20 best African films – ranked!

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As the United Kingdom’s leading African film festivals showcase the past decade’s classics online, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian (UK) picked 20 great landmarks from the continent’s dazzling movie-making history.

  1. Abouna (2002)

Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, a film-maker from Chad, has been widely praised for features such as Daratt and his recent excellent “A Season in France”. But, for me, his great film is “Abouna”, a classic of African cinema: rich in understated humanity, a film about love and loss, imbued with profound tenderness towards children and childhood. It crams the extraordinarily dramatic events in the lives of two young boys into just 81 minutes, while always maintaining its unhurried narrative. It never harasses or hectors its audience; the performances are calm and deeply felt, and so is the way they are shaped and photographed. Two brothers, aged 15 and eight, are haunted by the disappearance of their father, who has deserted the family home. (We see this man only once, in a sequence at the film’s beginning, wandering across a wilderness.) In sad, but witty, sequences the film shows us the boys’ forlorn attempt to find their father (at the cinema, the younger boy is convinced he can see him on screen and shouts: “Dad it’s me!”). Their mother is not helpful when they ask what has become of their dad, replying only that he is “irresponsible”, a term that baffles them. Finally, the boys are sent away to religious school and one meets a girl, a late-flowering love story that deepens and complicates their own relationship as one boy is to leave the world of childhood much sooner than his lonely brother. There is such poignancy and tenderness in this film.

  1. Touki Bouki (1973)

Two years ago, Beyoncé and Jay-Z did their bit to revive the memory of one of African cinema’s occult jewels, thought to be the first experimental film from Africa. Jay-Z posed on a motorbike with a big pair of zebu horns on the handlebars and Beyoncé sat behind him. It was a reference to a central image in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s “Touki Bouki”: the two glamorous scofflaws and rebels of Senegal on a bike – like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in in the 1960 version of “Breathless” or Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde”. Mory and Anta are a young couple deeply disenchanted with their Senegalese homeland, who dream of escaping to Europe. They need money fast and the only way to get it is crime: stealing, fraud, prostitution or burglary. The movie ricochets and pinballs around from scene to scene and idea to idea, with a loose, rangy vitality, but when it comes to the crunch, it seems that only Anta has the passionate need to escape Senegal; Mory is weirdly constrained by ties of loyalty to the place, as if only Senegal will allow his machismo to flourish, although his motorbike comes symbolically to grief. The subversive energy of “Touki Bouki” made Mambéty a one-man African New Wave.

  1. La Noire de … (1966)

The Senegalese writer and director Ousmane Sembène is often described as the “father of African cinema” and this was his debut movie. A brief feature based on one of his own short stories, it is a tale of sexual politics and the cultural norms of empire. The film stars the Senegalese actor Mbissine Thérèse Diop as Diouana, a young woman from Dakar who comes to work as a nanny in the south of France, which turns out to be far from the leisured paradise she had hoped for. She is kept as a servant, never let out of the house and is sexually harassed by her employers and their guests. Her ordeal is intercut with her previous life in Senegal, which is hardly happy in comparison. Sembène’s film grasped the nature of empire and servitude: big themes coupled with a strong intimate storytelling style. Diop recently came out of retirement to play a community elder in “Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties”.

  1. Cairo Station (1958)

All human life is here: the phrase really does apply to Youssef Chahine’s tragicomic masterpiece. Cairo Station is the venue for a blazingly passionate drama about Qinawi, a lame newspaper vendor, played by Chahine himself, and his unrequited desire for Hanuma, the Bardot-ish lemonade seller. Chahine conducts his big cast with uproarious energy, immediacy and freshness; he has tremendous stylised set pieces, including a railway-carriage rock’n’roll number performed by a group gloriously credited as Mike and his Skyrockets. As Qinawi’s love becomes more obsessive, the mood darkens and elements of Hitchcock and Powell creep in. Finally, “Cairo Station” virtually attains the air of a tragedy, observing classical unities of time and place. My favourite moment is the shot that Chahine contrives after Qinawi is convinced of the need for violent action: we immediately cut to an extraordinary selection of fearsome knives, big and small, hanging up in what appears to be an elaborate and preposterous outdoor knife shop. “Can I help you?” asks an assistant, directly to camera, clearly addressing the seething would-be assassin. It is a beautiful, deadpan, black comic touch.

  1. I Am Not a Witch (2017)

Zambian-born director Rungano Nyoni has created a film that is technically British, but sports with ideas and tropes that have long been present in African cinema: the innocence of the child and the pain of the ostracised outsider. She brings to it her own distinctive subversion and comedy, which makes “I Am Not a Witch” irresistible. (Nyoni was brought up in Wales, and it is interesting to wonder if her title had echoes of Connie Booth’s baffled proclamation of innocence during the witch-trial scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.) Shula is a Zambian orphan who is bizarrely accused by her townspeople of being a witch; she is exiled, but then brought under the wing of the unspeakable Mr Banda, a slippery public official who has a very strange side hustle. He runs a “witch camp” into which Shula is briskly enrolled: all her classmates are elderly women. Hogwarts it ain’t. But soon Shula is pressed into service, going on talkshows, helping the police with her magic powers and assisting the farming community by miraculously bringing rain to the region. It’s a lovely jeu d’ésprit.

  1. Atlantique (2019)
  2. District 9 (2009)
  3. Waiting for Happiness (2002)
  4. The Battle of Algiers (1966)
  5. The Season of Men (2000)
  6. Yeelen (1987)
  7. Yaaba (1989)
  8. Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975)
  9. Of Good Report (2013)
  10. Skoonheid (Beauty) (2011)
  11. The Wedding Party (2016)
  12. Letter from My Village (1976)
  13. Divine Carcass (1988)
  14. The Nightingale’s Prayer (1959)
  15. Borders (2017)

The original article can be accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/oct/01/20-best-african-films-ranked

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