Cinema of Africa

Explore the very best movies from Africa, based on a selection of over 9,100 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

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AlgeriaBotswanaBurkina FasoEgyptEthiopiaIvory CoastMaliMauritaniaMoroccoNigeriaRwandaSenegalSomaliaSouth AfricaTunisiaZambia

The History of African Cinema

African cinema is largely dominated by themes detailing its colonial history. During the 7th century, the Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula (current day Saudi Arabia) invaded Africa no less than three times, and by the start of the 8th century, all of North Africa was under the control of the Arab caliphate. This established Islam as the main religion in the region. Subsequent colonization by Europe further influenced native African culture, creating a unique cultural pallet, which up until today heavily influences the region’s society as well as its cinematic output.

African Cinema (Timbuktu)
(Credit: Timbuktu, Mauritania)

The so-called “Scramble for Africa” sliced the continent up into pieces as if it was a cake, resulting in the colonization of almost 90% of the entire continent by 1914. Belgium, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain each took a piece of pie and exploited their new-found lands to their full extent.

After decolonization in the 1960s, Africa was left broken and impoverished. Because of this, very few films were produced on the continent. Fortunately, many countries were able to start producing films by collaborating with their neighboring countries, as well as their former colonial rulers. This led to the production of several wonderful art house films, highlighting Africa’s unique cultures, as well as the social struggles that still plague the continent.

The Best Films from North Africa

It’s time to cross the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa, where we trail past the pyramids of Egypt, visit the Islamic palaces of Tunisia, explore the streets of Casablanca, Morocco, take a look at the troubled colonial history of Algeria and scale the desert of Mauritania.

Egypt: Cairo Station

Directed by: Youssef Chahine, 1958.

World Cinema 035 - Egypt (Cairo Station)
(Credit: Cairo Station / The Iron Gate / Bab el Hadid)

Serving as a bridge between Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, Egypt has been the center of attention of a host of films produced around the world. Its gods and legends as well as its defining role in the Hebrew Bible have made it a popular setting for foreign films, such as the American films Stargate (1994), The Mummy (1999), and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).

Though it often served as the backdrop of foreign productions, Egypt also managed to establish its own film industry. The first Egyptian film was produced in 1896, and the first full-length feature Laila followed in 1927. Egypt’s film industry stands apart from all other African nations: thanks to its Arab ties and its geographical positioning, Egypt became one of the most successful film-producing countries on the African continent.

With over 4,000 films produced, Egypt also boasts the largest Arabic film industry by far. Taking things one step further, from the 1940s until the 1960s the Egyptian film industry was actually the third-largest in the entire world. Though a drop in overall quality in Egypt’s cinematic output caused the industry to dwindle, the country’s current-day filmmakers try their best to recapture the industry’s golden years.

One of Egypt’s most engaging successes of its cinematic Golden Age was 1958’s Cairo Station, also known as The Iron Gate (original title: Bab el Hadid, 1958). The film displays the chaos of everyday life at Cairo’s buzzing train station, where trains carrying passengers arrive and depart every passing minute. Qinawi, a physically challenged young man begging for money at the station, is given a job selling newspapers at a local entrepreneur’s newsstand. Despite the mild nature of Qinawi’s handicap, he becomes an object of ridicule for the people at the train station. After meeting the beautiful cold drink vendor Hannuma, Qinawi becomes obsessed with the idea of starting a new life with her as a married man.

Qinawi, a lame newspaper salesman, falls in love with cold drink vendor Hannuma. Though sympathetic towards Qinawi, Hannuma is already engaged to be married to Abu Siri, a strong porter struggling to unionize his fellow workers at the station.

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Tunisia: The Silences of the Palace

Directed by: Moufida Tlatli, 1994.

