African stories have been captivating filmmakers around the globe, and the quality and variety of their telling has been advancing tremendously. With a wealth of new offerings, here is a run-down of the best African films to hit the cinemas in 2019. Premiering in Cannes, Maryam Touzani’s poignant debut, Adam, is a thoroughly enjoyable slow burner that employs show-stopping performances to demonstrate compassion and the unbreakable bond of female friendships. Sudabeh Mortezai’s prize-winning drama, Joy, acquired by Netflix, astounds with its rounded and complex depiction of the life of its heroine. Keeping up with the Kandansamys, a play on that other famous family from America, became South Africa’s highest-grossing locally-made film in 2017. On Lionheart, Genevieve Nnaji makes her directorial debut. The result? A tenderly observed and sentimental drama about family, feminism and the ties that bind.
There’s a lot of debate about what constitutes African cinema. For a film to be truly African, does it need to be made by Africans? Does it need to be funded from Africa? Does it need to be aimed at an African audience and screened primarily on the continent? Or is a film African simply by virtue of reflecting on African experiences?
In this list of the finest African films so far this year, we include any film that centres on African stories. The list ranges from feature lengths to hybrid documentaries and boasts smart storytelling, technical virtuosity and cultural relevance – sometimes, all at once:
Premiering in Cannes, Maryam Touzani’s poignant debut is a thoroughly enjoyable slow burner that employs show-stopping performances to demonstrate compassion and the unbreakable bond of female friendships. In Adam, Touzani creates the perfect habitat to unpack her character study, a gentle observation of the shifts in the relationship between two ordinary women.
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This is a stark, unflinching look at the sex trafficking industry that operates from Edo state in Nigeria and stretches across the Mediterranean to Europe. Sudabeh Mortezai’s prize-winning drama, acquired by Netflix, astounds with its rounded and complex depiction of the life of its heroine. It deftly paints the grim reality that countless girls like her find themselves in when they make the journey to Europe. Mortezai may be an outsider to Nigerian culture but Joy is proof that stories are universal and sensitivity is always key to making the best movies.
- Kandasamys: The Wedding
Keeping up with the Kandansamys, a play on that other famous family from America, became South Africa’s highest-grossing locally-made film in 2017. Its sequel arrives just in time to give the local box office a much-needed shakeup. As blockbuster sequels go, Kandasamys: The Wedding is perfect lightweight fun even when it doesn’t have to be. It is a breezy and humorous inside look at Indian sub-culture in Durban.
When streaming giant Netflix decided to make a play for Nollywood, it only made sense that they would turn to Genevieve Nnaji, its biggest star and leading lady. On Lionheart, Nnaji makes her directorial debut. The result? A tenderly observed and sentimental drama about family, feminism and the ties that bind. Lionheart had its world premiere last year at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and opened up the industry to alternative modes of distributing original content.
- Mother I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You
In Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s strange but unique hybrid, a woman walks through the streets of an African country, carrying a wooden cross on her back. The image is a metaphor for the continent as the receptacle of multiple traumas. The black and white visuals, with accompanying sterile voice-over narration makes it clear that even while in exile in Berlin, Africa is on Mosese’s mind. A blend of the personal with the political, Mosese’s film is a reflection on migration, corruption and more. What it lacks in originality, Mother I am Suffocating… makes up for in its unique style.
In conservative Casablanca, a woman who gets pregnant outside wedlock is seen as a menace to society and must be punished accordingly. 20-year old Sofia must deal with the consequences when her unplanned baby is due. Directed by first-timer Meryem Benm’Bareka, Sofia is a subversive take on feminism and what it feels like for a girl in a man’s world. The titular heroine, played with a lethal mix of vulnerability and cunning by debutante Maha Alemi, makes some shrewd calculations but as in such a restrictive society, we learn in a heartbreaking way that everyone is a victim, regardless.
- Talking About Trees
For a group of retired film directors in Sudan, the theatre is an endangered culture. Suhaib Gasmelbari’s Talking About Trees is a compassionate chronicle of the efforts of four directors, collectively known as the Sudanese Film Club, and their near-heroic attempts to reopen a theatre in the city of Omdourman outside of Khartoum. Dogging their every step are Islamist fundamentalists in positions of authority, determined to ensure that cinema remains proscribed.
