Highlights from London’s most prestigious annual African film festival

Film Africa 2017 was the seventh edition of this annual London event by the Royal African Society celebrating African film. For 10 days, the festival presented 38 films from 21 countries, including 19 UK premieres, plus debates, live music, workshops, parties and awards. Its programming opened up stimulating discussions about socio-political issues through the works of both emerging and established filmmakers, thereby promoting a better understanding of the continent, its diaspora, and its cinematic output internationally. The value of telling diverse stories from a non-Western lens lies in the urgency of reproducing and redefining a more accurate representation of the continent, its people and its interaction with the world.

The opening gala was a screening of The Wound by director John Trengove, followed by a Q&A with its lead actor Nakhane Touré. Already an acclaimed musician, this was Touré’s first acting job. He plays Xolani, a lonely factory worker in charge of mentoring a privileged city boy from Johannesburg as he undergoes the Xhosa ritual of male circumcision, bringing him into manhood. Set in a camp in the mountains on the Eastern Cape, we also follow the relationship between Xolani and fellow initiate caregiver, the hyper-masculine and married Vija (Bongile Mantsai).

The film has won awards and is South Africa’s official 2018 Oscar Awards entry. However it has caused deep controversy due its bold addressing of themes around sexuality, masculinity and cultural identity. It has also been criticised for exposing this sacred ritual to the world. Touré has personally received death threats yet still stands by the work. "Xhosa is a beautiful culture and all cultures have their problems. This ritual is one of them. I would like to get to a place where the shroud of secrecy is lessened and there is more accountability," he said. “I come from a Xhosa family and when I told my uncle I was a part of the film he was nervous for me. He asked me, ‘What do you reveal?’ And I said, ‘Nothing that cannot be imagined’. This film is less about the actual initiation as it is about same sex desire, modernity and tradition.”

Another highlight of the festival was Félicité, written and directed by Alain Gomis. As the film starts, we are immersed into the heady atmosphere of a bar in Kinshasa filled with partygoers moving rhythmically to live music. The band is fronted by singer Félicité (Véro Tshanda Beya), a single mother living in the chaotic capital of DR Congo. Soon, her son is injured in a motorcycle accident and she embarks on a fast-paced journey through the city to raise money for his urgent operation, forming an unexpected romance with ladies man Tabu (Papi Mpaka) in the process. This is a spectacular film that has the expeditiousness and realness of a documentary.

“Let me tell you a story coming from the most intimate of places…” is the first sentence uttered in Sacred Water. The documentary delves into the female orgasmic experience within the context of Rwandan society, where kunyaza - female ejaculation - is highly celebrated. We follow charismatic radio host and sexologist Vestine Dusabe in her fascination of the kunyaza - a tradition that originates from the tale of how a Rwandan queen’s orgasm was so strong that it formed Lake Kivu. By visiting villages and schools, and even airing some acts of kunyaza on live radio, Dusabe is on a mission to revive the practice of female ejaculation as a sacred act.

The film also highlights mutual pleasure and the excitement men find in women’s water – the more water, the greater the pleasure for the man, which indirectly suggests that a woman is less attractive if she doesn’t produce a lot of water. Victoria Uwonkunda, a Rwandan journalist at the BBC’s Focus On Africa, spoke on a panel about the film: ”What is lacking is that the males also are educated in kunyaza, and they have to understand the anatomy of the female. Additionally, they have to know how they are going to please her,” Uwonkunda said. “My culture says that we need to satisfy each other, to have a marriage. You can walk to your family or your in-laws and say, ‘My husband can’t satisfy me’. That is grounds for divorce.”

“Let me tell you a story coming from the most intimate of places”

One of the most sought after festival tickets was for Winnie - the gripping story of the intriguing and often misunderstood Winnie Mandela, who fought at the forefront of the liberation movement against apartheid in South Africa while Nelson Mandela was serving 27 years in prison. The director, Pascale Lamache, won Sundance’s Director Award in the World Cinema-Documentary category for the documentary.

To mark Ghana’s 60 years of independence, Film Africa screened three titles representing some of the best new films coming out of the country, one of them being Keteke by debut director Peter Sedufia. It is a captivating comedy set in the 1980s in rural Ghana. Atwei (Lydia Forson), who is heavily pregnant, and her husband Boi (Adjetey Anang) are trying to get into the city to deliver their child. The plot unfolds as they miss the train and are stranded in the middle of nowhere. All they have for their entertainment and survival are each other, a bottle of water and Boi’s precious ghetto blaster. The lack of a decent public transport system in part inspired the film. Sedufia said: “If you have a very vibrant railway system then people can to get to work on time, get to the hospital in time, anywhere they need to get to.”

Keteke has a great sense of timing and the music, by the Accra-based band Worlasi, adds to the addictive and light-hearted tale. The title is Twi for train, yet the film is spoken in English. Sedufia was pragmatic with his reasoning why: “My intention was purely commercial. I am a new director, and there are a lot of films in the system already. I wanted to make a film that will call attention to itself. I need money to make my next film, and the next one.”

Another standout debut, by director Rayhana Obermeyer, was I Still Hide To Smoke, which is set in 1995 during the Algerian Civil War - a time when the country was rigidly held by an Islamist regime. Living in this fundamentalist society, there is only one place for women to gather together – the single sex hammam. The film reveals a group of women’s stories and their shared sense of sisterhood as they seek to escape the hands of patriarchy for a few precious moments. They come here to cleanse themselves of both physical and mental trauma while gossiping, relaxing and smoking cigarettes. The conversations among the bathers are often bold and loud, and bring up controversial subjects such as sex and divorce.

We follow a day in the life of Fatima (Hiam Abbas), the head masseuse, who along with her helper Samia (Fadila Belkebla) offer baths, treatments and a safe space for females of all ages, shapes, and opinions. The secretly pregnant girl Meriem (Lina Soualem) takes refuge in the hammam to escape her vengeful brother. When a group of men approaches the hammam, the women unify to protect themselves and the girl they are hiding.

For the closing gala, the festival screened the exceptional film Foreign Body, written and directed by Raja Amari. It opens with an underwater scene of people falling from a sinking boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Samia (Sarra Hannachi) is a young woman who flees Tunisia and her radical Islamist brother following the Jasmine Revolution and is trying to get to European shores. In a search for independence and freedom, Samia illegally ends up in France, where a new struggle begins. She starts out by staying with a former acquaintance from her village, until she finds work with the rich widow, Leila (Hiam Abbass). Their relationship evolves into one of desire and sensuality, initiating a narrative about two strong women in the middle of a political and social turmoil. This powerful story was a fitting end to the festival, which yet again proved that African cinema is going from strength to strength.

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Published on 08/11/2017