Styles and Genres

The best films of 2012 with African subjects as their focus: incredibly powerful and moving activist filmmaking that has documented the shifting politics of the continent.

A still from "Nairobi Half Life."

I has been an explosive year of African cinema; from the astronomic rise of interest in African sci-fi (forgive the pun), to big-budget films getting the well-deserved attention of the European distribution market, incredibly powerful and moving activist filmmaking that has documented the shifting politics of the continent, to the wild and wonderful experimenters. Here, I’ve tried to honor a range of filmmaking styles and genres, all of which blew my socks off.  First up: “Nairobi Half Life.” This, the first feature film by Kenyan director David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga, is a warm, sharp  film that captures its subject — Nairobi — with a witty knowingness, but also, with a rare reverence. The sprawling, dark, dangerous city of Nairobi is infamous, we’re all familiar with its not-so-clever nickname, ‘Nairobbery’. But, as with every city, it has another side — a vital, energetic, creative and exciting side that attracts young people from all over Kenya. Gitonga’s film is as much about the well-traversed journey from rural to urban in contemporary Africa, as about the difficulties of growing up and becoming a ‘man’, whatever that might mean. Beautifully shot with an excellent soundtrack, “Nairobi Half Life” is an exciting first feature, and subsequently is getting a lot of hype across Kenya, and in Europe too.  Now for the rest.

Dear Mandela (South Africa): As newspapers scramble to find their Mandela obituaries in the light of another stint of ill-health from the former President, this film by Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza is perhaps all the more timely, and painful. For it asks, what has come of the promises the ANC made to the young generation in 1994? In the case of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a group of activists fighting for their right to stay in temporary settlements without the fear of eviction and violence, the promises have been continually broken. The film is a moving testament to the power of grass-roots political organizations, who source the tools and knowledge they need to take their cause to the highest level: “They think we don’t know the law. They don’t think we know the constitution. You can’t evict people like us. We know.” But this isn’t just a straight-up documentary. There are beautiful, kaleidoscopic moments in the film that use more experimental means to capture what it means to be a part of a community; visually, the filmmakers tentatively point to the bonds that the shack-dwellers share through an inventiveness of visual style. You can read my full review here.

The Curse (Morocco):  Oh, the tyranny of children. This incredible short film by Fyzal Boulifa is a haunting tale of young female sexuality wounded and bullied by the oppressive society around her. In rural Morocco, a young woman and her lover meet in a rubble-filled ditch. Spotted by an eagle-eyed bunch of children, she is harassed by her young tormentors all the way home. Haunting and harsh, the narrative reflects the inhospitable sharpness of the landscape that surrounds the young girl. This is short filmmaking at its best. Boulifa won the Premier Prix Illy for Short Filmmaking at this year’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, and has gone on to win a slew of other awards since. We can expect great things from him in the future…

When China Met Africa (UK):  How are the political and economic plates shifting beneath us as we move further into the 21st century? When China Met Africa focuses on the tales of a few individuals, whose work in on the African continent signifies the shifting tectonic plates of global alliances and interests. Jonathan Duncan wrote a review of the film here. “By avoiding academic abstractions such as: neo-colonialism, geopolitics and paradigmatic shifts in economic power, the success of Marc and Nick Francis’s latest observational documentary ‘When China Met Africa’ unravels by undercutting these heightened contexts. They circumvent the clamor of voices participating in the discussion of China’s co-authorship in Africa, and instead refurbish the story by taking us straight to the ground.”

The films of the Mosireen Collective (Egypt):  In 2012, no group of filmmakers made such an impact on me as Mosireen; the defiant, relentless collective who started filming the Egyptian revolution, and who now document political struggles and movements across the country. They use cinema as a tool for change, and for self-reflection. Their Tahrir Square open cinema brings films to the public, while their huge YouTube channel is an impressive revolutionary archive. Engaged, embedded and determined, they are an incredible testament to the power that collective filmmaking can have in our contemporary moment.

Kempinski (Mali):  This film actually came out in 2007, however I include it here as a nod to the surge of critical discussion around African sci-fi in 2012. Remember the exhibition titled “Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction” at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, UK; the screenings at “Africa Utopia” at The Southbank Centre in London; and the deserved praise for Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi. Science fiction films from the African continent have been celebrated this year, as a means of subverting and refracting narratives about Africa, both as a mythical unit and as a challenge to the various entrenched beliefs that Africa will always be ‘behind’ compared to the techno-rabid West.  Kempinski is a simple but effective conceit: in a neon-lit unidentified jungle, Africans speak of the future in the present tense. It is a simple feedback loop, a ‘back to the future’, where the future has already gone to seed. Neil Beloufa’s work is eery, but sharp. This film, in many ways, demonstrates why sci-fi is an interesting tool with which to think, and talk, about Africa and our myths about it.

A still from “Otelo Burning,” a film about black surfers in Apartheid South Africa.

The 9 Muses (UK):  Fusing archival footage and stunning contemporary shots, this film by John Akomfrah (of the Black Audio Film Collective) is a patient, considered submersion into the history of migration, told through excerpts from literature — Paradise Lost, The Odyssey, Richard II, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Beckett’s Molloy and Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood — and through testimony of those who made the journey from the heat of the South, to the cold, industrial North. It is poetic, labyrinthine; it excavates the history of cinema as much as its subject; mining black histories, home-making and race by considering images, myths and literary tropes as part of the founding histories and mythologies of human movement.

Tey (Senegal): I waited a long time to see this film. It was lauded at Cannes and the Berlinale before it finally came to the London Film Festival (and Film Africa). But what I finally saw far surpassed my expectations. Satché, played by Saul Williams, is the walking dead (almost literally). He is living his last day on earth. His day begins at his own funeral wake, except he’s awake. He walks through his unnamed town, and people flock to celebrate his life, at him, with him. Later, his uncle performs the burial rites on his still-living body. It is a cross between everyone’s vain fantasy — to be hovering above their own funeral, seeing how much they were really loved — and a poetic musing on life and mortality. Shot in rich colors, in turns delicate and elegiac then strong and frenetic — as any last day on earth would surely be — Gomis captures all of life in a day. A must see for any auteur film lovers out there. Read Jonathan Duncan’s full review here.

Otelo Burning (South Africa):  The director of the South African hit documentary “Surfing Soweto,” has returned to surfing with this, her first feature fiction, “Otelo Burning.” However, the surfing is no longer on top of railway trains into Johannesburg, or dancing off the sides of train-cars returning back to the townships; dusty, electrified and full of impending doom. No, Otelo Burning is about surfing the waves that crash against the South African coast, at a time when apartheid was crumbling, and when young black men and women were facing an apocalypse. No less about defining the self against the harsh and ignorant views of others (exactly as disenfranchised and forgotten youths in Surfing Soweto were), Otelo Burning is lush, sexy, complex and gripping, accompanied by an outrageously cool soundtrack. A must see.

Cursed Be The Phosphate (Tunisia): And finally, Tunisian filmmaker Sami Tlili’s “Cursed Be The Phosphate,” which tells the story of the 2008 revolts in the Gafsa mining basin, and more particularly in the town of Redayef. Tlili’s suggestion that these protests were an important precursor to the country’s 2011 Revolution sounded and looked very convincing.

Deserving mention are also “Coming Forth By Day,” the long-awaited film by Egyptian writer-director Hala Lotfy; and the harrowing documentary “Call Me Kuchu” by Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright.

Further Reading

We are here

As the slaughter continues unabated in Gaza, it is abundantly clear that both the present and history are often written by the victors.