Where was African joy at Cannes or African humour at Sundance? The big film festivals need to look beyond stereotypes | Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

At this year’s Cannes film festival, there were films from Zambia and Somalia, two countries that don’t usually feature at the international showcase. Both received critical acclaim and Zambia’s On Becoming A Guinea Fowl went further in winning for its director, Rugano Nyoni, an award in the Un Certain Regard section.

In many ways, the two films are very different – Mo Harawe’s The Village Next to Paradise is an unvarnished drama set in Somalia while Nyoni’s film has a smattering of surrealism. But in one respect, both will be familiar to those who get their Africa from western TV news: Guinea Fowl is about abuse, Paradise is about poverty. They are themes unchanged in decades. Africa, once again, is framed by its troubles, its stagnancy.

Africa is problematic – its inhabitants are very poor, and the continent is always on the brink of a projected economic buoyancy that never happens. But it is also a continent of young people, with all of the possibility that demographic provides. Somehow, only the first half of the story gets shown at the leading venues. At the traditional “big three” festivals – Cannes, Venice, Berlin – and other respected film events in the US and Europe, sub-Saharan Africa has mostly turned up to the ball in unflattering garments, if invited at all.

Almost a decade ago, I attended my first international film festival, where people were surprised Nigeria, home of the prolific Nollywood, had a film critic. To these people, what Nigeria produced wasn’t exactly worthy of criticism. I wasn’t keen to argue. I disagreed with them mildly but I also understood what they said.

All of that has changed. Nollywood has better production values and a Nigerian critic is probably no longer a mythical creature. A group of young ambitious film-makers has finally entered the industry. In fact, the past 18 months have been a significant time for African cinema in the west.

Some of the films that have enjoyed success include the continent’s breakout picture at Sundance, Mami Wata, a fantasy thriller. The Berlinale screened All the Colours of the World are Between Black and White, about a potential gay love affair stifled by Nigerian society. Last year’s big prize at Rotterdam’s international film festival was won by a documentary from Cameroon, The Spectre of Boko Haram. Mati Diop’s Dahomey, which won the Golden Bear in Berlin, is a disquisition on the violent theft of colonialism.

War, repression, terrorism, colonialism. This is a commentary on the narrowness of the western gaze, not an indictment of these fine movies and their makers. Individually, one appreciates the artistry on display. The trouble is that taken together they belong to a single register – and, broadly, thematic concern – while coming from a polyphonic people and place. Where was African joy at Cannes? Where was African humour at Sundance? Cities in Africa, such as Lagos, are known for their energy; why is that energy mostly absent on the screens hoisted by these prestigious venues?

The continent has produced films with verve and variety. There’s South African boxing thriller Knuckle City, while Nollywood has produced lighthearted comedies such as Isoken. It has also produced the female gangster-led King of Boys, a Godfather-esque epic infused with the type of African vigour presumably excluded from western big venue success.

These are imperfect films; they may not even be “festival films”. But success spawns success in the business of cinema. If only films showing an enervated woe-is-us Africa get big venue acclaim, then only African films in that mould get made by ambitious film-makers hoping to get into those venues.

Mo Harawe, centre, the Somali director and screenwriter of The Village Next to Paradise, in Cannes with actors Ahmed Ali Farah, left, and Anab Ahmed Ibrahim. Photograph: Loïc Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Taken together, 2023 and 2024 have been wonderfully successful years for black African film-makers seeking a place in the world. They have seen their films accepted by the same big venues that have long welcomed their peers from elsewhere. But you probably shouldn’t watch the films that have made it back to back without some kind of emotional salve.

None of this is necessarily new. Indeed, you might say African cinema is merely receiving its share of a dubious loot first inherited by African literature. Just over a decade ago, the novelist Helon Habila, writing in the Guardian, described an aesthetic that was readily rewarded by literary prizes. “We are talking child soldiers, genocide, child prostitution, female genital mutilation, political violence, police brutality, dictatorships, predatory preachers, dead bodies on the roadside,” he said. African cinema has taken up the gauntlet.

Meanwhile, Marcello Mio, a product of whimsy that, frankly, hardly belongs in any serious festival’s selection, was in a list of 22 films chosen to compete for the highest award at Cannes. Pulitzer prize winner and New Yorker film critic Justin Chang put it second to last in his ranking of films in the Cannes competition this year, which seems about right.

As I watched the film, I couldn’t help wonder: if such a playful project was produced by an African film-maker, would it be selected by Cannes? Would it even dream of getting into its most prestigious section? Or would Thierry Frémaux’s selection committee think it too joyful for Africa?

The Guardian

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