It’s been almost 50 years since Costa-Gavras took home the foreign-language Oscar for the Algerian-French political thriller “Z,” marking the first time an African film was honored by the Academy.
While the feat has only been repeated twice in the years since, most recently with South African helmer Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi” (2005), this year’s crop of contenders shows the promise of a continent that submitted a record-breaking eight films for consideration.
The directors throwing their hats into the race include acclaimed helmers and dynamic newcomers, pointing to the range and vitality of contemporary African cinema. Collectively, they’ve created a mosaic of a continent in flux, grappling with age-old traditions and modern evils, while asking difficult questions about what it means to belong in the world.
With the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe largely driven by migration from Africa and the Middle East, timely films have emerged from the region. In “The Last of Us,” the debut by Tunisian filmmaker Ala Eddine Slim, a young African man attempts to cross the Mediterranean, only to wind up in a mysterious, enchanted forest. In Algeria’s entry, “Road to Istanbul,” by three-time Oscar nominee Rachid Bouchareb, a Belgian woman frantically tries to track down the daughter who’s left home to join the Islamic State in Syria.
Radicalism haunts “Razzia,” Nabil Ayouch’s kaleidoscopic portrait of life in Casablanca, in what the Moroccan auteur describes as a response to the growing strains of intolerance echoing around the world.
Egypt’s Amr Salama looks at intolerance through a more tender and comic lens with “Sheikh Jackson,” the story of a cleric gripped by an identity crisis after the death of his childhood idol, Michael Jackson.
For a continent that traditionally misses out on the awards season spotlight, this year’s most talked-about films have already enjoyed festival buzz — a sign, perhaps, that African filmmakers might slowly be slipping into the mainstream.
Earlier this year, the Berlin Film Festival, which is frequently at the vanguard of African cinema, awarded the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize to “Felicité,” Franco-Senegalese helmer Alain Gomis’ moving portrait of a Congolese bar singer hustling on the streets of Kinshasa. South Africa’s John Trengove, meanwhile, opened the fest’s Panorama section with “The Wound,” a striking portrayal of sexuality, masculinity and cultural identity in the Xhosa community.
The Toronto festival again boasted a strong slate of African programming this year, premiering “Jackson” and “Razzia,” from longtime fest favorite Ayouch. Tom Tykwer’s Kenyan shingle One Fine Day Films returned to Toronto with its second Oscar hopeful, “Kati Kati,” the directorial debut by Mbithi Masya.
The foreign-language submissions from relative newcomer Kenya (“Kati”) and first-time entrant Mozambique, with Brazilian-born helmer Licínio Azevedo’s drama, “Train of Salt and Sugar,” reflect concerted efforts to grow moviemaking industries around the continent — even as Africa’s most prolific film biz, Nigeria, has yet to enter a film into the foreign-language race.