11 iconic African movies to stream
The borders are closed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t explore your continent, thanks to this starter guide to classic African films on Showmax.
The Train of Salt and Sugar was Mozambique’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film in 2018 and won Best Director at Cairo International Film Festival, Best Director at Carthage, and Best Film at Joburg Film Festival, where the jury noted the film’s triumph “in showing the resilience of the human spirit.”
Set in northern Mozambique in the 1980s, the story follows a train transporting passengers and goods 500 miles through guerrilla-held territory during the Mozambican civil war. As rivalries form between the soldiers of the train’s military guard and friendships are forged between the passengers, violence threatens both on board and from the rebels. And with the threat of battle looming, romance blossoms against the stunning backdrop of the African bush.
Ousmane Sembène’s Mooladé is set in a village in Burkina Faso, where four young girls flee their ritual ‘purification’ to the household of Colle’ Ardo Gallo Sy, a strong-willed woman who has managed to shield her own teenage daughter from female genital mutilation.
Colle’ invokes the time-honored custom of moolaadé (sanctuary) to protect the fugitives but the ensuing stand-off pits her against the village traditionalists, both male and female, and endangers her daughter’s upcoming marriage.
Mooladé won Un Certain Regard and a Special Mention from the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes in 2004. The movie has a 99% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where the critics’ consensus calls it, “A vibrant, powerful, and poignant glimpse into the struggles of women in modern Africa.” It’s been included in The New Yorker’s list of the Top 25 Films Of The Century So Far, the BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century, and Steven Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
Flora Gomes’ Nha Fala / My Voice My Voice follows Vita, a young woman from a family in Cape Verde that has been cursed: any woman in the family who sings will be struck dead. But while studying in Paris, she falls in love with a musician and becomes an international star. Convinced she’s proved the curse isn’t real, she returns to Cape Verde to convince her family.
Nha Fala / My Voice My Voice won six international awards, including the Laterna Magic Prize at Venice in 2002, and was the only film from Africa to compete at Berlin that year.
Grammy-nominated Cameroonian star Manu Dibango, who tragically passed away from Covid-19 in March 2020, wrote and produced the film’s music.
In Bab El Hadid / Cairo Station, Youssef Chahine both directs and stars as Qinawi, a crippled newspaper vendor who falls for a lemonade seller, Hanouma, who is engaged to another station worker, Abu-Serih. As Abu-Serih tries to unionise the station workers, Qinawi’s fixation on Hanouma crosses the line from innocent crush to dangerous obsession.
Cairo Station was included in The Story of Film, the definitive history of cinema, and Chahine went on to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from Cannes in 1997.
The movie has a 100% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Time Out praised it as “a great overlooked masterpiece”, The Guardian as“unmissable”, The Hollywood Reporter as “a jewel of a film” and BBC as “an excellent thriller, and one that anticipates the serial killer genre that Hitchcock’s Psycho kick-started a few years later… a cinematic triumph.”
Haile Gerima’s feature film debut, Harvest: 3000 Years, is set in Ethiopia and follows a slow-boiling feud between a wealthy land-owner and a protestor who feels he is mistreating his labourers.
Shot during the Ethiopian civil war, Harvest: 3000 Years won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Silver Leopard at Locarno in 1976.
Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese (The Irishman) presented a restored version of Harvest: 3000 Years at Cannes in 2006 and at Tribeca in 2008. As he wrote for Tribeca, the film “has a particular kind of urgency which few pictures possess. This is the story of an entire people, and its collective longing for justice and good faith. An epic, not in scale but in emotional and political scope.” The Tate Modern also honoured the film with a special screening in 2015.
Oscar and Golden Globe nominee Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) has hailed Gerima as a “a giant of cinema. A giant, I say.”
