Cannes Festival: Africa on the Croisette in eight films

By Renaud de Rochebrune
Posted on Friday, 3 June 2022 12:07

The 75th Cannes Film Festival - Photocall after Closing ceremony
The 75th Cannes Film Festival - Photocall after Closing ceremony - Cannes, France, May 28, 2022. Director Tarik Saleh, Best Screenplay award winner for the film "Boy from Heaven", poses. REUTERS/Piroschka Van De Wouw

Africa was well and truly present on the red carpet at this year's Cannes Film Festival. We take a look back at the best during the two weeks of screenings.

Tunisian fireworks

Sous les Figues, by Erige Sehiri; Ashkal, by Youssef Chebbi; Harka, by Lotfy Nathan (release dates not known, probably by the end of the year).

With three feature films presented – a record for an African country – in the “parallel” section of the Directors’ Fortnight (with Sous les Figues and Ashkal) and in the “official” selection Un Certain Regard (with Harka), Tunisia lit up the Croisette’s screens. All three films were well received – ovations at their screenings, praise from the critics – and revealed young artists whose are keen to prove that the seventh art is flourishing in the eastern Maghreb. The filmmakers have each tackled different themes in a very personal way.

Erige Sehiri, the first Tunisian woman to be selected for the Directors’ Fortnight since Moufida Tlatli (in 1994 for Les Silences du Palais), has opted to create a choral film. In Sous les Figues (Beneath the trees), she shares with us a day in the countryside with a group of young seasonal farmers, high school students of both genders who have come to join older workers in picking figs. The result is a work that is reminiscent – and she owns up to it – of Abdellatif Kechiche’s cinema, for its sensuality, and Éric Rohmer’s, for its dialogues. Beneath the fig tree, the characters – which are portrayed by non-professional actors – argue, court each other, steal fruit, talk about an uncertain future… And the girls, even though they sometimes consent to be seduced, try to escape the boss’ wandering hands and persistent harassment.

Youssef Chebbi, for his part, immerses us in thriller cinema with Ashkal. In this detective story, we witness an investigation led by two detectives, Fatma and Batal, an imposing young woman and a veteran from before the 2011 revolution, who are charged with finding the cause of death of a squatter in a building whose construction has been halted for several years. There is also a fantastical element to the story, as the man seems to have killed himself in a mysterious way – suicide, crime? – and is only the first in a series of victims who have burned to death in the same neighbourhood.

The story intriguingly takes place in the Jardins de Carthage, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Tunis designated for the regime’s spoiled bourgeoisie and whose construction began towards the end of Ben Ali’s reign. This concrete setting is as grey and heavy as the leaden sky and the film’s general atmosphere.

Especially since the two police people regularly mention the “Truth and Rehabilitation” commission, which has been tasked with uncovering the misdeeds of Ali’s regime and may threaten Batal, should he complete his work and ensure that justice is served.

InHarka, Lotfy Nathan follows Ali, a young smuggler who sells petrol on the street in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. However, his supplier, who is a major trafficker, makes his life so difficult that Ali can only continue his illegal trade by agreeing to be shaken down by the police. His dream, like many others, is to go to Europe. But the dream crumbles, and his already heavy frustration explodes when he finds himself unable to repay a family debt and has to take care of his two sisters. This is a relentless descent into hell and a direct reference, just like in Chebbi’s film, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, which became a catalyst for the “Arab Spring”.

A light and luminous film with many characters; a dark fantasy thriller that retains a great deal of mystery in a setting that seems to represent a society that has not come to terms with its past; a tragedy in which the hero is doomed to the worst fate because all the winds are against him and the horizon is totally blocked in a country where hope has disappeared, 10 years after the revolution.

These three films portray the three faces of contemporary Tunisia. They contain political aspects that are either present in the background (Sous les Figues) or foreground (Ashkal and Harka), and present a vision of the future that is not very optimistic (Sehiri’s film) or pessimistic (the other two). All of this is brought to life by remarkable actors, both amateur and professional – which was reflected in the interpretation prize that the Un Certain Regard jury awarded to the moving Ahmed Bassa, who plays the role of Ali in Harka.

Is it fair to say that Cannes 2022 marked the birth of a new Tunisian cinema? The assertive style of each of the filmmakers perhaps give us room to speak of a new generation, which includes a few other members such as Kaouther Ben Hania – also present at Cannes this year as president of the jury for the “parallel” selection of La Semaine de la Critique. Although this is already a lot, it remains to be proven that this is not just a collection of talents that have come together on the Croisette by chance.

A Moroccan haute couture film

Le Bleu du Caftan (The blue of the kaftan), by Maryam Touzani (probable release before the end of the year).

This is the second feature film and second Un Certain Regard selection for Maryam Touzani, who was on the Croisette in 2019 with Adam and leaves this year with the International Critics’ Prize (Fipresci). This is a well-deserved distinction for Le Bleu du Caftan, which was conceived and directed with finesse, as befits a work centred around the life of a fashion designer. In the medina of Salé, near Rabat, Halim, a caftan specialist, works in his workshop, while his wife, Mina, looks after rich clients and has the difficult task of explaining to their impatient faces that an old-fashioned, artisanal work requires a lot of time.

Although Touzani documents the dressmaker’s work very well, her film above all captures his tender relationship with his wife (a magnificent performance by Lubna Azabal), who is suffering from incurable cancer, and his new apprentice, Youssef, who awakens homosexual desires in him that he had until now suppressed. Co-screenwriter on most of her husband Nabil Ayouch’s latest films, in which she sometimes stars, the director, who is at ease with even the most sensitive of subjects, has established herself as a great hope for Moroccan cinema.

