African Films in the Karlovy Vary

in 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Jan Storø

In this article, Norwegian film critic Jan Storø focuses on the African films screened at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2023.

It is, of course, impossible to draw conclusions about films from a whole continent based on a few films screened in one festival, in one specific year’s edition. This is especially true for the vast African continent. On the other hand, it is possible to highlight the fact that films from a certain continent are visible on the global scene. Five African films were screened at the festival. They all caught my attention.

The films are:

Animalia (France / Morocco / Qatar – 2023) by the French-Moroccan director Sofia Alaoui. Animalia tells the story of a young, pregnant, upper-class woman who is forced to travel on rural roads when threatening events occur. Alaoui uses the sci-fi genre to explore the conditions of people in Moroccan society, with a special view on the situation of women.

Mother of all lies (Morocco / Egypt / Saudi Arabia / Qatar – 2023) by the Moroccan director Asmae El Moudir. Mother of all lies is a biographical documentary about the director’s family. She examines why this Casablanca family has secrets that seem to be hard to unveil, largely because no one challenges the grandmother – who also takes part in the film.

Goodbye Julia (Sudan / Egypt / Germany / France / Saudi Arabia / Sweden – 2023) by the Sudanese director Mohamed Kordofani. In Goodbye Julia we meet Mona, a well-off North Sudanese. She hires Julia, a poor south Sudanese woman, as a maid to cover up for her husband’s murder of Julia’s husband. The conflict between southerners and northerners is always present in this society.

Omen (Belgium / Netherlands / Democratic Republic of the Congo / France / South Africa – 2023) by the Congolese director Baloji. Omen is a complex story in which Koffi returns to his native Congo from Belgium to reconcile with his family. Koffi and his Belgian white fiancée are expecting twins. We learn that the obstacles are hard to battle.

Mami Wata – A West Afrikan Folklore (Nigeria / France / United Kingdom – 2023) by the Nigerian director C.J. “Fiery” Obasi. Mami Wata – A West Afrikan Folklore is best understood as a fable on power and traditional values versus modernity in a traditional village.

All the directors wrote their own screenplays (Omen was co-written with Thomas van Zuylen). Both Alaoui and Kordofani presented their directorial debut films at the festival. The directors were born between 1978 and 1990. Two of them are female, three are men.

When taking an overview of these films, we discover that they offer African storytelling on a variety of topics, but with some interesting similarities. Without any doubt, the films are clearly connected to their countries of origin. With African-born filmmakers as the creators of these stories, this is perhaps self-evident today. They show conditions of local life; several of them use nature where their stories unfold to enrich the story; they develop the events within clearly visible cultural frames; and they show how political systems are part of what is shaping people’s lives.

But above all, the issue that connects these films are these societies’ battles between old and new. Such battles are important in any society, but from my Northern European perspective, I find them to be more present in these films than in many contemporary films.

This issue is most dominant in the last two of the films. In Omen, traditional Congolese values in Koffi´s family clash with Western values represented by him and his fiancée. Baloji uses occult elements to explore some of the conflicts.

Even more visible is the battle between traditionalism and progress in Mami Wata – A West Afrikan Folklore. The story unfolds in the fictional village Iyi. The village’s intermediary Mama Eche is a strong believer in Mani Wata, the water goddess of West African folklore, and claims to have a spiritual connection to the goddess. She is challenged by men; therefore, this film also offers a gender perspective on the issue of power. It is also evident that all these films set women in the center of the narrative. Most of the women are either strong or grow strong during the film.

I find these films visually striking. Once again, I will single out the last two films. Omen is a colorful film where we are invited to a vibrant Congolese environment. Mami Wata – A West Afrikan Folklore offers the opposite, filmed in black and white with high contrast. This makes the film dark in its visual presentation, and therefore breathtaking.

The five films offer a contemporary view of modern African film. They all discuss values, specifically traditionalism, versus modernity. The strong position of women in all these films is remarkable.

Jan Storø
Edited by Birgit Beumers