Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Nigeria…Top 10 African films at Rotterdam Film Festival

By Adham Youssef

Posted on Friday, 10 February 2023 19:13
International Film Festival Rotterdam 2023. (Photo by Ramon van Flymen / ANP MAG / ANP via AFP)

This year's International Rotterdam Film Festival (IFFR) wrapped up with two African films grabbing the top award: José Cardoso's documentary 'What the Soil Remembers', South Africa and Cyrielle Raingou's 'Le Spectre de Boko Haram', Cameron. From a large entry of African films to enter the festival, which ones made our top 10 list?

IFFR 2023 finally reunited audiences and filmmakers from far and wide for a full edition for the first time in three years after the pandemic. In this year’s programme, 15 films produced in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tunisia and Kenya were screened to the audience.

IFFR enables many African filmmakers to showcase and premiere their work in Europe, in Rotterdam, a hub for culture and diversity. With a super colourful and rich programme, IFFR usually celebrates African cinema with different initiatives, such as African Collectives in 2020, the Pan-African Cinema Lounge in 2018, and Black Rebel programme in 2017.

This year, The Africa Reports highlights the top 10 films coming from the continent by different artists who collectively take up the challenges of filmmaking. Films varied in length, genre, and programmes.

1. Le spectre de Boko Haram by Cyrielle Raingou

The winner of the Tiger Competition award, worth €40,000 ($42,772), dazzled this year’s jury, who described it as “a story that centres on its filmmakers’ patient and honest gaze on the hovering presence of violence, seen through the eyes of innocents”.

In her profound debut feature, Cyrielle Raingou follows a group of children in a remote village in North Cameron to understand the social effects of living in a war zone, sieged by Boko Haram militants. She approaches subjects with a delicate and discreet observation, allowing them to reflect, resist, and heal. More about Le spectre de Boko Haram can be read at this link.

Raingou is now developing her new film, I am Coming for You

2. Geology of Separation by Yosr Gasmi and Mauro Mazzocchi, Tunisia

The second feature film, co-directed by Gasmi and Mazzocchi, follows two new African migrants who arrive in Sicily as they go through the misery of finding housing and bureaucracy. In black and white, the film mixes documentary and visual schemas, which carry some scholarly takes that aesthetically reflect the nightmarish experience of unorganised immigration. Safe to say it’s not your usual ‘a migrant arrives in Europe and all the mystery starts afterwards’ story.

In one sequence, the film shows the lack of empathy and indifference Europeans have towards our two, most probably West African, protagonists who fled the horrors of the Libyan conflict. The director’s camera work poetically captures the trauma of this conflict, and others, like existing in a country where they are welcome and unwelcome at the same time.

Geology of Separation will be screened in the FESPACO Edition 2023 this month.

3. Birdland (Indivision) by Leïla Kilani, Morocco

Birdland investigates the class struggle and gender dynamics of post-2010 Morocco by following the wealthy family of a teenage mute girl, Lina, whose property lies in the forest in El Mansouria, near Tangier. The matriarch of the family, Lina’s grandmother, decides to sell the house and kick out villagers whom she claims to have been squatting on for more than 30 years.

While the family melodrama is merely a hook to dissect the social revolution in Morocco, asking questions about one’s relationship to nature and animals, alienation and greed, all from the scope of Lina, who goes incognito to document the turmoil. Through a voiceover, we understand the complex dynamics of the family and the corrupt hierarchies of corporate culture and social classes.

Birdland is Leïla Kilani’s second feature film after her critically acclaimed On The Edge, which premiered at the Cannes’s 2011 Directors’ Fortnight.

4. Shimoni by Angela Wanjiku Wamai, Kenya

Angela Wanjiku Wamai addresses an essential and ambivalent but not publicly discussed trauma caused by prisons in Africa. In her debut feature, she brilliantly uses a multilayered ploy to unleash the slow burn of the profound pain of the main character, a former English teacher (Geoffrey), now a manual labourer.

Shimoni examines the fine lines of many topics in contemporary Kenya, like gender and religion, by focusing on the purgatory the main character is living: the trauma of being a victim and the guilt of a perpetrator. With a bold performance from Justin Mirichii, depending on the power of silence and body language, he confronts the horror he’s been running from.

