchcraft.
Juju Stories strides across multiple genres – comedy, horror, social drama – using urban folklore to paint a portrait of contemporary Lagos characterised by fast pace, glittering illusions, stark social contrast and their attendant cost on mental health. While uneven, the film finely captures projections of happiness and the weight of desires in an unequal world. Its extensive upcoming release across Africa potentially signals important changes for African arthouse films.