Liyana is a genre-defying documentary that tells the story of five children in the Kingdom of Eswatini who, with some guidance from South African storyteller Gcina Mhlope, turn past trauma into an original fable about a girl named Liyana, who embarks on a perilous quest to save her young twin brothers. The film weaves Liyana’s animated journey together with poetic documentary scenes to create an inspiring tale of perseverance and hope.
Winner of over 35 awards, Liyana is the directorial debut of Swaziland-born-and-raised Aaron Kopp, with his wife Amanda. Before moving into directing, Aaron shot the Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face and the Oscar-nominated The Hunting Ground.
Liyana is executive produced by Emmy winner Thandie Newton (Westworld), produced by Oscar winner Daniel Junge (Saving Face), and edited by Davis Coombe (Chasing Coral, Chasing Ice). Nigerian Shofela Coker created the stunning animated artwork, while South African Philip Miller composed the score.
Entertainment Weekly hailed it as “gorgeous. Unlike any documentary you’ve ever seen,” while The Hollywood Reporter praised it as “A lyrical work, as bright and captivating as it is poignant.”
Jo (Stycie Waweru) is a witty nine-year-old obsessed with Jackie Chan movies. She’s also terminally ill. When she is taken back to her rural village to live out the rest of her short life, her only comfort is her dream of being a superhero – a dream her rebellious teenage sister Mwix (Nyawara Ndambia), overprotective mother Kathryn (Marrianne Nungo) and the entire village of Maweni think they can fulfil…
Directed by Kenyan Likarion Wainana and produced by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume, Babylon Berlin), Supa Modo has won over 50 international awards, including Best European Film For Children at the European Children’s Film Association Awards in 2019, a Children’s Jury Special Mention in the Generation 14Plus category at Berlin in 2019, and the Audience Award at Children’s Film Festival Seattle in 2019.
Supa Modo has a 100% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes: Variety called it “a tender, bittersweet fable,” while The Seattle Times wrote, “I’m glad movie theatres are dark because I ugly-cried my way through all 74 minutes of Supa Modo. I straight-up bawled my eyes out… Brutal and beautiful, melancholy and joyous, Supa Modo is simultaneously crushing and uplifting.”
In a Chinese Buddhist orphanage in Africa, a Malawian teenager finds himself torn between his African roots and Chinese upbringing. Once the star performer with dreams of becoming a martial arts hero like Jet Li, Enock is now in his final year of school and has to make some tough decisions about his future. Will he return to his relatives in his home village or study abroad in Taiwan?
Directed by South African Nicole Schafer, Buddha in Africa was praised by Variety as “a complicated portrait of what’s been described as the latest chapter in Africa’s long struggle against colonization.”
Buddha in Africa screened at IDFA 2019, arguably the world’s top documentary festival, as part of their prestigious Best Of Fests line-up, after winning Best South African Documentary at the Durban International Film Festival. At the 2020 SAFTAs, Buddha in Africa won both Best Documentary and Best Directing.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s 1998 film La Vie Sur Terre / Life on Earth follows Dramane, who returns from France to visit his father in a village in Mali.
Life on Earth is ranked joint fourth on the Tarifa-Tangiers African Film Festival’s list of the 10 best African films of all time and won 10 international awards, including the Grand Prix at Fribourg, where the FIPRESCI critics jury also gave the film a Special Mention “for the high level of the director’s political debate and the loveable, poetic and ironic view on the everyday life of his characters.”
Sissako went on to direct Timbuktu, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2015 and named one of the Top 25 Films of the 21st Century by The New York Times, among other honours.
Hyènes / Hyenas (1992)
In Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 classic Hyènes / Hyenas, an exorbitantly rich woman returns to her poor Senegalese village and forces it to choose between her patronage and her old flame, now the mayor. Hyenaswas nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1992 and was ranked joint fourth on the Tarifa-Tangiers African Film Festival’s list of the 10 best African films of all time. The Hollywood Reporter called it “a wicked skewering of both the rich and those who seek their handouts… Mambety’s beautifully shot and colorfully performed fable entertains, but its final frames are no laughing matter.”