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ranked! Mame Bineta Sane as Ada in Atlantique.
ranked! Mame Bineta Sane as Ada in Atlantique. Photograph: Les Films du Bal

20 best African films – ranked!

ranked! Mame Bineta Sane as Ada in Atlantique. Photograph: Les Films du Bal

As the UK’s leading African film festivals showcase the past decade’s classics online, we pick 20 great landmarks from the continent’s dazzling movie-making history

20. Borders (2017)

The film’s director, Apolline Traoré, was born in Burkina Faso and educated in the US before returning to the country of her birth and working with Idrissa Ouédraogo. Borders is her third feature, a road movie about four very different women travelling across beautifully evoked landscapes from Senegal to Nigeria, having melodramatic, shocking or comic episodes on the hot and dusty road.

19. The Nightingale’s Prayer (1959)

This is an extravagant revenge melodrama, or Beauty-and-the-Beast fable, from the Egyptian film-maker Henry Barakat, based on a novel by Taha Hussein. A young woman, Amna, witnesses the death of her sister at the hands of her uncle, who supposedly had no choice because she had “dishonoured” the family. Amna seeks out the man who led her sister astray, gets a job as a maid in his house and plots to kill him, but he falls in love with her, and perhaps also she with him.

18. Divine Carcass (1988)

Dominique Loreau’s fascinating docu-fictional feature Divine Carcass is something to compare with Terence Rattigan’s The Yellow Rolls-Royce. It is the story of a 1955 Peugeot, and all the people who come to own it in Cotonou, Benin. At first, it is the property of an overseas development worker, and then his cook, Joseph, who sneakily uses it for his unlicensed taxi service. After it has broken down for the last time, it is left by the side of the road where a sculptor refashions it into the form of a Voodoo god that presides over the population of a nearby village. A droll, mysterious meditation on the nature of colonialism.

17. Letter from My Village (1976)

A delicate, witty film that straddles fact and fiction, set in southern Senegal where the director, Safi Faye, grew up, with Faye in effect narrating by reading aloud a supposed letter about events in her home village. A terrible drought means the failure of the millet and groundnut (a restricted crop inherited from the colonial administration) and a young man called Ngor cannot afford to marry the woman he loves. To earn money, he has to journey to the capital, Dakar, where he is horribly exploited, and returns with a tale of woe.

16. The Wedding Party (2016)

Nollywood has become a cultural phenomenon and commercial cinema powerhouse in Africa, and Kemi Adetiba’s The Wedding Party is the most successful example: it became the highest-grossing international Nigerian film. It is a raucous comedy of upmarket aspirational yearnings set in Lagos, where a young gallery owner is about to marry her boyfriend, an IT entrepreneur, to the excitement of her parents who want to make it a sensationally lavish wedding. But the couple’s relationship is demurely old-fashioned. The bride has insisted they do not have sex until their wedding night, which cranks up the tension and mishaps.

Deon Lotz and Charlie Keegan in Skoonheid.
Deon Lotz and Charlie Keegan in Skoonheid. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy Stock Photo

15. Skoonheid (Beauty) (2011)

A ferociously powerful, yet subtle and complex, performance from Deon Lotz is at the centre of Oliver Hermanus’s uncompromising and shocking South African-set movie. He plays François, a middle-aged white Afrikaaner family man with a secret passion that he indulges with like-minded white guys. He is gay, has orgies that are presented with a strange, fierce joylessness, and is becoming fixated on his nephew. I have some misgivings about the film’s ending, a sexual assault that is of a recognisable arthouse type, and yet it is rare to see a rape scene where the victim is a man. The force and intensity of this film, and the way Hermanus controls the movie’s emotional weather, are impressive. Lotz gives the story a tragic dimension.

