It was a year of many firsts for African filmmaking.
In 2017, African directors and producers made movies and documentaries that explored brave new ways of production and challenged traditional narratives of storytelling. Whether focusing on toxic masculinity in South Africa, paying homage to Senegalese mythology, or addressing a crisis of faith in Egypt, these bold pictures collectively pushed the fold of creative filmmaking and offered a multidimensional narrative about the continent.
One such avenue of progress is the arrival of virtual reality, and how it gave African filmmakers the opportunity to tell complex narratives. New Dimensions, a Pan-African VR collaborative project launched must-see VR productions that surveyed various themes including mythology in Senegal (The Other Dakar), an ode to Kenya’s capital (Nairobi Berries), the Chale Wote art festival in Ghana (Spirit Robot), and the shape of a new colony populated only by Africans in the future (Let this be a Warning).
Jim Chuchu, the Kenyan director of Let this be a Warning, told Quartz the immersive nature of VR helped directors not only reinvent cinematic practices but also connect more with viewers. “The thing VR might do for African storytelling is push the boundaries of subjectivity in ways that are useful,” he said. “Our stories are usually consumed (by non-African audiences) from a comfortable, objective distance. Perhaps creating VR pieces in which non-Africans inhabit African bodies might highlight our commonalities.”
The 2017 movies were also not without controversy, commenting on political and social issues, and courting controversy at both local and international levels. In Sheikh Jackson, the worlds of an Islamic preacher and the king of pop Michael Jackson collide in this drama that was selected as Egypt’s foreign language entry in the 2018 Academy Awards. After the death of Jackson in 2009, the imam’s faith is shaken by his obsession with the American singer and dancer. The movie’s director Amr Salama was criticized for his depictions, with some saying he should be investigated (Arabic).
In South Africa, Inxeba (The Wound), a gay love story set among the traditional rite of passage for Xhosa men, has also drawn controversy. The film reveals the secretive initiation rituals and the rejection and fears the country’s LGBTIQ community still face. Audiences also thought Krotoa, the story of a Khoi woman working for a Dutch colonialist, was “whitewashed” and made the protagonist’s exploitation seem voluntary. The racial dynamics of South Africa also come to the fore in Vaselinetjie, a coming-of-age story about a little girl, Helena ‘Vaselinetjie’ Bosman, classified as white and raised by her colored grandparents. When social services move her from her safe rural home to an orphanage in the city, Helena is forced to deal with South Africa’s racial realities.
African filmmakers also received global recognition for their films. Five Fingers for Marseilles, a western-inspired South African thriller that follows a group challenging their town’s brutal apartheid-era police force, was showcased at the Toronto International Film Festival. Similarly, in I am not a Witch, Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni uses humor to comment on women’s place in society after a young girl is accused of witchcraft. Kati Kati, Kenyan director Mbithi Masya’s debut feature, was also showcased in Kenyan cinemas. Set in the afterlife, this outstanding drama follows a young woman who doesn’t know where she came from, how she died, or how she got to where she was now.
And to set the record straight on Africa and its civilizations, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. released a six-hour series that takes us through 200,000 years of the continent’s history. The superbly produced documentary draws our attention to powerful kingdoms and communities, and how the so-called “dark continent” was the origin of art, writing, and agricultural production. Like many contemporary African directors, Gates said he wanted to bring out history that was “suppressed” and erased through slavery and colonialism.
“Africans were just as curious about what was on the other side of the proverbial other side of the mountain as anyone else was,” he said. “I want these stories, the stories of Africa and its Africans, to be woven into the story of the history of the development of civilization.”