Six African documentaries you must see
These six films present varied snapshots of what it means to be African today.
From deeply personal interrogations on family and identity, to the ever-present struggle for dignity and basic rights, documentary films can present vivid snapshots of what it means to be African.
The following six documentaries are unmissable. They not only represent the finest of contemporary filmmaking on the continent, but they are also a reflection of the most pressing challenges and concerns facing people in Africa today.
In this piercing documentary, director Ines Johnson-Spain digs back to 1960s Germany and excavates the ghosts surrounding the events of her birth. Growing up mixed race in an otherwise lily-white family, Johnson-Spain always felt different and out of place even when everyone around her made concerted efforts to avoid discussing the elephant in the room. After tracing her biological father to his family home in Togo, Johnson-Spain documents, through childhood memories and matter-of-fact recollections, the extraordinary denial strategies that her German family adopted to keep the truth about her birth hidden away.
Becoming Black is a riveting piece of cinema that works on several levels; as family portrait, catharsis and culture criticism.
A personal investigation into the mysterious life of an aunt takes director Tamara Dawit from Canada to her ancestral home in Ethiopia. Finding Sally chronicles Dawit’s attempts to fill in this gap in her family history. She assembles her four aunts and paternal grandmother as talking heads, and then joins them on the trail of aunt Sally, an aristocrat-turned-communist-rebel who disappeared after the 1974 resistance that lead to the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Blending the personal with the political, Finding Sally deftly situates one young woman’s political awakening within the sociopolitical climate of the time. Dawit offers illuminating insights into her family’s complicated legacy as well as the history of Ethiopia, the class system and the inequalities that led to a revolution.
I am Samuel
Pete Murimi’s brave and necessary I am Samuel, shot verité style over five years, is an intimate lesson on what it is like to exist with dignity in a culture of repression. Murimi’s camera unobtrusively follows Samuel, a young gay man struggling to live his truth, in a conservative Kenyan society. After living in the closet for most of his life, the protagonist moves to the city where he finds true love. Both men resolve to express their love openly in defiance of the law that criminalises same sex acts.
I am Samuel is a compassionate and ultimately hopeful study of love and resilience as Murimi zeroes in on the mundanities and tensions that constitute everyday living for both men.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) was outlawed in Kenya in 2011 but for Beryl Magoko, the protagonist and director of the powerful In Search, it will take more than a government directive to heal the physical and emotional scars. The wound runs deep for Magoko who now lives in Germany and is considering reconstructive surgery to reclaim her body. Before she commits to the procedure though, Magoko has frank and in-depth conversations with other victims of FGM, her doctors, and a therapist who works with her through the psychological implications.
Sensitive and always empathetic with her questioning, Magoko creates that rarity on screen with In Search: a safe space for women to speak to each other and be heard.
Le Loup D’or de Balolé
Hidden away in a granite quarry in Ouagadougou, about 2,500 men, women and children spend their days performing backbreaking work, splintering stones under horrible conditions. Director Chloé Aïcha Boro does a service to humanity by taking the lid off these conditions with her camera. What she uncovers is a community who refuse to be passive victims as they organise to redress the exploitation that results from their dependency on the quarry’s middlemen who skim a large chunk of their pay.
Le Loup D’or de Balolé is intricately plotted and visually appealing despite the less than glamorous subject matter. A lot of it comes down to Boro’s dignified gaze and her unsentimental, participatory approach to the material. She traces a line from the events in the quarry to the larger political uprising of 2014 that led to the fall of former president Blaise Compaoré.
The Letter is a set in a Kenyan village but the incidents are instantly relatable to communities across the continent. A young man, Karisa, travels from Mombasa to his ancestral home after his grandmother is accused of witchcraft. His conversations with family members soon reveal how the accusations are part of a plot often hatched by greedy relatives to displace senior citizens of their land. Directors Maia Lekow and Christopher King, a husband and wife team, happened upon this rich piece of human drama while researching the oral history of coastal Kenya.
The Letter’s investigations reveal how a toxic combination of superstitious beliefs and religious overzealousness is deployed to put certain groups of people at risk of displacement from their homes. Through a personal story of courage and family, The Letter also comments on Pentecostal evangelism, capitalism as well as the aftershocks of post-colonial trauma.
All six documentaries are screening at Film Africa (30 October-8 November 2020). Over the course of 10 days, 46 films from 14 African countries will be screened in a hybrid format that will accommodate both online screenings and socially distanced physical events in London. Find out more here.