14. Of Good Report (2013)

Jahmil XT Qubeka’s cult classic from South Africa is a noir drama-thriller with weird fantasy outbreaks, concerning forbidden love, a troubled past and psychological breakdown. A shy, bookish student called Parker is hired to teach English in a high school. Although a person “of good report”, with a good reputation and references, he clearly has sexual designs on Nolitha (does the name hint at Lolita?), a teenage girl in his class. Their affair triggers a macabre spasm of sexual obsession and violence relating to Parker’s memories of military service in the Democratic Republic of Congo, apparently as part of a UN force.

13. Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975)

This Algerian film, directed by Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, is a resounding three-hour epic with lavish widescreen spectacle. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1975 (seeing off Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger and Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser). It is the story of the Algerian revolution from the second world war to the war of independence (the pre-history, perhaps, to the story told by Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers). A poor farmer called Ahmad is drafted into the French army and returns determined to free Algeria from the French yoke. So his almost biblically epic story of resistance begins, a story of opposition to brutality and bad faith.

12. Yaaba (1989)

A simple, gentle tale from Idrissa Ouédraogo, which unfolds at the walking-pace tempo of classic African cinema; using non-professionals, its depiction of rural communities perhaps owes something to Satyajit Ray. Two kids in Burkina Faso are playing outside their village when they see Sana, an old woman who has been cast out, apparently for being a witch. They are suspicious of her, but she shows them a kindness that they are not used to and soon there is a bond between her and the children. They affectionately call her “Yaaba” (Grandma). All that is tested when one of the children falls ill and Sana gets the blame.

11. Yeelen (1987)

A magical quest narrative from the Malian film-maker Souleymane Cissé, it was a hit at the 1987 Cannes film festival, where it won the Jury prize. Set some time in the distant past (or perhaps the timeless present or mysterious future), it is the story of a father-son confrontation. A young man called Niankoro leaves the family home on a mission to find the spiritual enlightenment and strength he will need in the inevitable showdown with the father who deserted him and his mother. The movie begins with a shot of a sunrise on the distant horizon, which caused the film to be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film is concerned with that mystical “yeelen”, or “brightness” that creates the world anew each morning.

10. The Season of Men (2000)

A lucid and compassionate film from the Tunisian writer-director Moufida Tlatli that allows its audience unhurried access to a powerful and deeply engaging family drama. It is the story of a woman and her two daughters, and the female community that nurtures and imprisons them on the Tunisian island of Djerba. Aicha is married to a businessman, who is away in Tunis, and must live on the island in a kind of purdah with all her husband’s sisters-in-law. He and the other menfolk come to live with them for one month a year – the “season of men”. Tlatli interleaves the past and present as naturally as the verses of a song, with a narrative mastery that she makes look easy.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s exraordinary 1966 film The Battle of Algiers.
Gillo Pontecorvo’s extraordinary 1966 film The Battle of Algiers. Photograph: Allstar/New Line

9. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

This classic movie from Gillo Pontecorvo is an extraordinary recreation of the 1950s Algerian uprising against French imperial rule. As the bombing campaign begins in Algiers, with nail-bitingly tense sequences in crowded cafes, French army officer Colonel Mathieu is entrusted by the government with putting down the revolt, and he embarks on a ruthlessly targeted campaign of isolating terrorist cells, torturing them for the names further up the pyramid chain until the key figures at the top are obliterated. Mathieu crisply briefs his men: “The culprits are presumed to be Muslim, so they will be able to hide more easily in the Arab quarters.” Ironically, Mathieu’s experience in Vietnam and the French resistance appears to prefigure his own ultimate failure here.

Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2002 film Waiting for Happiness.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2002 film Waiting for Happiness. Photograph: Allstar/New Yorker Films

8. Waiting for Happiness (2002)

This film from the Mauritanian writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako is beguiling in its gentleness. Its seaside setting of sand, perpetually audible surf and the plainest possible whitewashed buildings entirely without advertising or any sign of commerce gives it a fabular quality. The movie meanders gently from character to character in the town of Nouadhibou on Mauritania’s coast. Abdallah is a teenage boy who feels ill at ease in his homeland; he is heading for Europe for a new life, and that continent’s complex, dramatic pull is most keenly felt during a grainy flashback, showing a local woman who once travelled to France for a man’s sake, and felt only loneliness and alienation. As a film that declines to press its dramatic attentions, Waiting for Happiness needs an investment of patience, repaying it with a sweet and subtle portrait of an island community.