- My Friend Fela
Debuting in Rotterdam in January, this documentary presents a constrained narrative of Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Directed by veteran Joel Zito Araújo, My Friend Fela situates Carlos Moore, Fela’s official biographer and author of the book Fela: This Bitch of a Life as the film’s anchor. Moore, who met Fela back in 1974, condenses several hours of interviews – with Fela but also with many of the people who knew him best – into a uniquely compelling if cluttered biography. Fela is man, myth and legend and Araújo’s film skilfully navigates all these perimeters.
- The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind
The inspiring real-life account of William Kamkwamba, the Malawian teenager who used his brains and determination to solve a pressing community problem, is the kind of story ready made for a Hollywood adaptation. But instead of going for shiny gloss and sentimental manipulation, debut filmmaker Chiwetel Ejiofor, adapting the story from Kamkwamba’s 2009 autobiography, digs deeper to find empathy and a quiet dignity in the characters. This is indeed cause for celebration. Ejiofor’s film is a convincing exploration of bonds that exist between fathers and sons and, while the narrative is pretty conventional, it is never less than rousing.
- The Burial of Kojo
Composer and musician Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule’s tiny labour of love, The Burial of Kojo, caught the eye of Ava DuVernay who guided the film to a deal with Netflix. Employing elements of magical realism and blending them with an oral storytelling format that is widely recognised on the continent, The Burial of Kojo is a visually stunning, aurally distinct winner that isn’t just specific to Ghana but rooted in some of Africa’s wider challenges, both ancient and modern.
- The Delivery Boy
When a movie combines heavy themes such as religious extremism, domestic abuse, institutional decay and paedophilia, it becomes easy for it to crumble under the weight of its own importance. Not The Delivery Boy, the stunning action thriller by Adekunle Adejuyigbe that says a lot – perhaps too much in just under 70 minutes. Adejuyigbe, one of the most in-demand cinematographers in Nigerian film, makes his directorial debut with a flawed but ambitious poetic study of violence and the toll it takes on people and community alike.
- The Mercy Of The Jungle
Joël Karekezi’s road movie, set in the Kivu jungle, considers the futility of war through the eyes of two Rwandan soldiers left behind by their colleagues. Eschewing needless violence and bloodshed, the film provides a reflective look at trauma and the effects of war on different generations of soldiers. Karekezi takes his film’s characters to the edge and back as they confront demons long since buried. While trapped behind enemy lines, the characters navigate both the dangers of the wilderness as well as the horrors of the mind. The film emerged winner of the Golden Stallion at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO).
French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop was one of the biggest successes at this year’s Cannes film festival. Her film, Atlantics, a poetic and mystical meditation on migration, was warmly received. By the end of the festival, Diop was armed with both the Grand Prix and a distribution deal. Atlantics, which was recently screened publicly in Senegal and is headed to the Toronto film fest next, arrives on Netflix by the end of the year, in time for an awards season push.
Based on the practice common in 1960s-70s England, where Nigerian parents paid white families to foster their children, thespian Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje recounts a troubled childhood marked by passages of self-loathing and internalised racism. Unflinching and occasionally harrowing, Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s autobiographical debut gathers a formidable mix of British and Nigerian actors.
- La Femme Anjola
Ever wondered what the results would look like should Nollywood’s energetic aesthetic meet film noir? Look no further than La Femme Anjola, the reunion of director Mildred Okwo with her long-time creative partner Rita Dominic. Dominic, one of the most bankable stars in Nigeria, plays a mysterious lady who following a chance encounter with a young, naive fellow, turns his world upside down.
- Knuckle City
Auteur Jahmil X.T Qubeka’s fourth film may well be his most accessible yet. The boxing drama which opened the Durban International Film Festival in July and is headed to Toronto, explores toxicity in a violent, male-dominated sport and explores the psychology of a fighter in South Africa’s Mdantansane township. Knuckle City stars Bongile Mantsai as an ageing boxer who must lift his family out of depressing circumstances by making it through one more fight.
When the studio behind some of the most profitable Nollywood films of the last decade decides to make a push for prestige, the go-to director would be Kenneth Gyang, the auteur behind Confusion na wa, one of the most influential films to come out of Nollywood. Oloture, produced by the formidable Mo Abudu, details the experience of a young reporter who goes undercover to expose a sex trafficking ring.