World Cinema 036 - Tunisia (The Silences of the Palace)
(Credit: The Silences of the Palace / Samt el Qusur)

Being a part of French West Africa during the dawn of cinema, Tunisia was one of the first countries to host the French Lumière brothers. In 1896, the brothers screened several animated films in the streets of Tunisia’s capital Tunis, ushering in a new age of entertainment. Roughly twenty years later, a new honor was bestowed on the country: in 1919, French director Luitz-Morat traveled to Tunisia to shoot his film The Five Accursed Gentlemen (1920). The film became the first film shot on the North African continent, starting a new form of exploitation of France’s African colonies.

Over the years, Tunisia was able to boost its film industry by attracting major foreign movie studios to shoot their films in the country: among others, the country played host to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The English Patient (1996), and several Star Wars-movies (1977-2019). Tunisia’s domestic output, however, remained small. In 1995, Le Magique (1995() became the country’s first official submission for the Academy Awards. Though never nominated, Tunisia submitted four more movies in the last two decades.

Tunisia’s legal system is based on French civil law. This allows relatively more freedom for women than in other Islamic countries, which often follows Islamic Shari’a law. This is reflected in the country’s cinematic landscape: the first female-directed Tunisian film, Fatma 75, came out in 1975 and was directed by Selma Baccar. Baccar’s films led the way for other female directors, including Moufida Tlatli, whose The Silences of the Palace (original title: Samt el Qusur, 1994) portraits the injustices suffered by women in the courts of Tunis.

Set in the 1950s at the time Tunisia gained its independence from France, The Silences of the Palace follows the female house servants of Prince Sid’ Ali. For the women, living in the prince’s palace comes at a high price: they are not to go against the prince’s will, and often become the victims of sexual exploitation. One of the prince’s family’s servants, Khedija, tries to shelter her daughter Alia from the same fate she herself suffered at the hands of the prince. The film challenges gender inequality, class, and sexuality as the palace’s radios continuously report on the rise of Tunisia’s independence movement.

In The Silences of the Palace, Alia, a young Tunisian singer, returns to her birthplace: the palace of Prince Sid’ Ali and the workplace of her mother, one of the palace’s many servants. At the palace, Alia looks back at what it was like growing up in the confines of the palace.

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Morocco: Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets

Directed by: Nabil Ayouch, 2000.

World Cinema 037 - Morocco (Ali Zaoua, Prince of the Streets)
(Credit: Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets / Ali Zaoua, Prince de la Rue)

Morocco has a long history of being utilized as a location for filming foreign productions (yet, amusingly, the American Casablanca (1942) is not one of them). The first film recorded in Morocco was The Moroccan Goatherd (1897), filmed by Louis Lumière. It would take another 50 years or so before the country actually started its own film productions, with Moroccan director Mohammed Ousfour spearheading the country’s first film in the 1950s.

The first full-fledged generation of Moroccan directors arrived two decades later, slowly developing their home country’s film industry. One of Morocco’s directors who broke through in the years that followed was Nabil Ayouch. Born in Paris, Ayouch developed his skills during the production of a series of short films between 1992 and 1994. This led him to direct the well-received Moroccan-set Mektoub (2017) and Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (original title: Ali Zaoua, Prince de la Rue, 2000), which were both filmed in Ayouch’s father’s homeland, Morocco.

The latter, Ali Zaoua, became a hit at several international cinemas, bringing the Moroccan film industry to the forefront of the world’s cinemas. Ali Zaoua tells the story of a large gang of homeless, uneducated children living in poverty near the docks of Casablanca. After four children decide to leave the group behind, their leader Ali is accidentally killed by members of the gang. The three remaining boys decide to honor their lost friend by arranging a proper funeral, but this proves to be a difficult task.

A group of homeless children living on the street in Casablanca decide to leave their gang. When one of them is accidentally killed, his friends try to come up with the resources to give him a proper burial.

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Algeria: The Battle of Algiers

Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966.