Sci-fi satire District 9.
Sci-fi satire District 9. Photograph: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures/Allstar/Sony Pictures

7. District 9 (2009)

“ET go home!” could be the poster tagline for this clever and prescient sci-fi satire about migrants and xenophobia, from South African film-maker Neill Blomkamp. In some future dystopian time, a spaceship containing aliens who have been expelled from their native planet hovers over a city. Caring, progressive politicians from Earth have allowed these weirdly shaped creatures (nicknamed “prawns”) to settle in an area outside the city, which becomes a lawless zone called District 9. Finally, the authorities decide to move them to an internment camp, but there is evidence that the prawns are still in contact with their hulking mothership, which is providing them with the means to rebel.

6. Atlantique (2019)

French-Senegalese actor-turned-director Mati Diop created a modern classic of poetic cinema in Atlantique, tapping into African cinema’s twin traditions of realism and fable with a compelling docu-supernatural enigma, a winter’s tale of a film with a dimension of strangeness unselfconsciously baked into the movie’s ostensible normality. Ada is a young woman in Dakar engaged to be married to the wealthy, obnoxious Omar, but she is in love with Souleiman, an exploited labourer who is thinking of making the dangerous migrant journey overseas. Ada, ironically, is on the verge of a far better life than any Souleiman can dream of – that of a rich married woman. Then something strange and unexpected happens. Souleiman’s behaviour is upsetting and mysterious, sending Ada a text asking her to meet in the middle of the night; is it real, or a sinister trap? Atlantique is about the return of the repressed, or the suppressed: the spirit of exploited labour rises up and this becomes a ghost story or a revenge story. It is a seductive mystery.

Maggie Mulubwa in I Am Not a Witch.
Maggie Mulubwa in I Am Not a Witch. Photograph: Allstar/Film 4

5. I Am Not a Witch (2017)

Zambian-born director Rungano Nyoni has created a film that is technically British, but sports with ideas and tropes that have long been present in African cinema: the innocence of the child and the pain of the ostracised outsider. She brings to it her own distinctive subversion and comedy, which makes I Am Not a Witch irresistible. (Nyoni was brought up in Wales, and it is interesting to wonder if her title had echoes of Connie Booth’s baffled proclamation of innocence during the witch-trial scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) Shula is a Zambian orphan who is bizarrely accused by her townspeople of being a witch; she is exiled, but then brought under the wing of the unspeakable Mr Banda, a slippery public official who has a very strange side hustle. He runs a “witch camp” into which Shula is briskly enrolled: all her classmates are elderly women. Hogwarts it ain’t. But soon Shula is pressed into service, going on talkshows, helping the police with her magic powers and assisting the farming community by miraculously bringing rain to the region. It’s a lovely jeu d’ésprit.

Youssef Chahine and Hind Rustum in Cairo Station.
Youssef Chahine and Hind Rustum in Cairo Station. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo

4. Cairo Station (1958)

All human life is here: the phrase really does apply to Youssef Chahine’s tragicomic masterpiece. Cairo Station is the venue for a blazingly passionate drama about Qinawi, a lame newspaper vendor, played by Chahine himself, and his unrequited desire for Hanuma, the Bardot-ish lemonade seller. Chahine conducts his big cast with uproarious energy, immediacy and freshness; he has tremendous stylised set pieces, including a railway-carriage rock’n’roll number performed by a group gloriously credited as Mike and his Skyrockets. As Qinawi’s love becomes more obsessive, the mood darkens and elements of Hitchcock and Powell creep in. Finally, Cairo Station virtually attains the air of a tragedy, observing classical unities of time and place. My favourite moment is the shot that Chahine contrives after Qinawi is convinced of the need for violent action: we immediately cut to an extraordinary selection of fearsome knives, big and small, hanging up in what appears to be an elaborate and preposterous outdoor knife shop. “Can I help you?” asks an assistant, directly to camera, clearly addressing the seething would-be assassin. It is a beautiful, deadpan, black comic touch.

