The work of African film makers has been in and out of the international cinema houses for decades, but recently it’s getting more attention. Here are 10 great film directors from Africa. They’re Oscar winners and nominees, underground visionaries, and influential legends.
Sources: africansuccess.org, imdb.com, biography.yourdictionary.com, atghana.wordpress.com, festival-cannes.fr
Hailing from Johannesburg, this South African filmmaker started out as a visual effects artist for American TV shows including “Smallville” and “Stargate SG-1.” After making a short film, “Alive in Joburg” at age 26, Blomkamp took a stab at the big leagues and expanded on the theme with an extraterrestrial allegory for apartheid, “District 9” (2009.) The sci-fi film made $30 million in its first week of release in America, and was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture of the Year. He followed with “Elysium” (2013), which offered a feast of complicated visual imagery, but didn’t fare as well at the box office.
A Malian film director, but a pillar in international arthouse cinema, Cissé graduated from the Moscow School of Cinema and Television in the 1970s, and made his first film, “Cinq jours d’un vie (Five Days in a Life)” in 1972. Subsequent works were mostly filmed in the Bambara language and featured some very stigmatized subject matter, including his infamous work “Den Muso (The Girl)” (1974) — a stark portrayal of abuse and rape that got the film banned by the Malian Ministry of Culture. His two later films “Yeelen” (1987) and “Waati” (1995) were both nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
This Ghana-born filmmaker is a rare and hopeful female presence in the world cinema scene, let alone in African movie making. She graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design, and went back to her home country to start making films. Having already broken ground in Ghana by writing the first LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights-related screenplay, “The Sisterhood,” she followed with movies illuminating risky aspects of the underserved in her country. “Grass Between my Lips” (2009) tackled female genital mutilation. “I Sing of a Well” (2010) was nominated for 11 African Academy Awards. “Sinking Sands” (2011) was lauded for its raw drama, and won the Ghana Film Award for Best Picture.
Born in Chad but educated in France, Haroun has been the toast of the festival circuit numerous times in the last decade, becoming a major African-French filmmaker. His first film, “Bye-Bye Africa” won the prize for Best Debut Film at the Venice Film Festival. “Dry Season” (2006) won the Special Jury Prize at the same prestigious festival. His 2010 film, “Un Homme Qui Crie” (A Screaming Man), picked up the third-place Jury Prize trophy in Cannes. His next film, “Grisgris,” (2013) also graced the screen on the Croisette. A favorite at Cannes, Haroun has served as a feature films jury member.
We’ve all seen a Darrell Roodt film or two. “Sarafina!” (1992) with actors Whoopi Goldberg and Leleti Khumalo was the South African director’s take on the June 1976 Soweto Riots. His next major motion picture also dealt with apartheid in an adaptation of the Alan Paton masterpiece, “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1995) with James Earl Jones. Roodt reached a career high with arguably his best film, the small, Oscar-nominated gem, “Yesterday” (2004), also with Leleti Khumalo. It was the first full-length Zulu-language film in history. His 2011 film, “Winnie Mandela” film with Jennifer Hudson fell flat, but Roodt continues to push forward as one of South Africa’s kings of the cinema.
This Mauritanian-Malian visionary has been making films since his immersion in film school at the Federal State Film Institute in Moscow in 1983. His first major international film of high repute was “Waiting for Happiness,” screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. His 2006 film, “Bamako,” encompasses daily life in Mali’s capital city while also raising questions about neo-liberalism and globalization. It was an official selection at Cannes. His 2014 film, “Timbuktu,” chronicled the brief period that the city was occupied by Ansar Dine Islamist militant group. It won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes.
One of the great pioneers of African cinema, he helped make it accessible on the international market. The Senegalese Wolof legend Mambéty died in 1998 of lung cancer complications while making his first film in many years. It was the follow-up to the immensely influential “Hyenes” (1992), a Cannes hit that painted a cautionary tale of colonialism affecting a small African village. Other great films include “Badou Boy,” (1970) and “Le Franc” (1994).
Kenya-born Kahiu is a master’s graduate from the U.C.L.A. School of Film and Television. Her 2009 film, “From a Whisper,” about the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi, won five African Movie Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Also in 2009, her movie “Pumzi” — Swahili for “breath” — was screened at Sundance in the New Africa Cinema section.
Senegalese directorial trailblazer Sembene started as a social-conscience novelist while living in France in the 1950s, turning to cinema to made the landmark film, “Black Girl” in 1966, about a young Senegalese woman’s isolation working as a maid in France. “Emitai” (1971) and “Xala” (1975) depict life in colonized Africa, but his most accessible film, “Moolaadé,” (2004) shows a non-gory depiction of a woman fighting to protect village girls from ritual genital mutilation. Sembene died in 2007. You can find some of his films on Netflix.
Another great South African film director who has become a Hollywood go-to director, Gavin Hood was a lawyer and then a U.C.L.A. film graduate. Hood won the Foreign Film Oscar for his 2005 film, “Tsotsi,” depicting slum life in Johannesburg. His follow-up was the American thriller, “Rendition” (2007) with Reese Witherspoon, and most recently the adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel, “Ender’s Game” (2013).