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The Best Thing About African Film This Year? Documentaries

A look at some of the year's best films: documentaries from Africa.
Wilfred Okiche
Days of Cannibalism
It has been a solid season for documentaries. And African titles have not been left out.
In a difficult year marked by loss, lockdowns and uncertainty, quality non-fiction films were never in short supply. They arrived in different forms and via diverse channels, providing comfort and illumination when it was unsafe to converge physically.
The flexibility of film festivals in pivoting to online and drive in screenings, positioning of streaming platforms and continued reliability of television ensured that even when blockbusters and star vehicles were postponed indefinitely, documentaries were somehow always within reach.
Among other effects, the climate ushered in by the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the inadequacies embedded within the present world order. News headlines were dominated by global health, trade and diplomatic tensions between the United States and China. It was often easy to miss the fast-evolving, capitalism fueled relationship between China and Africa. This unprecedented engagement powered by trade and infrastructure development, has given rise to fraught relations between the different cultures.
Teboho Edkins’ brilliant and form challenging documentary, Days of Cannibalism zeroes in on a remote cattle-herding village in land-locked Lesotho and observes natives and settlers alike as they tussle for power and economic advantage. Set up like a traditional western, with its host of clashing characters and reconstructed scenes to heighten dramatic effect, Days of Cannibalism explores the ways that migratory patterns alter the physical and cultural landscape. A critique of global capitalism, Edkins’ film reflects on the forces that make people and countries regard one another with distrust.
Disruptions across the continent were also of the political kind. From Cameroon to Zimbabwe, civil uprisings were recorded. The reasons may have been divergent and specific to each location but a recurrent factor was inequality. Perhaps the most consequential of these was the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria, if only for how tragically it ended.
A series of organic protests against the extrajudicial murder of a young man snowballed into a youth led national movement demanding justice, reform and accountability. For the briefest of spells, the protests and the support systems that erupted around them pointed to the possibilities of a more efficiently run system powered by the resourcefulness of the youth. This glimpse of utopia for the most populous Black nation on earth was short lived however, as the entire movement collapsed after officers of the Nigerian army opened fire on unarmed protesters at one of the venues in Lagos.
For many of Nigeria’s youth, there was no going back from the traumatic events of 20th October. How does one love a country that kills its young and pushes its most promising to the embrace of the global north? The promise of democracy may be enticing but of what use is fighting for a system that is crudely structured to work only for the powerful?
These are questions that Boniface Mwangi, the protagonist and moral center of Softie, the intimate yet broadly defined profile on resistance and citizen activism intensely engages with. Nigeria and Kenya—where the bulk of Softie’s action takes place—have quite a few things in common. Nigeria became a republic in 1963, the same year that Kenya secured independence from the British. Since then, both countries have grappled with post-colonial national demons of tribalism, corruption and dismal political leadership.
Mwangi makes for a fascinating subject. Born into poverty in urban Kenya, his career has been devoted to bearing witness to injustices meted out by the state. Frustrated with his limited ability to create any meaningful change as a photojournalist, Mwangi decided in 2017 to bite the bullet via a run for a seat in parliament. Softie is in some ways a chronicle of this memorable campaign.
The resourcefulness of the young changemakers on Mwangi’s team is inspiring to observe but triumphing against entrenched interests and systems involves much more than idealism or courage. This might seem like a bleak state of affairs but director Sam Soko films Softie as a snappy, fast-paced musical ride through contemporary Kenyan society, with a nod to its history. Mwangi’s love for country shines through and his never-say-die spirit, even in the midst of personal discomfort, is never less than inspiring. His body bears scars from multiple police beatings and he really has no way of competing in the high stakes, big moneyed world of politics, but Mwangi’s commitment to fixing the wrongs of an unyielding system is unwavering.
In this regard, Softie shares kinship with another clear-eyed portrait of resistance, this time in the form of Nardjes A. Premiering at the Berlinale, director Karim Aïnouz’s slight but effective day-in-the-life-of essay follows the titular heroine, an activist, as she partakes in the Algerian revolution of smiles. The movement was in response to ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s doomed unconstitutional fifth presidential bid. Shot entirely on an iPhone and outfitted with the best post-production expertise, Nardjes A, like Softie, captures the immediacy and the rawness of people led political struggles.