World Cinema 038 - Algeria (The Battle of Algiers)
(Credit: The Battle of Algiers / La Battaglia di Algeri)

Occupied for almost two millennia by foreign entities, Algeria has been annexed by the Roman Empire, the Arabs, the Spanish, the Ottoman and at last, the French. After World War I, the notion of anti-colonialism started to grow within the nation. During World War I and World War II, various groups were formed opposing French rule. After World War II, friction between France and Algeria led to the brutal Algerian War of Independence, which lasted from 1954 until 1962.

During the era of French colonization, Algeria’s national cinema was virtually non-existent. Films were predominantly produced as a tool for French propaganda. After gaining independence, Algeria was left with very little resources. In 1966, however, Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo co-produced The Battle of Algiers (original title: La Battaglia di Algeri, 1966) with Algeria, boosting the countries international presence, as well as its national film industry.

Though technically not an Algerian movie, the film is based on the memoir of Saâdi Yacef, one of the leaders of Algeria’s National Liberation Front. Backed by the Algerian government, Pontecorvo was approached to adapt the memoir. Pontecorvo attempted to tell Yacef’s story from a neutral perspective, showing both sufferings of Algerians and the French, as well as their brutal approaches to warfare.

Set between 1954 and 1957, The Battle of Algiers portrays the violent struggle of the people of Algiers to free their city from French occupation during the Algerian War of Independence.

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Mauritania: Timbuktu

Directed by: Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014.

World Cinema 039 - Mauritania (Timbuktu)
(Credit: Timbuktu)

Much of Mauritania’s recent history echoes Algeria’s. French rule in Mauritania, however, had some important positive effects on the country: it brought an end to the inter-clan warfare which had plagued the nation. When the country gained independence in 1960 along with a host of other former French African colonies, Mauritania had no film industry to speak of. During the mid-1970s, Mauritania and France co-produced a series of films, leading to several other co-productions with Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Belgium.

After directing the Malian comedy-drama Life on Earth (1998), Mauritanian film director Abderrahmane Sissako turned his eyes upon his home country and shot the French-Mauritanian drama film Waiting for Happiness (2002). Switching back to Malian film making, he then directed Bamako (2006) and subsequently returned back to Mauritania to direct Timbuktu (2014): a French-Mauritanian drama film set in the city of Timbuktu, Mali, but shot in Oualata, a town in south-east Mauritania.

The film depicts the nomadic culture characteristic of both Mali and Mauritania. Timbuktu focuses on a kind-spirited cattle herder and his family, who are living a quiet life in the dunes of Timbuktu when extremist Islamists invade the city. Throughout the film, the jihadists patrol the city proclaiming new rules, which grow in absurdity with every passing day. One of the film’s most beautiful scenes shows a group of young men playing football with an imaginary ball after sports are banned by the occupying extremists. At the same time, Timbuktu takes an ironic look at the extremists themselves, as they continually break their own Sharia laws as they see fit.

Residing in the dunes of Timbuktu, a cattle herder and his family find their quiet lives turned upside down when a group of Jihadists takes control of the city and impose a series of strict rules on the local population.

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The Best Films of West Africa

As we move from North Africa to West Africa, we visit the plains of Mali, the deserts of Senegal, and the quiet villages of Burkina Faso, before trailing the Gulf of Guinea past Ivory Coast and Nigeria.

Mali: Brightness

Directed by: Souleymane Cissé, 1987.

World Cinema 040 - Mali (Brightness)
(Credit: Brightness / Yeelen)

Formerly known as French Sudan, Mali was a part of French West Africa between 1880 and 1960. Due to its ties with France, Mali was able to create several feature films since the country gained its independence. Mali’s colonial ties to Europe opened the door for the production of several co-productions, such as Bamako and Brightness (original title: Yeelen, 1987).

Whereas most North and West African films focus on social struggles and the ongoing consequences of colonialism, Brightness takes a leap in time to display the Africa known only from legends; the film tells the tale of a Bambara legend, set in the 13th century. The film not only offers a fantastic look at what Mali must have been like before the white men came, but also sheds light on some of the cultural believes that can still be felt in the country today.

