The best African films of 2021

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After the shutdowns of the last year, 2021 saw movies make a comeback. Productions picked up once again in several countries. Theatres sprung back to life as did physical festivals. Streaming platforms, big and small, worked overtime to fill up the vacuum and continued to license and commission films, turning what could have been a dismal year into a fruitful one. The result was a diverse spread of titles that provided entertainment sure enough but also spoke to what it means to be African in these times.

Here are some of the finest of the bunch from 2021.

Eyimofe (This is my Desire)
Nigeria

The debut feature from twin brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri draws from influences as varied as Taiwanese new wave and Italian neorealism to the ethnographic literary tradition of James Joyce’s Dubliners. Lagos is at the centre of the two-story narrative, and the plot follows the stressful attempts of the protagonists to migrate to Europe. The Esiris drench their film in the sights and sounds of Lagos, painting a vivid picture of what it must be like to exist in a place at once hopeful and hopeless.

Not yet available for streaming.

Faya Dayi
Ethiopia/US/Qatar

Less a traditional documentary than a spiritual journey into the highlands of Harar, the ancestral town of Mexican-Ethiopian director Jessica Beshir, Faya Dayi immerses itself – and viewers – in the rituals of khat. The stimulant leaf originally consumed by Sufi imams for religious meditation has now become Ethiopia’s most lucrative cash crop. It has also become an intoxicating balm for quieting the restless energies of the country’s youth. A film of quiet, hypnotic power, Faya Dayi is impossible to box into any corners, presenting itself as a free-flowing inquiry into the depths of the human spirit.

Not yet available for streaming.

Happiness Ever After
South Africa

The sequel to 2016’s surprise box-office smash Happiness is a Four-Letter Word picks up five years after the events of the last film. The ladies who lunch, Princess (Renate Stuurman) and Zaza (Khanyi Mbau), are joined by newcomer Nambitha Ben-Mazwi as they once again face the challenges of being gorgeous and ridiculously wealthy in the city of Johannesburg. Directed by Thabang Moleya, Happiness Ever After remains as lavish as the first film but manages to get viewers invested in the real word problems of its fabulous heroines.

Streaming on Netflix.

Juju Stories
Nigeria/France

Nigerian folklore serves as the basis for Juju Stories, the latest three-part anthology presented by the Surreal 16 Collective, made up of Michael Omonua, Abba Makama and CJ Obasi. Juju Stories casts a wicked spell, spinning popular beliefs and superstitions into cautionary tales inspired by the supernatural. Featuring a roster of finely tuned performers and some sparkling writing, especially with the first entry Love Potion, Juju Stories isn’t a simplistic moral fable. It is an enquiry into human belief systems, blurring the lines between what is real and what is of the otherworld.

Not yet available for streaming.

The Last Shelter
Mali/France/South Africa

Arresting, impactful, and deeply empathetic, Ousmane Samassékou’s rich documentary is – on the surface – about a physical structure in Gao, northeastern Mali, that serves as a gateway for African migrants attempting to make their way across the Sahara towards Europe. But considered closely, the film is a humane look at the psychology of the people desperate enough to make these journeys. In a world that has come to demonise migrants, Samassékou insists they be seen and heard.

Streaming on Afridocs from 2022.

The Man Who Sold His Skin
Tunisia/France/Belgium/Germany/Sweden/Turkey

Kaouther Ben Hania’s provocative yet compulsively watchable caper is both a takedown of the casual elitism embedded in art circles and a scathing critique of the world’s apathy towards the global refugee crisis. Inspired by real events, The Man Who Sold His Skin narrates with verve the story of Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), a Syrian man desperate enough to get to Europe, who donates his back as a canvas for a controversial American contemporary artist to tattoo an enormous Schengen visa. 

Streaming on Hulu.

Moffie
South Africa/UK

In Moffie, the fourth feature by Oliver Hermanus, the auteur behind acclaimed titles such as Shirley Adams and Beauty, a young man comes to terms with his sexuality while serving his compulsory military term. Based on the autobiographical novel of the same title by Andre Carl van der Merwe, this big-screen adaptation is filtered through Hermanus’ famously singular gaze. The result is a powerful and heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of homophobia – both internalised and state-sanctioned – and a country trapped in the throes of hate.

Streaming on Showmax.

Night of the Kings
Ivory Coast/Senegal/France/Canada

For his second feature, Philippe Lacôte mines his early experiences to unspool Night of the Kings, a loose yet tightly drawn feverish fantasy that blends elements of film, music, dance and even a bit of theatre. Set in La MACA, a prison famously run by inmates, Night of the Kings remains a dazzling and original vision even when it borrows significantly from the literary canon; Arabian Nights and Shakespeare specifically. Lacôte pays homage to the ancient art of oral storytelling and the West African lineage of griots who ensure that stories live on in time. 

Streaming on Hulu.

Vuta N’Kuvute (Tug of War)
Tanzania/South Africa/Qatar/Germany

The first Tanzanian film to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival is a star-crossed romance set against the backdrop of an impending political revolution. Adapted by Amil Shivji from the acclaimed Swahili novel by Shafi Adam Shafi, Vuta N’Kuvute is a lush and lyrical period piece set in 1950s Zanzibar. Described by Shivji as a cross between Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood For Love and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of AlgiersVuta N’Kuvute won the Oumarou Ganda Prize in the Outlook section at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival (Fespaco). 

Premiering in Zanzibar on 11 December 2021. 

Zinder
Niger/France/Germany/South Africa

Aïcha Macky’s terrific documentary visits the most disadvantaged district in her hometown. Zinder attempts to deconstruct the minutiae of the social order that produces the troubled young men and women at the heart of her film. Macky trains a compassionate eye on her people and weaves a compelling narrative of strivers doing their best to survive. With clear-eyed precision and a lack of fanfare, Zinder identifies the victims, the survivors, and their oppressors.

Streaming on Afridocs from 2022.

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