Shimoni made its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

5. Le taxi, le cinéma et moi by Salam Zampaligre, Burkina Faso

Zampaligre dedicated this documentary to creating a portrait of Drissa Touré, one of Burkina Faso’s top critically acclaimed self-taught filmmakers in Africa and worldwide, including Cannes, Locarno, Milan, Amiens, Rotterdam, Zurich, and New York. Having had an atypical career pushed him to work many jobs, including being a cabby in Ouagadougou.

Using archival material and personal interviews, Zampaligre talks to Touré’s the “taximan” rather than the filmmaker. The film is an important document to historicise Sub-Saharan cinema in the post-Cold War world. One of the continent’s film heavyweights can be seen vulnerable as he admits that he “can say spiritual things by cinema”, which may be a tool also to discover Africa’s complexities and culture.

6. Under the Hanging Tree by Perivi John Katjavivi, Namibia

Under the Hanging Tree brings back the transgenerational trauma of indigenous communities in modern-day Namibia. The story is problematised when Christina and her police partner starts investigating a homicide in what used to be settler German farms, where the body is left hanged on and found hanged in an old Omumborombonga tree.

The film starts as a police thriller with some flashbacks to lynching footage of the Herero people. Still, it evolves to be a critical take on the genocide and calls for reparations, often full of tension in Nambian society. Katjavivi presents a contemporary noir style of storytelling while adding some supernatural elements, accompanied by impressive cinematography, playing off different genres such as crime, thriller, and psychological horror. It is refreshing to see African filmmakers use new methods, with a leading female protagonist, to address this haunting colonial past.

7. Stiekyt by Etienne Fourie, South Africa

 Harbour, 100′, South Africa, 2022

When a soap opera actor, James, decides to participate in a drag queen show competing on the ‘Top Bitch’ title. Fourie highlights contradictions between rigid soap opera talent and liberation and competitive (sometimes mean) drag shows in South Africa. The primary angle of Stiekyt (Afrikaans for Stand out) is not merely queer, but rather a story about a cis heterosexual man whose falling marriage coexists with his need to explore different professional roles.

However, the presence of drag shows and crossdressing sadly might not allow it to be programmed/screened in some African film festivals. It was programmed in the Harbour section, which includes productions that adopt themes close to Rotterdam’s identity as a city, colourful and vocally supporting freedom (personal and political).

Stiekyt premiered in the Official Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

8. Kira & El Gin by Marwan Hamed, Egypt

Based on a bestselling novel by Ahmed Mourad, the film celebrates the anti-colonial narrative of resisting the British presence in the early 1900s through two characters who form a group of assassins and saboteurs, each with a particular skill. Produced by one of the country’s biggest local production companies, the film is part of several productions in the past 10 years, which made hits in the Egyptian box office, mixing action and drama with ultranationalist history. Hamed has made a name for himself in the Egyptian commercial market in the past years and is internationally recognised for his gem Yacoubian Building (2006), a social drama on the political and social decay in 1990s Cairo.

9. The Blue Caftan by Maryam Touzani, Morocco

The Blue Caftan takes place in Morocco’s ancient medinas as an ode to companionship and unconventional forms of love. The happily married couple, Mina and Halim, manage a tailor shop, crafting caftan with traditional embroidery. Halim, a closeted man, fails to fulfil his wife’s needs, but it does not stop them from loving each other. A new assistant, Youssef, comes into the shop to work and attracts Halim’s attention, and Mina observes that affliction. Touzani redefines intimacy in human relationships, not posing an answer, but asserting that there are several ways to love.

The Blue Caftan had been chosen to represent Morocco in the 2023 Oscars shortlist in the International Feature Film category and won the FIPRESCI prize in its premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section.

10. What the Soil Remembers by José Cardoso, South Africa

The beautifully glitching experimental documentary won the Ammodo Tiger Short Competition award. José Cardoso sheds light on South Africa’s white supremacist institutions and the resistance of grassroots movements to take charge of their stolen lands, identities, and history.

The once close-knit community of Die Vlakte in 1960s South Africa was uprooted to make way for Stellenbosch University as part of the Apartheid regime’s segregation measures. He puts the traumatic effect of displacement face to face with the racist legacy. Through interviews, extensive research, and fragmentation, to tell the story of how the community continues to demand reparations through peaceful means.

Special mention: Swimming in a Sea of Trauma by Ugochukwu Azuya, Nigeria

Ugochukwu Azuya radically focuses on traumatic memories during the Nigerian Civil War, a haunting experience for thousands. The trauma is seen through the eyes of Chison, who finds herself stuck in the debris of a building, almost a nightmarish sequence. Swimming in a Sea of Trauma is her fourth short film.

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