Brightness was recorded in Bamara and Fula; two languages spoken in central southern Mali and the Sahel. In the film, Nianankoro, a young man with magical powers, leaves his countryside village to seek out his uncle for help. With the help of a magical wooden pole, Nianankoro’s father aims to tract him down and kill him to prevent a prophecy concerning his own death from coming true. Brightness takes the shape of a mystical road movie, embedded in African culture, offering a rare glimpse into the continent’s rich past.

A young Bambara man with magical powers leaves his village in search of his uncle, who he aims to ask for help in fighting his father, a dangerous sorcerer.

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Senegal: Moolaadé

Directed by: Ousmane Sembene, 2004.

World Cinema 041 - Senegal (Moolaadé)
(Credit: Moolaadé)

Like its surrounding nations, Senegal’s film industry is relatively small. Many of Senegal’s first films – dating back to 1955 – were either produced or co-produced by France. After Senegal gained independence in 1960, writer Ousmane Sembène decided to utilize film as a way to familiarize the world with Senegal’s social struggles, believing the medium to have a wider reach than the printed word.

Most of Sembène’s films deal with social change: the onset of colonialism, the preservation of African culture during foreign occupation, the shortcomings of religion, and the strength and struggle of the country’s women. The latter subject has been widely covered in Senegal’s cinematic output. A beautiful example lies in Safi Faye’s Mossane (1996), which tells the story of a beautiful 14-year-old village girl who is to be married off, because her beauty offers too much of a distraction for the village’s men. Marrying her would then “keep her safe” from suitors, including her own brother.

Sembène similarly turns his focus on the injustices African women suffer in the universally acclaimed film Moolaadé (2004). The film was co-produced with Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunesia, Cameroon, and France to call out the barbarity of female genital mutilation. In Moolaadé, Collé, the second wife of a man living in a small village, decides to protect four of the community’s children from undergoing “purification” by enforcing moolaadé; a magical form of protection embedded in superstition. Collé’s opposition against female genital mutilation causes a rift in the village, slowly forcing the village’s women to oppose the patriarchal system.

When four children set to undergo female circumcision in a small African town seek protection at villager Colle’s residence, she decides to protect them from the town’s elders, causing a major conflict within their community.

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Ivory Coast: Black and White in Color

Directed by: Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1976.

World Cinema 042 - Ivory Coast (Black and White in Colour)
(Credit: Black and White in Color / La Victoire en Chantant)

At the end of the 19th century, seven European empires sliced the African continent into pieces. Distributing the pieces among themselves, Africa became almost fully ruled by foreign forces. Like Mali and Senegal, Ivory Coast (also known as Côte d’Ivoire) was part of France’s sizable colony. Along with many other current-day North and West African countries, Ivory Coast gave rise to its national film industry only after gaining independence.

After the decolonization of the Ivory Coast in 1960, the Ivorian film industry lacked the resources to produce their own films. The country’s strong ties to Europe, however, made it possible to start co-producing films. Due to its colonial history with France, the European nation became Ivory Coast’s most frequent production partner. In the decades that followed, many African nations produced films depicting the aftermath of colonization, as well as the struggles of the African people. Ivory Coast, on the other hand, decided to take a satirical look at colonization itself in 1976’s Black and White in Color (original title: La Victoire en Chantant, 1976).

Co-produced with France and West-Germany, Black and White in Color sketches a comical portrait of the colonial powers that occupied West and Central Africa. In the film, the lives of a small group of French colonists are turned upside down when news arrives that war has erupted in Europe. Upon finding out that France is at odds with Germany, the colonists see it as their sworn duty to attack the equally small German colonial settlement across the river. Quickly enlisting the settlement’s naïve locals, they commence their own little war against the German empire. By satirizing the colonial powers’ clumsy attempts at warfare, Black and White in Color humorously shows just how ridiculous Europeans must have looked in the eyes of Africa’s native inhabitants.

