To be sure, 2013 has been quite a year for film, with plenty of great stuff to choose from. In terms of African cinema, this has been a particularly impressive time for short films, making it hard to choose just two to include on this list. I’m sure there are plenty of films that didn’t make the list that should have, so feel free to leave your own choices for best films of the year in the comments section.
1. 12 Years a Slave
Though it’s not strictly an African film, I would be remiss not to include Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave on this list. For me in 2013, there was 12 Years a Slave and then there was everything else. It has certainly been the topic of a disproportionate number of conversations here at Africa is a Country. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, the film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York, who is tricked into accompanying two men down to Washington DC, where they eventually kidnap and sell him into slavery. He spends 12 years in bondage on a number of plantations in Louisiana before he is finally released. The film features some truly outstanding performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey), and Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps).
12 Years a Slave is as much of an experience as it is a film and it is unquestionably difficult to watch. But it is an incredible film that for the first time manages to shake off many of those injurious racial tropes and character archetypes that have unfortunately become an integral part of the Hollywood and Western canons. It also deserves to be on this list for the kinds of responses and conversations it has elicited. In many ways, the varied responses to 12 Years a Slave are quite telling and reveal a tremendous amount about sentiments around race, history, and the present contained within our society.
2. Mother of George
Andre Dosunmu’s Mother of George is a film that has featured prominently on this site over the past year (see here, here, and here) and for good reason. With some mind-blowing cinematography and stunning colors and costumes, it tells the story of a young Nigerian woman who comes to Brooklyn to get married to a Nigerian restaurant-owner and the lengths she is willing to go to conceive and appease her husband’s family. Though the film had some major shortcomings, it still belongs on this list.
3. Le Président
Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s mockumentary, Le Président, is banned in Cameroon. It follows the investigation by local journalist, Jo Woo’du, of the disappearance of a not-so-fictional president (clearly a stand-in for Cameroon’s president-for-life, Paul Biya). See Megan Eardley’s interview with Bekolo here.
Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s latest film (still from the film above) follows a young man with a bum leg named Grisgris who dreams of one day becoming a dancer. To pay for his critically ill stepfather’s hospital bill, Grisgris gets involved in an illegal gasoline-smuggling ring, but quickly gets himself into trouble when his bosses realize he has been pocketing much of the profits. Other films by Haroun include A Screaming Man, Daratt (Dry Season), and Bye Bye Africa.
5. Incarcerated Knowledge
The documentary was made by AIAC’s very own Dylan Valley. It follows Peter upon his release from one of South Africa’s most notorious prisons (Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town) as he attempts to rejoin the world and pursue his passion for hip-hop. Dylan Valley is also the filmmaker behind the great South African hip-hop documentary, Afrikaaps.
6. Kwaku Ananse
This short film from the lovely and amazing young Ghanaian filmmaker, Akosua Adoma Owusu, tells the story of a “young outsider named Nyan Kronhwea [who] attends her estranged father’s funeral. Overwhelmed at the procession, Nyan retreats to the spirit world in search for her father.” It features the legendary Palm Wine/Highlife musician and scholar, Koo Nimo. You might also remember Owusu from her recent and successful ‘Damn the Man, Save the Rex‘ Kickstarter campaign.
7. The Square (Al-Midan)
This documentary from Jehane Noujaim follows the incomplete Egyptian Revolution from its beginnings in Tahrir Square. It provides a surprisingly intimate look into the lives and work of some of the most prominent young figures on the ground in Tahrir Square and drivers of the revolution, more generally.
This short film from Kibwe Tavares is a visually stunning exploration of the effects tourism, globalization, and commercialization. It tells of the discovery of a giant fish by two young men on Zanzibar and the resulting boon for the island’s tourism industry. Read more here and check out the full film below:
9. Under the Starry Sky
As if her subtle, low-key voice belonged to a seasoned veteran, Dyana Gaye uses her debut feature to explore the structures and injustices of global migration on the most human of levels. Three intertwined stories, ambitiously spread from Dakar to Turin to New York City, tell compellingly of hope and love as much as estrangement and exploitation, and the moral choices people are forced to make in the face of brutal worldwide inequalities. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a trailer on line, so below is a brief interview with director, Dyana Gaye. (Johan Palme)
10. Of Good Report
Scandalously banned by South African film censors on the eve of its star turn as the opening film of the Durban international film festival, and then freed again less than a week later, it appears the news stories and debates have overshadowed the film itself. Which is an enormous pity: Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s arthouse serial killer flick Of Good Report is as stylish as it is disturbing, its surrealist symbolism and beautifully cross-cut, gutwrenchingly emotional montages veering just on the right side of genius over pretentiousness. We’ve discussed the film and the politics of its banning here and here. (Johan Palme)
Bonus: Bheki Mseleku – The Last Rehearsal
This short piece consists of footage from what would turn out to be South African Jazz musician and composer, Bheki Mseleku’s last rehearsal before his death in 2008.