South Africa: 5 must-see films at the Durban International Film Festival

By Wilfred Okiche
Posted on Thursday, 28 July 2022 10:20

Screenshot from Amil Shivji’s film Tug of War (Vuta N’Kuvute)

Now celebrating its 43rd year, the prestigious Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), an annual celebration of film returns for both in-person and virtually (for South African audiences) screenings. This year, the festival is screening about 130 selected films and documentaries. We've done the work and selected the top five African films to watch.

Working with the curatorial theme of adaptation, survival and sustainability, the festival is presenting a diverse selection of African and international films that can inspire hope for these troubled times. As festival manager Valma Pfaff explains in a press statement: “The past two years have proven to be trying times, and the narratives of many of these films offer us a reflection on these sometimes-desperate moments. At the same time, filmmakers also share stories of hope and optimism, bringing to life the way people support each other while carefully looking forward to a brighter future.”

From first time filmmakers to trusted auteurs, our top five pick are films that represent a snapshot of the brilliant storytelling work that is happening across the continent.

1. Girl, Taken – South Africa/Ireland

The 1997 disappearance of Baby Zephany from her cot in a Cape Town hospital was met with numerous twists and turns, has been a source of an obsessive fascination by the South African media and by extension, the entire country.

Outsiders to the story might even recognise it as the one that inspired Netflix’s fictional young adult original series, Blood & Water. Eschewing cheap sensationalism, reliable documentarians, François Verster and Simon wood, dig through the archives and the layers of media coverage and emerge with a compassionate, sensitive account of the impact this disappearance had on the people directly involved.

Also streaming on Paramount+

2. Good Madam (Mlungu Wam) – South Africa

With Good Madam, the prolific South African filmmaker, Jenna Cato Bass tackles the resistant traumas of apartheid using the tools of the horror genre. A young woman, Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) becomes unmoored when she and her daughter move in temporarily into the grand Cape Town mansion that Tsidi’s mother, Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) has been working at diligently as a domestic servant for decades.

Using impeccable sound design, frightening jump cuts and a deft sense of pacing, Bass and her collaborators mould this relatable concept, master- servant relationships, into a thematic interrogation of epic themes such as structural inequality, racism, psychological abuse, and a country’s original sin.

Also streaming on Amazon Prime Video

3. Juwaa– DRC/Belgium

In this resonant drama, a Congolese family suffers a traumatic event, and the surviving members are separated by distance and time. When they are eventually reunited in Brussels, they are forced to kickstart the process of finally confronting themselves regardless of what they might discover within.

Nganji Mutiri’s debut feature length is an emotionally taxing dance between a woman (Babetida Sadjo) seeking refuge from the past and the son she left behind. At the heart of its melodramatic core, lies a riveting film, brimming with interesting submissions about memory, suppressed trauma, guilt, home and the power of human connections.

4. Public Toilet Africa (Amansa Tiafi) – Ghana

This electric ride through the Ghanaian landscape owes a huge world of debt to the works of Djibril Diop Mambéty – especially on the classic, Touki Bouki – Ousmane Sembène, and the American Blaxploitation films of the 1970s.

Directed by Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah, Public Toilet Africa interweaves several narrative strands but connects them to the righteous drive of Ama (played by Briggitte Appiah,) as she seeks compensation for what she is owed. Fiercely satirist and utterly critical of institutions of power, Public Toilet Africa doesn’t always tie into a cohesive project, but the stylish technique and authorial voice makes it compelling viewing.

5. Tug of War (Vuta N’Kuvute) – Tanzania/South Africa/Qatar/Germany

Amil Shivji’s gorgeously realised adaptation of the popular Swahili novel of the same title by Shafi Adam Shafi is a star-crossed romance set along the Indian Ocean shore. The visual beauty of Shivji’s Tug of War conjures up narrow streets, cobbled stone floors, raining pamphlets and stone houses recalling the oppressive segregation of 1950s Zanzibar.

The film’s protagonists are Denge, a hot-headed revolutionary figure and Yasmin, an Indian-Zanzibari woman fleeing a loveless marriage. Together, they defy British colonial authorities to pursue romance, self-actualisation and freedom from oppression.

DIFF 2022 runs from 21 to 30, July and is presented by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts, in partnership with the KZN Film Commission and the National Film and Video Foundation.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options