From Morocco to South Africa: The five must-see African films at Sundance festival

By Wilfred Okiche
Posted on Monday, 23 January 2023 13:50

Adura Onashile and Déborah Lukumuena attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival "Girl" Premiere at Park Avenue Theater on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Jerod Harris / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

After two years of virtual adaptations, the Sundance film festival returns to its home in Park City, Utah for a full-fledged physical edition.

The top tier film festival, which is considered the most important one in North America especially for independent film, converges filmmakers for a celebration of the brightest and the newest. With the festival’s international appeal increasingly expanding and its programming reflective of this, African films and filmmakers are finding it worthwhile to make the trek to the mountains in the snow.

From debutants to returning pros, these are the African films and filmmakers making a splash at Sundance this year. Consider this sufficient notice, as these films will certainly be talked about for the rest of the year.

Girl: Scotland

Girl is the debut feature of Adura Onashile, a Glasgow-based British actor, playwright and director of Nigerian descent. In the film, Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) and Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu) are a close knit mother-daughter duo who have created a nurturing, insular world for themselves. This safe space protects them from the hostilities that exist all around them.

All seems well until they start life anew in Glasgow and Ama’s burgeoning puberty leads her to question everything, including her own memories. Girl is a delicate story that centres the female coming-of-age experience while also probing the paralysing nature of trauma and contrasting it with the sweetness of innocence. Ultimately, Girl may be about the healing power of love.

Animalia: Morocco/France/Qatar

French Moroccan filmmaker Sofia Alaoui returns to Sundance following her Grand Jury Prize win for the short So What If the Goats Die in 2020. Her feature debut, which appears in the World Cinema Dramatic category, is an imaginative sci-fi adventure that dares to reimagine the status quo, exploring the anxieties of an unrecognisable world.

When a state of emergency is declared nationwide on account of mysterious phenomena, a wealthy woman unexpectedly finds emancipation and the possibility of a reclamation in the new world order. With a hypnotic visual sensibility, Animalia explores the tensions between faith and purpose. Little is off the cards as Alaoui shatters myths, challenges class prejudice, while delineating the ways in which people are connected.

Bravo, Burkina: United States

Playing in the festival’s Next section- a showcase of bold narratives characterised by a forward-thinking approach to cinema – is the creative debut feature by Walé Oyéjidé. For those not in the know, Oyéjidé is somewhat of a renaissance fellow.

He has a short documentary streaming on the Criterion Channel and his fashion designs were worn by the late Chadwick Boseman in the culture defining Marvel blockbuster Black Panther. Bravo, Burkina is the audacious tale of a Burkinabè boy who migrates to Italy, but later discovers a way to go back in time to regain what was lost. The film is fluid with an assured Oyéjidé bending time to explore dual existences and states of mind.

Mami Wata: Nigeria

This hotly anticipated feature from fast rising Nigerian director C.J. Obasi is a vivid and singular take on the enduring and terrifying folklore. At the oceanside village of Iyi, Mama Efe (Rita Edochie) acts as an intermediary between the people and the all-powerful water deity, Mami Wata.

When a mysterious rebel deserter Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) appears, conflict erupts, leading to a violent clash of ideologies and a crisis of faith for the people of Iyi. Obasi’s modern fable, which also stars Uzoamaka Aniunoh and Evelyne Ily Juhen, deploys monochromatic black-and-white cinematography, rich sound design, and a dazzling score to unspool a tale that pits futurism against the natural order.

Milisuthando: South Africa

This eponymous coming-of-age personal reflection is the brainchild of Milisuthando Bongela, a writer and editor who grew up middle-class in a Xhosa community in the Transkei. This unrecognised state – now dissolved – was a social experiment designed to pretend that the worst of apartheid did not happen.

This assault on reality was responsible for leaving behind conflicted memories in people like Bongela who came of age in that environment. As a self-aware filmmaker basking in her creative freedom, Bongela adopts the documentary format as a medium to explore her memories and experiences. What emerges is a damning report of race, legacy and personhood.

The Sundance film festival takes place from 19 to 29 January 2023.

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