Several months behind in the news, the inhabitants of a small French colony decide to take up arms against their German neighbors when news arrives that war has erupted in Europe. Enlisting the settlements’ native population as foot soldiers, the French colonists prepare for war.

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Burkina Faso: Wend Kuuni & Buud Yam

Directed by: Gaston Kaboré, 1982 & 1997.

World Cinema 043 - Burkina Faso (Wend Kuuni)
(Credit: Wend Kuuni)

During the Muslim conquest of North and West Africa, the Mossi Kingdoms situated in modern-day Africa successfully fought off its Arab invaders. As such, Burkina Faso now separates the Islamic nations in North Africa and the Christian nations along the Gulf of Guinea. The Mossi Kingdoms met their match in the French colonial empire, which annexed the kingdoms in 1896.

Like its surrounding nations, Burkina Faso created films in co-production with Europe, most often partnering with France, West-Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The country’s film industry grew stronger than the industries of its neighboring countries, producing approximately four films per year and becoming a significant player within Africa’s cinematic landscape. In 1997 Gaston Kaboré, one of Burkina Faso’s most famous directors, opened a training school for new filmmakers in the country’s capital Ouagadougou.

Kaboré was responsible for directing Wend Kuuni (1982), a quiet Burkinabé drama film. The movie takes place before colonialism in the nineteenth century and follows a young, mute boy who is found dehydrated in the savanna. Unable to explain what happened to him, the boy is adopted into a local Mossi village and given the name Wend Kuuni. Wend Kuuni quickly becomes the village’s shepherd and befriends his new stepsister Pognere.

Wend Kuuni is a wonderful little film displaying village life in pre-colonial Africa and is additionally famous for being one of only a few African films ever to receive a sequel: most of Wend Kuuni’s original cast reprised their roles over a decade later in Kaboré’s adventurous road movie Buud Yam (1997).

After being found lying unconscious in the savanna, a young, mute boy is adopted by a family living in a small Mossi village.

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Nigeria: My Mother

Directed by: Tunde Kelani, 2011.

World Cinema 044 - Nigeria (My Mother)
(Credit: My Mother / Maami)

The Nigerian film industry stretches back all the way to the beginning of cinema. The first films that were shown in Nigeria came from Britain, the colonial power occupying the African nation. Several British shorts were shown in Lagos in 1903. Two decades later the first film was produced in the region. Under the influence of the British Empire, Nigeria’s cinematic landscape grew quickly. Many cinemas were constructed and a host of production companies started producing locally-made films.

Nigeria’s film industry became known as ‘Nollywood’ in the early 2000s. Booming both before and after the country gained its independence in 1960, the Nigerian film industry is one of the most successful industries on the African continent. The expansion of the country’s film industry was eventually halted by the dawn of television broadcasting and the introduction of cheap home video productions.

Many modern-day Nigerian films, such as Tunde Kelani’s My Mother (original title: Maami, 2011) embody Nigeria’s bond with producing film directly on video. Soapy acting and melodramatic music make My Mother a clear example of the old-fashioned, cheap way in which Nigeria produced its films from the 1980s until the mid-2010s. In spite of My Mother’s ambitious storyline and cinematic visuals, the film still carries a certain made-for-TV-like quality. Story-wise, My Mother combines a tale of a social struggle with a more commercially viable, nationalistic story concerning the 2010 World Cup: in the film, international football player Kashimawo returns to Nigeria, reflecting on his troublesome childhood while considering to play for the Nigerian national team in South Africa.

Based on the Nigerian novel Maami, My Mother tells the story of Kashimawo, a young man who grew up poverty-stricken in Nigeria, but eventually grew up to be a successful international football player.

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The Best Films of East and South Africa

We continue to explore African cinema, moving from West Africa towards the famine-stricken Ethiopia in East Africa, after which we follow the coastline of Somalia, pass through the small nation of Rwanda and cross the plains of Zambia and Botswana on our way to the steppe of South Africa.