However brave and fearless Mwangi and Nardjes come across, there is a certain privilege that guides their actions. Nardjes works as an actress. Mwangi has earned sufficient clout from his work as a photojournalist. He is capable of drawing attention to his cause by sheer force of his personality. When his family’s safety is threatened, he dispatches them to the United States for some downtime.
The same cannot be said of the ordinary heroes that populate Downstream to Kinshasa, the compelling account of a motley crew of maimed survivors of the mostly forgotten Six Days War in the Democratic Republic of Congo fighting to claim their reparations. The centerpiece of Dieudo Hamadi’s film—the first project from the country to receive an official selection title card from Cannes—is a harrowing trip on a wooden boat from Kisangani to the capital that the survivors embark on to make their voices heard.
Downstream to Kinshasa lays bare the realities of many African states—the uselessness of the political class and the various indignities that the most vulnerable people suffer. This dearth of a functioning social net rears its ugly head in The Letter, another Kenyan entry that has the honor of being the country’s official submission for the international film category at the Oscars. Directed by the wife-husband duo of Maia Lekow and Christopher King, The Letter dispassionately deconstructs how greed and religious fanaticism continue to poison post-colonial communities.
A young man, Kamisa, investigates how his beloved grandmother has come to be accused of witchcraft. He discovers that the accusations are part of a ploy by shifty relatives to displace elderly people from their landed property. The Letter isn’t the most high-minded of films and the filmmakers embrace a skeletal, DIY approach that hints at creative limitations but fits smugly with the story. Kamisa is a guide into contemporary Kenyan cultures, but for the most part he is a passive observer and stays out of the way of the story.
Finding Sally
Finding Sally takes the opposite approach. Ethiopian-Canadian Tamara Mariam Dawit is at the center of her family drama, leading from onscreen and off. After discovering the existence of an aunt that disappeared decades ago under troubling circumstances, Dawit makes the journey back to Ethiopia to do some digging into her family’s history.
Her search dredges up painful but essential memories, not only of her aunt Sally, but also of her aristocratic family’s legacy and their place in the country’s history. Blending the personal with the political in consciously emotional ways, Finding Sally is one family’s attempt at healing and finding closure from the ruins of war. It is also a potent history lesson that outlines the forces and factors that led to the 1974 revolution and consequent overthrow of strongman Emperor Haile Selassie. Those who fail to learn from history tend to repeat it though and Finding Sally provides some important backstory especially regarding Ethiopia’s violent oppression of ethnic groups that might throw light on the country’s recent decent into yet another civil war.
If all of these films point to a continent in crisis mode, then the late Tim Bell, the controversial figure at the center of the investigative report Influence might, in his heyday, have been the man to call in to bring in the fix, at least from the PR angle. The once influential Bell, co-founder of the disgraced advertising and public relations agency Bell Pottinger, had very little scruples about the clients—mostly big government—that he chose to take on. He worked for dictators and controversial figures alike, laundering their image and helping them win elections. By 2017, his company had been expelled by regulators for at least five years for inflaming racial tensions in South Africa.
Directors Diana Neille and Richard Poplak infuse the otherwise busy Influence with a sleekness that Bell would probably approve of. There is a lot of material to cover—from Bell’s meteoric rise to his work at home in South African politics and his international campaigns with the likes of Margaret Thatcher. Influence is a typical rise and fall story and as such does not shy away from Bell’s inevitable fall from grace culminating in a live television meltdown in 2017. Influence also engages with the culpability of the media in a deeply fractured world concerned with post-truths and alternative facts
At their very core, documentaries are about preserving life as it were. They provide a window into worlds far removed and try to find ways of connecting some sense of a shared humanity. The African documentaries that stood out this year embraced these ideals in ways that even the best of fiction did not come close to doing. These filmmakers—first timers and veterans alike—bravely took on projects that moved fluidly between genres and challenged established formats.
In a year that had the world sorely aching for human connection, the pipeline of African documentaries that emerged responded to not one, but several crises speaking to the disruptions in real time, creating alternate futures and reflecting genuinely, the tragedies and the triumphs.
And isn’t that what film is about?


DocumentariesAfrican CinemaBest of 2020
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