‘Le Bleu du caftan’, with Lubna Azabal and Saleh Bakri. © Les Films du Nouveau Monde/Ali n’Productions/Velvet Films/Snowglobe.

Murder in Al-Azhar

Boy from Heaven, by Tarik Saleh (released in France on 9 November).

The only film from the African continent in competition at Cannes this year, Boy from Heaven – a “religious thriller” by Tarik Saleh, an Egyptian filmmaker living in Sweden – walked away with the screenplay prize. This feature film, which tells the story of how the death of Al-Azhar University’s Grand Imam in Cairo provoked a relentless succession war of unrivalled influence in Egypt and the Sunni Muslim world, is above all a well-written story by an author who claims to be as much – or even more – a writer as a filmmaker.

By placing the character of Adam, a deserving fisherman’s son who manages to leave his village and attend the prestigious university, at the centre of the plot, Saleh gives his thriller the appearance of a social and political film. He also portrays the elites of Egyptian society in an unflattering light. Already persona non grata in his native country ever since he released Cairo Confidential (2017) and forced to shoot Boy from Heaven in Turkey, he is most likely further worsening his image there with this new feature film, which is reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Nom de la Rose. But it is a risk “worth taking”, as he himself says, expressing his sadness at this banishment, which he hopes is temporary.

Diam’s explains herself

Salam, by Houda Benyamina, Anne Cissé and Mélanie Georgiades (to be released in France on 1 and 2 July, then online on BrutX at the beginning of the year).

At the height of her fame, more than 10 years ago, the young French rap star Mélanie Georgiades (aka Diam’s) retired from the stage. Shortly afterwards, she announced that she had converted to Islam and that she now intended to lead a simple, family life, while devoting herself to looking after orphaned children in Mali.

Thanks to this very classic documentary, in which the testimonies of the ex-rapper and those close to her follow one another, everything has been made clearer. In particular, it allows us to fully appreciate what Diam’s, or rather the woman who has become Mélanie again, has gone through, which has included terrible depressive episodes since her childhood (two suicide attempts) and a permanent state of malaise that she has only managed to soothe because she withdrew from the public arena and embarked on a new relationship with the world and afterlife. This journey has also helped her find peace, as the title of the film Salam means. This story is told in a sober manner and without any temptation to proselytise.

This clarification is undoubtedly welcome, as it will put an end to the various theories that have surrounded Diam’s’s sudden ‘disappearance’. Judging by the public success that accompanied the special screening of Salam, she remains as popular as ever.

Forest Withaker, the actor and man of peace

For the Sake of Peace

This impressive African-American actor, who had come to Cannes to receive an honorary Palme d’Or for a prestigious career, was in familiar territory on the Croisette. He first set foot on the Croisette 34 years ago to present Clint Eastwood’s Bird, in which he played Charlie Parker, and has participated in five other festivals since.

However, he also walked the red carpet in mid-May as a producer of For the Sake of Peace, which was directed by Christophe Castagne and Thomas Sametin. This documentary means a lot to him as it invites us to discover the work of the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative, a foundation he created about 10 years ago in South Sudan. This NGO has programmes that help populations affected by conflict, which now affects more than a million people throughout the world.

Shot almost like a fictional film, this feature film tells the story of how a young Sudanese woman, who was trained by the Whitaker Foundation, tries to put an end to an interminable and deadly conflict between two clans of herders, who are unable to live together in the same remote region of South Sudan. The mediation only proves successful following difficult negotiations with chiefs, who were previously in favour of the hard way. For once, a film full of good intentions can be seen as a good film – simply put. No doubt because its producer, who has had more than 100 leading roles, knows how to keep a viewer on the edge of their seat.

The Dardenne brothers again

Tori and Lokita (released in France on 28 September).

As one of the few filmmakers who has already won two Palmes d’Or at Cannes (with Rosetta in 1999 and L’Enfant in 2005), the Dardenne brothers were awarded the 75th anniversary prize for their ninth film on the Croisette, Tori and Lokita, which was specially created by this year’s jury, chaired by Vincent Lindon.

As great humanists and defenders of the oppressed, the Belgian directors dedicated the award to a baker from Besançon who, while shooting their latest feature film in January 2021, went on a long hunger strike to try to prevent the deportation of his apprentice, a Guinean refugee who had not been granted asylum.

This cry from the heart resonates well with the subject matter of Tori and Lokita, in which we follow the obstacle-filled journey of two young Ivorian immigrants, a clever and cunning little boy who has been regularised by the authorities and a courageous but still undocumented teenager, who help each other by trying to pass themselves off as brother and sister. This is a story full and rich – perhaps even too much – with emotion.

… And also worth noting 

The 2022 Cannes Film Festival has demonstrated that Middle Eastern cinema is doing quite well, notably thanks to the constant rejuvenation of Iranian cinema (two films in competition, the excellent Leila et ses Frères by Saeed Roustayi and Les Nuits de Mashad by Ali Abassi) and the production of filmmakers from Palestine (Maha Haj, with the very funny and exciting Mediterranean Fever) and Lebanon (Ali Cherri, as much a visual artist as a filmmaker with the very beautiful and curious Le Barrage, which was shot in Nubia, Sudan).

Also present in Cannes, just like in recent years, were a number of good and not so good French films tackling terrorism (Novembre, by Cédric Jimenez), police brutality (Nos Frangins, by Rachid Bouchareb), difficult life in the suburbs (Petit Frère, by Léonor Séraille and Les Pires, by Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret), and wars (the excellent Les Harkis, by Philippe Faucon and Tirailleurs, by Mathieu Vadepied).

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