3. La Noire de … (1966)

The Senegalese writer and director Ousmane Sembène is often described as the “father of African cinema” and this was his debut movie. A brief feature based on one of his own short stories, it is a tale of sexual politics and the cultural norms of empire. The film stars the Senegalese actor Mbissine Thérèse Diop as Diouana, a young woman from Dakar who comes to work as a nanny in the south of France, which turns out to be far from the leisured paradise she had hoped for. She is kept as a servant, never let out of the house and is sexually harassed by her employers and their guests. Her ordeal is intercut with her previous life in Senegal, which is hardly happy in comparison. Sembène’s film grasped the nature of empire and servitude: big themes coupled with a strong intimate storytelling style. Diop recently came out of retirement to play a community elder in Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties.

Magaye Niang as Mory and Myriam Niang as Anta in Touki Bouki.
Magaye Niang as Mory and Myriam Niang as Anta in Touki Bouki. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

2. Touki Bouki (1973)

Two years ago, Beyoncé and Jay-Z did their bit to revive the memory of one of African cinema’s occult jewels, thought to be the first experimental film from Africa. Jay-Z posed on a motorbike with a big pair of zebu horns on the handlebars and Beyoncé sat behind him. It was a reference to a central image in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki: the two glamorous scofflaws and rebels of Senegal on a bike – like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in in the 1960 version of Breathless or Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. Mory and Anta are a young couple deeply disenchanted with their Senegalese homeland, who dream of escaping to Europe. They need money fast and the only way to get it is crime: stealing, fraud, prostitution or burglary. The movie ricochets and pinballs around from scene to scene and idea to idea, with a loose, rangy vitality, but when it comes to the crunch, it seems that only Anta has the passionate need to escape Senegal; Mory is weirdly constrained by ties of loyalty to the place, as if only Senegal will allow his machismo to flourish, although his motorbike comes symbolically to grief. The subversive energy of Touki Bouki made Mambéty a one-man African New Wave.

Hamza Moctar Aguid and Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa in Abouna.
Hamza Moctar Aguid and Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa in Abouna.

1. Abouna (2002)

Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, a film-maker from Chad, has been widely praised for features such as Daratt and his recent excellent A Season in France. But, for me, his great film is Abouna, a classic of African cinema: rich in understated humanity, a film about love and loss, imbued with profound tenderness towards children and childhood. It crams the extraordinarily dramatic events in the lives of two young boys into just 81 minutes, while always maintaining its unhurried narrative. It never harasses or hectors its audience; the performances are calm and deeply felt, and so is the way they are shaped and photographed. Two brothers, aged 15 and eight, are haunted by the disappearance of their father, who has deserted the family home. (We see this man only once, in a sequence at the film’s beginning, wandering across a wilderness.) In sad, but witty, sequences the film shows us the boys’ forlorn attempt to find their father (at the cinema, the younger boy is convinced he can see him on screen and shouts: “Dad it’s me!”). Their mother is not helpful when they ask what has become of their dad, replying only that he is “irresponsible”, a term that baffles them. Finally, the boys are sent away to religious school and one meets a girl, a late-flowering love story that deepens and complicates their own relationship as one boy is to leave the world of childhood much sooner than his lonely brother. There is such poignancy and tenderness in this film.

  • To buy the Guardian’s Black history wallcharts, visit the Guardian bookshop and use code 15CHART for a 50% discount

  • This article was amended on 2 October to correct the description of Nouadhibou as a “little village”.

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