Magaye Niang and Mareme Niang in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki
In this Black Panther moment, which has tapped into and expanded the recent interest in Afro-Futurism, and inspired by the screening of Haile Gerima's 1993 film Sankofa on Monday by Doc Films and by last week's passing of acclaimed Burkinabe director Idrissa Ouédraogo, we are focusing this week on five key African films from Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso.
The 1965 first feature of Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. A girl from a lower-class district in Dakar goes to work as a maid for a French couple and accompanies them on a vacation to France, where her newfound sense of freedom gradually turns into feelings of isolation and invisibility. Sembene keeps his metaphors under control, and the result is a message movie with an unusual depth of characterization. In French with subtitles. 65 min. —Dave Kehr
This 1973 first feature by Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety is one of the greatest of all African films and almost certainly the most experimental. Beautifully shot and strikingly conceived, it follows the comic misadventures of a young motorcyclist and former herdsman (Magaye Niang) who gets involved in petty crimes in Dakar during an attempt to escape to Paris with the woman he loves (Mareme Niang). The title translates as “Hyena's Voyage,” and among the things that make this film so interesting stylistically are the fantasy sequences involving the couple's projected images of themselves in Paris and elsewhere. 85 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Souleymane Cisse's extraordinarily beautiful and mesmerizing fantasy (1987) is set in the ancient Bambara culture of Mali (formerly French Sudan) long before it was invaded by Morocco in the 16th century. A young man (Issiaka Kane) sets out to discover the mysteries of nature (or komo, the science of the gods) with the help of his mother and uncle, but his jealous father contrives to prevent him from deciphering the elements of the Bambara sacred rites and tries to kill him. Apart from creating a dense and exciting universe that should make George Lucas green with envy, Cisse has shot breathtaking images and accompanies his story with a spare, hypnotic, percussive score. Sublimely mixing the matter-of-fact with the uncanny, this wondrous work provides an ideal introduction to a filmmaker who is, next to Ousmane Sembene, probably Africa's greatest director. In French and Bambara with subtitles. 105 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Idrissa Ouedraogo's second feature (1989), from Burkina Faso, focuses on a young boy (Noufou Ouedraogo) and his female cousin (Roukietou Barry) as they befriend an old woman in their village (Fatimata Sanga) who's treated as an outcast and accused of being a witch. The locations are attractive, the performances are natural, and the details about local folkways are interesting, but the plot is a bit dull in spots, if only because the moral divisions are fairly simplistic. This is certainly not a bad film, but don't expect anything comparable to the African cinema of Cisse or Sembene. 90 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Waiting for Happiness
Written and directed by Mauritanian expatriate Abderrahmane Sissako, this 2002 French/Mauritanian drama presents a kaleidoscopic portrait of a West African village wedged between the desert and the sea. A young man returns home after years of travel; the rather elusive narrative follows him through a series of impressionistic encounters with villagers (an old electrician and his orphan ward, a Chinese vendor who sings karaoke tunes in Mandarin, the local hooker) who, like him, are fleeting figures in the transition from tradition to modernity. The images Sissako unscrolls are artfully composed and arrestingly exotic, and the film's meditative languor conveys a feeling of mystery and regret. In French, Hassanya, and Mandarin with subtitles. 95 min. —Ted Shen