Like the rest of the world, African countries were in turmoil for the greater part of 2020.
A global health crisis, peaceful demonstrations that turned deadly, political uprisings, financial meltdowns, and even a civil war.
African film was not.
The films coming in from all corners of the continent, impressive in their approach to form and content, served a number of purposes. As entertainment, education, activism, provocation even, it was a diverse palette that filmmakers were serving. Most, however, were impotent to make a real difference in the face of the continent’s very clear and present dangers. Then again, it isn’t the duty of the movies to save anyone, let alone an entire continent of 54 countries. Like the continent itself, the films were variegated, speaking different languages and reflecting a variety of cultures.
These films contemplated the African identity, both historically and in contemporary times, while connecting them to the larger concerns of global identity. What does it mean to exist as African in a world that considers the Black man an afterthought? The murder of the American George Floyd by racist cops led to a national reckoning on justice and equality that had ripple effects around the globe. Because America.
But this reckoning was also triggering in that, not for the last time, it raised a lot of questions on a personal level. How much more physical and mental violence can the Black body take before it implodes? Is it going to be a big bang or does it happen in a thousand little ways every time a microaggression is introduced?
On the continent that is home to the largest number of Black people in the world, a number of countries were also dealing with reckonings of their own. In Zimbabwe, the 2017 removal of the tyrant Robert Mugabe ushered in a breath of fresh air and a much-needed atmosphere of hope. Three years later, the replacement administration has failed to deliver promised change while the state apparatus has been deployed to crack down on protesters and opposition groups.
In Uganda, the situation is pretty similar. At least 45 people were killed in the November protests that rocked the capital Kampala as people came out to demand the release of musician turned politician Bobi Wine. In Nigeria, soldiers fired live rounds at young people protesting peacefully against police brutality, killing and wounding many.
Most of these demonstrations of people-power have youth leadership, only right considering the continent’s demography is composed predominantly of young people. In Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s elegiac This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, the elderly still have some skin in the game. Set in landlocked Lesotho, the film’s heroine is an 80-year-old widow, Mantoa, played with fire in her eyes and purpose in her step by the late icon Mary Twala Mhlongo.
Mantoa’s days on earth may be numbered, but she has every intention of exercising her right as a citizen. Her village is being relocated to a new site, to make way for a dam that will bring water and electricity to the region. Mantoa refuses to move. With nothing else to live for, she seeks to be buried next to her ancestors.
This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is a complex and utterly beguiling piece of work that breaks down the age-old battle between development and tradition while centering the power of individual resistance. As the old gives way for the new, Mosese grapples with the oft’ unreported losses—tangible and otherwise—that accompany this inevitable march towards progress. Mantoa, who may be the only person to understand the full implications of what is about to happen to the village, tries every option available to her to get the officials to change course.
When she meets only opposition, in the film’s final stirring moments, Mantoa completes a sacrificial act while an unnamed young girl looks on, the flame of resistance kindled in her eyes. Mosese’s message is clear. The old must give way and a new generation must be inspired to pick up the baton. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter, the charge is to keep fighting.
This message is one that Boniface Mwangi, protagonist of the energetic documentary Softie, appears to have imbibed. Directed by Sam Soko, Softie is a profile of courage as embodied by Mwangi, a charismatic photojournalist turned activist.
After coming to terms with the limits of his activism, Mwangi attempts to change the system from the inside by running for a seat in parliament. Softie is a skillful balancing act that chronicles Mwangi’s independent political campaign, delivers a crash course on Kenyan history and highlights the importance of sustained, strategic activism to nation building.
Softie may be named for Mwangi but Soko is equally invested in charting the role that Njeri, Boniface’s formidable wife and an activist in her own right, plays in the struggle. The Mwangis are equal partners, even when Boniface does a thing as casual as running for office without checking with her first. Njeri is invested in her hubby’s activism and his political campaign, but she is also insistent that Boniface not abandon his primary role as husband and father to their three kids. This expectation forms the central conflict of Softie. At some point, the Mwangis are expected to come to a difficult decision as to what matters most for them, family or country. Making this choice is never easy.
The sacrifices in these films are instructive to note, whether they’re fictional women like Mantoa or real life heroines like Njeri and the young weightlifters who people the inspirational Lift Like a Girl, Mayye Zayed’s fascinating portrait of young Egyptian girls working hard to succeed in a traditionally male dominated sport. Womens’ contribution to nation building are often erased from history and these films not only help recenter more useful and inclusive narratives, they also parallel real world going ons. From Nigeria to Zimbabwe, women were at the center of the civil uprisings, leading from the front and providing strategic support elsewhere. The difference this time has been the refusal to be silenced.
Heroism is often portrayed cinematically as larger than life figures rising to some big, momentous occasion. Films like DownstreamtoKinshasa and TheMilkmaid, two different yet thematically related accounts of the after-effects of conflicts, show distinctly that narratives of ordinary people making concerted efforts to survive in the most impossible situations can be just as powerful.
Dieudo Hamadi’s DownstreamtoKinshasa which became the first film from the Democratic Republic of Congo to receive the Cannes selection label is a heartbreaking yet uplifting account of human resilience. Hamadi returned to his hometown in Kisangani where he met with survivors of the little reported on “Six-Day War” that occurred 20 years ago when Ugandan and Rwandan armies came head-to-head in the Congolese town of Kisangani. Hamadi was a schoolboy at the time and had to guide his younger ones home when the conflict started.
