2011 was a good year for African cinema. In various cinema seats and at home, I’ve been intrigued and moved, horrified and sickened, surprised and hugely entertained by a group of industries that together we call ‘African cinema’ — a sign that what can be expected is anything but stereotypical. In the list below, I’ve chosen films that have expanded what we might think of as ‘African cinema’. Some short films, some documentary, some fiction, some a strange mix of them all.

However, the films I can’t list are perhaps the most powerful ones of the year; those captured on mobile phones and camcorders during critical moments in uprisings, revolutions and elections that have continued to broaden our grasp on the lives and experiences of those whose lives are not yet captured by cinema. This is a new kind of viewing, and one which I think will continue to transform the aesthetic, narratives and distribution of African film in 2012.

(A note for readers: some of these films were released in 2010, but gained theatrical release or wider audiences this year so I’ve included them too. In each case a description of the film is accompanied by its trailer.)

A Screaming Man. Director Mahamat Saleh Haroun. Starring Youssouf Djaoro, Diouc Koma. Chad, 2010, 92 mins
A subtle and masterful story of a father and sons relationship, set against the backdrop of the ongoing civil war in Chad. Filmed around the glittering edges of a hotel swimming pool threatened by the outside world, Haroun’s characteristic wit and tender approach to filming continues his themes of war, fatherhood and family life.

Dirty Laundry. Dir. Stephen Abbott. Starring Bryan van Niekerk, James Ngcobo, Carl Beukes. South Africa, 2011, 16 mins
Roger has a tough time when he shows up to the Wishy Washy at 1am, and begins to separate ‘his whites from his coloreds’. A fantastic short film, a microcosm of the acerbic wit and humor evident in much post-Apartheid cinema.

The Athlete. Dir. Rasselas Lakew and Davey Frankel. Starring Rasselas Lakew. Ethiopia/USA, 2009, 93 mins
Melding breathtaking archival footage with live action, this is the extraordinary story of the triumphs and tragedies of a man considered by many to be the greatest long-distance runner in history: Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila. You can read my post on The Athlete on AIAC here.

Blood in the Mobile. Dir. Frank Piasecki Poulsen. Denmark/DRC, 2010, 82 mins
Are you reading this on your phone? Poulsen’s documentary is engrossing and hard-hitting as it implicates all of us – through our addiction to our mobile phones – in the civil war in eastern Congo. Poulsen sets out to reveal the source of ‘conflict minerals’, which he suspects are used in the world’s largest mobile phone company, Nokia. Corporate inhumanity turns out to be just as terrifying as the heart of civil war, a different devil, which Poulsen shows in this fantastic and brave documentary.

Drexciya. Dir. Akosua Adoma Owusu. US/Ghana, 2011, 12 mins
Drexciya refers to an underwater subcontinent where the unborn children of pregnant African women thrown off slave ships have adapted to breathe underwater. Poetic, eerie and stunning, an experimental short, a portrait of an abandoned Olympic sized swimming pool in Accra, Ghana, set on “The Riviera” – Ghana’s first pleasure beach.

Microphone. Dir. Ahmad Abdalla. Starring Khaled Abol Naga. Egypt, 2010, 120 mins
Released in cinemas in January 2011, nobody in Egypt saw this film, something that Khaled Abol Naga — the lead actor and co-producer of the film — is thrilled about. Instead, Egypt was in revolution. This fantastic film is part fiction, part documentary, a love letter to the underground arts scene in Alexandria. From hip hop rappers to mournful accordion players, graffiti artists and skateboarders, it is a vibrant, funny and brave snapshot of the world of art that happens beneath the radar of an ambivalent police state.

Witches of Gambaga. Dir. Yaba Badoe. Ghana/UK, 2011, 55 mins
A courageous, intimate exposé follows, over the course of five years, the experiences of some women branded as ‘witches’ by their communities, ostracised and condemned to leave their families, to live in ‘Gambaga’. Death determined by way a chicken dies, Badoe’s film tenderly and courageously exposes the moment where belief and ritual cover horror and prejudice.

No More Fear. Dir. Mourad Ben Cheikh. Tunisia, 2011, 72 mins
The first feature-length documentary about the Tunisian revolution, “No More Fear” was selected for a special screening at Cannes this year. The film brings together news footage of the demonstrations with a variety of players in the revolution, providing a diverse picture of the groundswell that rose up to topple the dictatorial regime. It is passionate, raw, and immediate. It shows a revolution pushed forward by the young, who overcame the population’s long-ingrained fear. (Good to watch with Microphone, for an ‘Arab Spring’ night.)

Viva Riva! Dir. Djo Munga. Starring Patsha Bay, Manie Malone, Diplome Amekindra. 2010, 98 min.
I’m including this, not because I thought it was particularly fantastic, but because it was a triumph in the harsh world of theatrical release for an African film. It gained pretty widespread distribution in the UK with Metrodome, and for a Congolese genre piece — a dark noir full of guns, sex and money — it did quite well. It is good, entertaining viewing.

Pumzi. Dir. Wanuri Kahiu. Starring Kudzani Moswela, Nicole Bailey, Chantelle Burger. Kenya 2009, 20 mins
African sci-fi? Yeah. You have to see it. Clever, witty, powerful ideas. A must see if you can get your hands on it.