Ethiopia: Morning Dew

Directed by: Haile Gerima, 2008.

World Cinema 045 - Ethiopia (Morning Dew)
(Credit: Morning Dew / Teza)

Though occupied by Italy for a short period of time, Ethiopia was never colonized by a European power. After the Scramble for Africa, Ethiopia – then Abyssinia, or the Ethiopian Empire – remained one of the only independent countries on the African continent. Though the Lumière brothers already visited the empire in the late 19th century to project their films, the country failed to establish its own film industry in the decades that followed. In fact, even nowadays, the cinematic landscape of ‘Eollywood’ is still in its infant stage.

One of the most famous films ever recorded in Ethiopia is Radu Mihăileanu’s Live and Become (2005). The film tells the tale of an Ethiopian Christian boy who disguises himself as a Jew to escape his famine-stricken country and to be allowed access into Israel as a refugee. Produced by France, directed by a Romanian director and starring French and Israeli actors alongside Ethiopians, the film technically doesn’t qualify as a true Ethiopian film, but it does highlight a significant part of the country’s history: namely the execution of Operation Moses – the evacuation of Ethiopian Jews from Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War.

Haile Gerima’s Morning Dew (original title: Teza. 2008) is Ethiopia’s own attempt at reflecting on the country’s modern history. Written and directed by Gerima, the film tells the story of Anberber, an Ethiopian doctor returning to his home village after finishing his medicine studies in West Germany and serving as a doctor in Addis Ababa. Spanning three decades, Morning Dew displays the suffering of Ethiopia’s citizens under the repressive Marxist totalitarian regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, as well as Anberber’s struggle to hang on to his dream of bringing modern medicine to the people of Ethiopia.

Though Gerima’s film is occasionally off-putting due to its jarring editing – utilizing a Jason Bourne-like style when no such action is needed – and a seemingly redundant framing device, the film does manage to shed some light on Ethiopia’s recent political and social conflicts.

Ethiopian intellectual Anberber returns to his home village, he reminisces about his studies abroad, as well as his return to Ethiopia during Communist Mengistu Haile Mariam military dictatorship.

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Somalia: The Pirates of Somalia

Directed by: Bryan Buckley, 2017.

World Cinema 046 - Somalia (The Pirates of Somalia)
(Credit: The Pirates of Somalia)

From 1936 until World War II, Somalia (then: Somalialand) was occupied by the Italians and merged into Italian East Africa. After the war, the British took control in the region. Additionally, the country’s culture was heavily influenced by Islam due to its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula. Somalia’s first encounter with cinema was through Italian newsreels during the country’s colonial period. With the help of locals, Italy produced several Fascist films in the country during the 1930s and 1940s. This helped Somalia in starting its own film industry.

After gaining independence in 1960, Somalia slowly grew its domestic film industry. The country’s industry partnered with Italy and the United Kingdom on several occasions, thus managing to produce a steady flow of new films over the course of the last few decades. Much like Nigeria’s Nollywood and Ethiopia’s Eollywood, the Somalian film industry received a similarly derivative nickname: Somaliwood.

One of Somaliwood’s latest films was co-produced with the United States: Bryan Buckley’s The Pirates of Somalia (2017). The film offers a close look inside the lives of the Somalian ‘pirates’ threatening the international shipping routes off the coast of Somalia. The Pirates of Somalia shows the other side of the story depicted in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips (2013), but does not manage to do it in a similarly inspired and intelligent way.

Based on a true story, The Pirates of Somalia recounts the amateurish efforts of journalist Jay Bahadur to make a name for himself by interviewing Somali’s pirates, risking his life just by stepping into their country. Unfortunately, X-Men-star Evan Peters fails in making his character likable. No matter the stakes of his game, Bahadur shows no character growth and seemingly learns nothing from what should have been a humbling experience. Director Buckley equally comes up short, misfiring on the film’s emotional beats by continuously focusing on what a hack Bahadur was.