This brutal tragedy, part of a broader extended conflict over mineral deposits, claimed the lives of more than a thousand people while maiming more than 3,000 more. Despite a decision by the International Court of Justice to award at least $1 billion to victims and survivors, not one red cent has been paid 20 years later.
Hamadi’s sympathetic documentary draws attention to some of the survivors, who organize themselves and make the perilous journey downstream on a wooden boat to the capital in Kinshasa. Their objective? To secure official recognition of the conflict and demand the compensation that is owed them. They persevere even though every step has been designed with obstacles to strip them of what is left of their dignity.
Desmond Ovbiagele’s fictional TheMilkmaid is also concerned with the aftershocks of war, albeit one that is still ongoing. Breathtakingly beautiful and sharply observed, The Milkmaid is set in a rural area that acts as a stand-in for any country along the sub-Saharan belt impacted by the unrelenting Boko Haram insurgency. Two sisters are kidnapped by Islamic extremists when the war comes to their once-peaceful village. Ovbiagele’s film takes them on separate journeys, each one as harrowing and unrelenting as the other.
The Milkmaid is attuned to religious and cultural sensitivities but does not skimp on the realities that internally displaced persons go through. While prepping for the film, Ovbiagele tracked some of these migratory patterns and was surprised by some of his findings. The director told me, “Right across the expressway from where I was living in Lagos, was a colony of displaced persons fleeing Boko Haram violence. They had constructed camps where they tried to recover the pieces of their lives, without help from any government.”
Making their feature-length debut, twin brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri wade headfirst into the troubled waters of migration with their powerful diptych Eyimofe (This is My Desire). Inspired by the innovative narrative techniques of Taiwanese new wave cinema, and by classic Italian neorealism, Eyimofe is a deeply felt and empathetic look at the drivers of these migratory patterns.
Going beyond the shock jock headlines of the media and the scare tactics employed by politicians from the far-right divide, Eyimofe considers the human beings that exist at the heart of what has become a political hot button issue. Eyimofe’s protagonists, Mofe and Rosa, dream of immigrating to Spain and Italy respectively. These Western countries may represent the promised land for these characters, but not one frame of the film is shot outside of Nigeria.
What the Esiri brothers do instead is place their microscope on the lives the characters have lived, exhaustively teasing out every small event, every action and consequence that has led them to the point where they have decided that their fortunes lie far away from home.
There is plenty of tragedy within the world that Eyimofe operates within and as such, there will be viewers who will find the film too much, perhaps even tilting towards the poverty porn spectrum. But such a reading would be grossly inadequate, unfair too. Eyimofe’s private fundraising process—like most Nigerian films—ensures it is insulated from the direction the same story might have gone with funding from the regular co-production processes. While the film is unflinching about the ugly realities of the Nigerian system, none of it feels merely gratuitous. Every beat leads to some form of illumination for the characters and the Esiris demonstrate tremendous respect for the lives their characters have lived.
Offering a more provocative angle on immigration and the human rights crisis is the dark comedy The Man Who Sold His Skin, the latest feature-length film by Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania. Reaching for the kind of concept drama and muted ambition that made her previous Beauty and the Dogs notable, Ben Hania explores the refugee crisis through the point of view of Sam, a Syrian man desperate enough to get to Europe that he allows a controversial Belgian artist to use his body as a canvas.
A large tattoo of the Schengen visa, the paper document required by most non-Europeans to gain entry into Europe is splashed across Sam’s back and his participation in this artistic project automatically opens doors that were previously closed to him as a youth from a war-torn country. Ben Hania’s film smartly interrogates some tough ethical and moral questions but doesn’t pursue them to their logical conclusion. In any case, the thrill of a film like Ben Hania’s lies in the questions that are posed and not necessarily in the resolution. What does it say about the European condition that pricey art—even if emblazoned on a human body—is considered more valuable than the life of a person from a particular part of the world? When does art cross the line from calling attention to a moral cause into exploitation?
When the history books are written, 2020 will go down as the year that the human race was tested in the most significant, life-altering ways. A viral pandemic tore through countries, exacting a deadly toll and forcing a global economic meltdown. The film industry in particular was dealt a heavy blow as the need for safety introduced shelter-in-place measures that effectively put a halt to indoor gatherings. The longer theaters stayed closed, the more those closures endangered the theatrical distribution and exhibition model, once the inescapable backbone of the film industry.
For African film, measuring the impact of the pandemic has been a bit more challenging considering that even in the continent’s biggest film markets, theatres weren’t the most important means of getting audiences to see films. The infrastructural deficit in many countries has made it such that even in the continent’s largest film markets, video and television, remain the most effective ways for filmmakers to reach audiences. In a pre-COVID-19 world, it wasn’t unexpected that an African film would be a hit on the international festival circuit yet remain largely unseen back home.
Dieudo Hamadi sees little difference in the landscape so far. He told me, “It has been hard screening my films in the DRC because there is a lack of infrastructure to support this. So, for me COVID or not, there is no difference at all. The most important thing for me is that the movies exist and maybe sometime in the near or far future, people will be able to see them.”
The recent proliferation of streaming options has helped films find more audiences. With some of the continent’s most important festivals—Durban, Encounters, Film Africa—pivoting online and effectively filling distribution gaps that the shutdowns have created, 2020 managed to be incredibly busy for African films.
The best of these films were entertaining, but that wasn’t all they had to offer. These films worked because they embraced a thoughtful, reflective bent, with filmmakers working with modest resources to contend bravely and boldly with some of the continent’s most pressing issues. Some of them were big on ideas, some content with merely reflecting the times as the filmmakers understood them.
In any case, 2020 was a year that proved more than most, that film matters.