African “Cinemas” and Themes of the Dark Continent

in 10th Luxor African Film Festival

by Ahmed Shawky

In an interview conducted by with Sayed Fouad, president  and founder of the Luxor Africn Film Festival, which completed its 10th edition in the famous historic city, Fouad answered a question about his advice to those who want to know more about African cinema, saying that the most important advice is to consider the very term “African Cinema”. Although it is the official title of the festival, as a deceptive description, in light of the presence of African “Cinemas”: different experiences, circumstances and situations among the countries of the huge continent, which are unfortunately still thought by many as one entity.

It’s enough to compare the institutionally and logistically well-established South African cinema on the one hand, with Nigerian Nollywood cinema, which has a huge number of low-quality production as a whole (with sporadic good exceptions), with the cinema of countries where theatres are almost non-existent, such as Cameroon and Burkina Faso, on the other hand, not mentioning the mature experiences in North Africa: Egypt and Tunisia, for example, to realize that what separates them is more that what unites them.

Nevertheless, the suffering of the African peoples and their similar circumstances as well as crises remain as points of convergence. So, we have extremely rich worlds, substantially unequal production experiences, and a fairly similar human suffering which we can touch through the issues and ideas that are constantly present in African films, regardless of the backgrounds of their makers and the circumstances of their making.

In the official feature film competition, eight films competed, in all of which we could meet a selection of the most recurrent topics of the continent’s cinema (or cinemas). For example, in the Nigerian film The Milkmaid (2020), director Desmond Ovbiagele showcases the crisis of armed Islamic groups in Nigeria, which has turned into a nightmare during the past few years with its violent and strange practices (even by the standards of extremist groups elsewhere!). It suffices to say that the most well-known group “Boko Haram” derives its name from the prohibition of modern Western education, consequently committing crimes such as killing schoolchildren, so that alarmed parents refrain from educating their offspring.

The film does not mention the name “Boko Haram” explicitly, but we understand it implicitly from the very first sequence in which the group attacks a wedding party in a quiet village and turns it into a hell with effects extending to the very end of the film.

Despite the modest execution and the intense melodramatic tone which affected the credibility of the course of events or the possibility of interacting with it, the work cleverly posed the question of change, for better or worse, exemplified by two characters: firstly, there’s the protagonist’s sister, a young woman who transformed from an innocent terrified teenager into one of the leaders of the extremist group. Secondly, there’s her husband who appears as a human monster at the beginning, since he did not hesitate to mass murder for the sake of the organization’s goals. Later, his position changed to become more rational and inclined to make peace, which itself raises controversy about the possibility of believing him after all he did. So, the victim becoming a tormentor and the executioner turning into a victim remains a wasted opportunity that The Milkmaid could take up in a deeper way.

Another important theme, weakened by poor execution, can be found in the Cameroonian film The Fisherman’s Diary (2020) by Enah Johnscott, which tackles the issue of female education, and how in a culturally primitive society such as a Cameroonian fishing village, a talented intelligent girl is subjected to a complete state of oppression, prevented from education and forced into child marriage to an adult man, only because of her father’s misconceptions about education. Evidently, he doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of his daughter turning, through education, into a successful, useful, and inspiring human being for both herself and those around her.

Things take a comedic turn in the Burkinabe film Duga, The Scavengers (Duga, les charognards, 2019), directed by Abdoulaye Dau, which revolves around a man’s journey trying to bury the body of his deceased relative. In the deserts and desolate roads between the impoverished villages of Burkina Faso, the protagonist roams in an old bus with his team, consisting of the deceased’s wife, daughter, and the disgruntled driver. The group moves from place to place and village to village, hoping to find someone willing to grant the dead body its most basic right: a place to be buried in. In a satirical context, we see how religious and tribal conflicts can deprive an African of this right. A road movie that tried to combine more than one idea, genre and cinematic style, according to the director’s skills, of course.

As for the most artistically sophisticated film, it was definitely This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection (2019) by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese from the Kingdom of Lesotho. Albeit unknown for some, the tiny country gave the world a talented director, whose film has piled up award after award since its presentation at the Venice International Film Festival 2019, including the latest: FIPRESCI award in Luxor 2021.

Holding onto land is the theme of the film, through the story of Mantoa, an eighty-year-old woman who rejects the government’s plan to flood her entire village in order to create a dam. Despite the fact that she spends her last days alone, after the death of all her relatives and the migration of her only son, she leads the opposition movement. Mantoa refuses to consider heritage, memories, and the remains of ancestors as insignificant matters to be easily disposed of. The story may seem common for African films, but the talented director’s craft to visually connect it with African nature and identity, and his amazing ability to direct his elderly actress, resulted in a universal film capable of communicating with human concerns everywhere around the world.

This apparent connection to the continent and its crises in the official competition films, coming from the various Sub-Saharan “cinemas” is almost absent in the two North African competing films, which were both awarded by the official jury with two out of three prizes, in an irony worth contemplating. Zanka Contact (2020) by Moroccan director Ismaël El Iraki won the Nile Grand Prize for best film, and Egyptian actor Khaled El Sawy received a special mention for his role in For Rent (2021) by Islam El-Sayed Belal.

The two films are of totally different levels and scales. The Moroccan film has a clear international ambition, evident in its launch at the last Venice Festival, with its theme that could be found anywhere in the world (a rock star retired due to drug addiction meets a prostitute), while the Egyptian film is far more minor and less ambitious. A film that would have never participated in such a competition, if not for the scarcity of the available Egyptian new productions, as well as the director’s previous participation years ago in one of the Luxor Festival’s filmmaking workshops. A fact that the festival was clearly willing to highlight, each time the film was mentioned.

But after watching the various films, and as someone coming from the North part of the continent, the constant question remains: If we have always sought to confirm the North’s affiliation with the continent’s cinema(s), then why do films come so far from them?

Ahmed Shawky
Edited by Savina Petkova