The decision by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in November to disqualify Genevieve Nnaji’s “Lionheart” from the international feature Oscar race marred an otherwise promising awards season for Africa, which still saw its total number of submissions reach a record-breaking nine. The ensuing controversy brought filmmakers, including Ava DuVernay, into the fray, and prompted the Academy to defend its decision on the grounds that entries must be mostly filmed in a language other than English, Nigeria’s official language.
But the dust-up also served to underscore broader structural challenges for African filmmakers dreaming of Oscar glory. Production across the continent has been steadily rising, with such debutantes as Niger, Malawi and Mozambique recently entering the awards race. Yet most countries lack either the financial resources to mobilize a selection committee — an often expensive proposition — or the political resolve to pursue an award that many perceive as being about and for Western audiences. Consider that it wasn’t until last year that Senegal, the birthplace of post-colonial African cinema, submitted its first entry for Oscar consideration.
This year that country might offer the best chance for Africa to claim its fourth Academy Award, and the first since Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi” (2006) won foreign-language honors for South Africa. Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” was awarded the Grand Prix in Cannes, and marked the first time a film directed by a black woman competed for the Palme d’Or. The director’s feature debut is a haunting tale of yearning and loss that’s set into motion when a group of young Senegalese men disappear at sea while trying to reach Europe by boat.
Partly inspired by her desire to portray a country and a continent that have long “been absent from the screen or misrepresented,” Diop, who was born in Paris to a French mother and Senegalese father, told Variety that “Atlantics” evolved out of a desire to explore her own African identity. “For me, making films in Dakar, in Senegal, is not only about making movies,” she says, pointing to political, personal and artistic motives behind her film.
Diop is the niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose groundbreaking movies, such as “Touki Bouki” and “Hyenas,” were potent critiques of both Europe and post-colonial Senegalese society. Drawing on his example, Diop says her goal as a filmmaker “has always been to make cinema that goes beyond the strict field of cinema, but that also impacts people — impacts things on a more political level.”
Most of this year’s African Oscar hopefuls are critical of entrenched political systems or social mores. Ghana’s first submission, Kwabena Gyansah’s “Azali,” is the story of a young village girl who flees an arranged marriage to a 70-year-old man. Kenya’s “Subira,” by Ravneet Chadha, is a coming-of-age story about a young Muslim woman who defies tradition and gender stereotypes to pursue her dream of swimming in the ocean. Jan Philipp Weyl’s “Running Against the Wind,” from Ethiopia, is the story of two brothers whose lives take very different paths when they decide to follow separate dreams.
South Africa will pin its hopes for the second year running on director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, whose “Knuckle City” explores how poverty and toxic masculinity perpetuate the cycle of violence in a poor township considered South Africa’s boxing mecca. Traveling from the Eastern Cape to Cairo, “Poisonous Roses,” from Egypt’s Fawza Saleh, chronicles the difficult circumstances facing an impoverished brother and sister in Cairo’s tannery district. Both films offer urgent portraits of desperate characters struggling to find a way out of hardship.
Islamic radicalism is a common thread in two of the Maghreb’s submissions this year. In “Dear Son,” which premiered in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attia follows a couple grappling with the discovery that their son has fled to Syria to join the Islamic State. Mounia Meddour’s Un Certain Regard player “Papicha” travels to 1990s Algiers to chronicle a group of women who organize a fashion show despite a crackdown by radical Islamists.
In Maryam Touzani’s “Adam,” Morocco’s patriarchal mores are the backdrop for an intimate story about the friendship between a widowed mother and an unwed pregnant woman who comes to her for help. Inspired by an episode from Touzani’s adolescence, the director’s feature debut, which also premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, was born from the recognition that “making [that experience] into a film that could reach people meant that it could help trigger change.”
Through the evolving relationship between two women trapped by circumstances who gradually come to find comfort and strength in each other, Touzani offers a human face to the ongoing struggle for women’s rights in Morocco. “It was a way to contribute something as a filmmaker,” she says.