In terms of international recognition, this week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced feature films eligible for consideration in the International Feature Film category for the 94th Academy Awards. Since the African continent first submitted a film for Oscar consideration in 1958, with Egyptian director Youssef Chahine’s “Cairo Station,” the number of African submissions for Best International Film Oscar consideration seems to be stabilizing at an average of around 10 annually. Eight films were submitted for the 2019 awards; 10 for 2020; and 12 for 2021, which marked a record. Ten submissions are in consideration for the upcoming 2022 ceremony.
The history of cinema on the African continent is expectedly complex and brief — unlike other artforms including music and literature, of which there are decades, if not centuries of rich history. (Check out Malian scholar and professor at New York University’s Department of Cinema Studies, Manthia Diawara’s exhaustive 1992 account of African cinema during the first half of the 20th century, “African Cinema: Politics and Culture.”)
Due to restrictive colonialist structures and a Francophone/Anglophone divide, Africans weren’t always in a position to tell their own stories on film. Although, to doubt the prevalence of ingenuity and creativity on the continent would be a criminally absurd gesture. And that progress continues to be made, is undeniable.
Today, African cinema isn’t entirely disentangled from the grasp of its former colonizers, as the majority of the films strong enough to compete on the international stage are financed, and effectively controlled by European interests. But change is in the air. Or is it? The “Africa Rising” narrative (coined by a non-African of course), primarily a socioeconomic concept, has prevailed over the last decade, even as pushback rightfully insists on how reductive the notion is, especially given the continued stronghold of Western countries across the continent, despite any perceived receding.
The “film problem” in many African countries can be narrowed down to a lack of infrastructure, stemming from apathetic governments and even private enterprise, where cinema is concerned. Filmmaking is an expensive practice, and, as is the case with any investment, the path to returns must be clear. Not many are willing to take the risk, especially when there are a multitude of more reliable opportunities to capitalize.
And so Africa continues to “rise” cinematically, however incrementally. Quantitative data is a hodgepodge, but one measure is international recognition for the work created. There’s the argument that cinema of the continent does not need to be legitimized by order of the West, and should instead insist on being appreciated on its own terms, much like other expressions of African creativity, especially music and dance, which have traveled widely without compromise, and have even been appropriated. It’s certainly a powerful argument, and a plausible scenario, but one that will be a challenge to see realized in an increasingly interconnected world still wrangling with the lingering effects of colonialism.
It’s a labyrinthine discussion that simply can’t be summed up here.
Wild Bunch International
The last time a film representing an African country received a nomination was Kaouther Ben Hania’s “The Man Who Sold His Skin” representing Tunisia at the 93rd awards ceremony, earlier this year. The last time a film representing an African country won the category was South Africa’s “Tsotsi,” by Gavin Hood, at the 78th Oscars in 2006. It’s one of three total wins for the continent, along with Costa-Gavras’ “Z” (Algeria) in 1969, and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Black and White in Color” (Ivory Coast) in 1976. That all three were directed by white filmmakers, again speaks to remnants of colonialism, and incomplete perceptions of the continent that continue to be pervasive.
Additionally, northern countries Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt have historically fared much better than sub-Saharan nations (AKA “Black Africa”), if only because there’s a longer history of cinema in the northern region. Of the 10 African films nominated for the Best International Film Oscar since it was created (previously known as the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), half represented Algeria alone, one from Tunisia, and one from Mauritania. This means that an overwhelming 70 percent of African nominees have come from northern countries.
While nominations aren’t due for another two months, this year’s submissions do favor sub-Saharan regions, which make up 60 percent of entries, thanks to newcomers like Somalia, submitting for the first time, and countries still relatively new to awards season, including Malawi, submitting for only the second time, after Shemu Joyah’s “The Road to Sunrise” for the 2019 Oscars. Also, it’s the first time Cameroon (four submissions total in history) has entered a film in back-to-back years.
No specific themes or genres dominate. If anything, it’s a rather remarkable list of films in the sense that, unlike previous years, several of them aren’t necessarily weighed down by issues believed to be specific to the continent, or country, or concerned about outsider perceptions, as films of the continent that travel (most often financed by European companies) have often been.
But a shift appears to be underway, especially as more countries get into the game. For example, Somalia entered “The Gravedigger’s Wife,” which tells the story of a gravedigger who must raise money to pay for his gravely ill wife’s surgery; Morocco’s “Casablanca Beats,” a take on the popular teacher-inspires-students subgenre, follows a group of teenagers at a cultural center who are encouraged by a new instructor, a washed up musician, to free themselves from the weight of traditions and express themselves with music; and Tunisia’s “Golden Butterfly” is a fantasy-drama about the relationship between a policeman with a past and a young boy he meets by chance.
To be sure, pressing matters of sociopolitical and economic import will likely (and should) continue to inspire African storytellers, even as up-and-coming filmmakers born into an virtually boundary-free world, break with a tradition that African cinema pioneers like Ousmane Sembene, Paulin Vieyra, Med Hondo, and Djibril Diop Mambéty nurtured. Variety is certainly much welcomed.
It remains to be seen whether any of the below 10 Best International Film submissions will be shortlisted and eventually move on to the final list of five nominees. Of the 10 films, Chad’s “Lingui, The Sacred Bonds” directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, and Nabil Ayouch’s “Casablanca Beats” (Morocco), probably have the strongest chance, if only because there’s a broader awareness of each filmmaker, both Cannes Film Festival regulars, and each title, both Cannes 2021 selections.
The shortlist of 15 films will be announced on Tuesday, December 21, 2021, followed by nominations on Tuesday, February 8, 2022.
Here are the 10 African films submitted for consideration:
– Algeria, Djaâfar Gacem’s “Heliopolis”
– Cameroon, Ngang Romanus’ “Hidden Dreams”
– Chad, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “Lingui, The Sacred Bonds”
– Egypt, Ayten Amin’s “Souad”
– Kenya, Gilbert Lukalia’s “Mission to Rescue”
– Malawi, Gift Sukez Sukali’s “Fatsani: A Tale of Survival”
– Morocco, Nabil Ayouch’s “Casablanca Beats”
– Somalia, Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s “The Gravedigger’s Wife”
– South Africa, Amy Jephta’s “Barakat”
– Tunisia, Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s “Golden Butterfly”
The 94th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 27, 2022, and will be televised live on ABC.