African Cinema: The Continents' Best Ambassador to the World

23rd November 2020


By Rasha Hosny for Africa in Motion's Notes Unbound

For many years, the stereotypical image regarding African cinema, formulated from films produced by old colonial countries that occupied and colonized the African countries had not only imposed their political hegemony but also a cultural dominance for many decades. In the 1960s, after years of oppression, the resistance and liberation movements all over the continent aimed to rid Africa of colonialism. One of the essential resistance tools used by these movements was cinema, to counter the imperialist cultural hegemony and overthrow it.

The depiction of  Black Africa showed the ancient continent in either two narratives: one showing it as a land of ignorance, poverty, disease, backwardness and ethnic conflicts, or another showing it as a land of magic, desert, natural beauty and enchantment. Meanwhile, neither took the effort to depict the extent of the economic, cultural and social devastation these countries suffered under imperialism. If it had not been for a generation of filmmakers who replaced the military resistance with a cultural resistance, including Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, dubbed the father of African cinema, director Idrissa Ouédraogo from Burkina Faso. Both of them took it upon themselves to try to depict their countries and their struggles through their eyes, not through the exploiting, touristy, and orientalist lens.

Souleymane Cissé's "Yeelen" (1987)

Just as several African countries suffered from colonialism and occupation, many of them after taking their independence (either a formal or a fake one) suffered from civil and ethnic wars. These conflicts exhausted their resources and wealth, wiping out the hopes of this new generation of African filmmakers who did not have the financial resources or logistical powerneeded to produce films. Similarly, cinema houses were either damaged or neglected to make them unable to screen films amid lack of governmental support.

However, despite all these challenges, African filmmakers followed their dreams and desires to present their depictions of their societies and their views on the urgent problems that hinder their countries from occupying the ranks they deserve. They aim to delve into history by studying it and tell the world how these countries and their peoples suffered. To achieve these goals, these filmmakers armed themselves with advanced cinematic education, as they travelled East and West to learn the art of filmmaking. They returned to their homelands to create new journeys and experiences to liberate their societies culturally, artistically and socially in a serious attempt to show the rich cultural heritage of Black Africa.

The status of African cinema has put its directors on the map of world film. Such filmmakers include Malian director Souleymane Cissé, whose film Yeelen won the Jury Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1987. It also includes Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, whose film Timbuktu was also screened at Cannes, won seven César Awards (including the Best Director award), as well as nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language film.

Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu" (2014)

As a result of many successes by many African directors, first world countries have competed to establish film festivals only to screen African films and that at the world level, including the Milan Festival in Italy, Africa in Motion Festival in the United Kingdom, the African Film Festival in Cordoba and the African Film Festival cinema in Cologne. Such presence made African cinema become the best cultural ambassador for the African continent, giving the world a chance to discover the distinct artistic productions from countries in the heart of the continent. Unfortunately, few experts expect that this cinematic movement can withstand the obstacles of financing or be able to produce cinema under the harsh economic and social conditions. For example, in Angola, the government has stopped funding filmmaking.

Despite this, some excellent films continue to represent Africans in international festivals. Air Conditioner, the latest film by Angolan filmmaker, Mário Bastos, often known by the stage name Fradique, saw its world premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Similarly, Senegal returns to the map of the most important European festivals after Mamadou Dia’s latest film Nafi's Father won the Golden Panther award at Locarno Film Festival. In addition, one should mention the remarkable successes achieved by Sudanese cinema during the past year after Amjad Abu Al-Ala’s latest film You Will Die at 20 won the Future Lion Award at the 76th edition of the Venice Festival, meanwhile, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s documentary Talking About Trees won the best documentary award at the 69th edition of the Berlin Film Festival.

Rasha Hosny is an Egyptian film critic/programmer and producer. She studied Egyptology and has been working in cinema and film criticism field since 2008. Her writing productions have been published in several publications and outlets in Egypt. Rasha was the first Egyptian and Arabic film critic to participate in "Berlinale Talent Press" program during Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016. Currently, Rasha is one of the main programmers of the Cairo International Film Festival and programmed The Asian films and The Midnight Screening Section films. She has also been the president of the board at the Egyptian Film Critics Association (EFCA) since August 2020.