Though inherently flawed, The Pirates of Somalia still offers an interesting glimpse inside the lives of the fishermen violently ‘defending’ their waters on the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

Yearning for a chance to become a famous writer, aspiring journalist Jay Bahadur travels to Somalia under the guise of writing a book about the local pirates.

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Rwanda: Sometimes in April

Directed by: Raoul Peck, 2005.

World Cinema 047A - Rwanda (Sometimes in April)
(Credit: Sometimes in April)

Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004) greatly increased the worldwide realization of the horrors that had taken place in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Unfortunately, for more than half a million Tutsi citizens, this realization came too late. The tiny African nation’s recent history is one of the bloodiest in the late 20th century. Approximately 70% of the country’s Tutsi population was slaughtered by members of the Hutu government.

Rwanda is one of the smallest countries on the African mainland and has only produced a handful of directors, most of them starting their careers abroad. Due to the country’s unstable financial situation, only a handful of films were produced. As can be expected, the Rwandan Genocide is the subject of most films set in the country: both foreign productions such as Hotel Rwanda and A Sunday in Kigali (2006) and local films such as 100 Days (1991), Kinyarwanda (2011), and Sometimes in April (2005) tackle the difficult subject matter.

Raoul Peck’s Rwandan-produced Sometimes in April details the conflict from start to finish, starting with the assassination of the Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana on the evening of April 6th, 1994. The film follows the tragic story of Hutu Augustin, his pro-Hutu Power brother Honoré, his Tutsi wife Jeanne, and the couple’s children, while trying to survive the brutal Hutu regime. Through the stories of each individual family member, the horrors inflicted by the Hutu government are brought to the screen in an uncompromising matter, hoping the world will never overlook such a harrowing situation again.

Augustin, a captain in the Rwandan Armed Forces, struggles for the survival of his family when Hutu nationalists take up arms against their Tutsi countrymen in Rwanda in April 1994.

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Rwanda (II): Africa United

Directed by: Debs Paterson, 2010.

World Cinema 047B - Rwanda (Africa United)
(Credit: Africa United)

Moving on from the heavy subject matter of the Rwandan Genocide, Debs Paterson’s Africa United (2010) shows great promise for the country’s budding movie industry. Due to the polarizing nature of the country’s heavy dramas and its upbeats modern comedy-dramas, we felt the need to feature Rwanda twice. Produced by Eric Kabera, the president of the Rwanda Cinema Center who also produced the genocide inspired 100 Days, Africa United is a film about hope, optimism, and achieving one’s goals.

For those looking to get a sense of the modern-day spirit of post-genocide Rwanda, Africa United is a great addition to your watch list. Not only does the film show a completely different side of the once war-torn country, it also establishes Africa as a communal place of growth. In the film, football prodigy Fabrice is offered the chance to audition for the opening ceremony of the 2010 Football World Cup in South Africa. Taking the bus to Kigali with his young friend and football fanatic Dudu Kayenzi and Dudu’s sister Beatrice, things go amiss when the trio accidentally ends up in Congo.

Having missed the auditions, the trio decides to push on towards South Africa themselves with the help of former child soldier Fabrice. Though restricted to film the movie in Rwanda and South Africa by the treaty drawn up with co-producer the United Kingdom, Paterson skillfully re-created the look and feel of each country the kids travel through, uniting the three Rwandan children with a host of socially relevant characters from Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

After failing to make it to his audition for the 2010 Football World Cup’s opening ceremony, football prodigy Fabrice and his friends decide to travel to South Africa in hope of a second chance.

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Zambia: I Am Not a Witch

Directed by: Rungano Nyoni, 2017.

World Cinema 048 - Zambia (I Am Not a Witch)
(Credit: I Am Not a Witch)

Like in many other African nations, Zambia had no film industry to speak of for most of the 20th century. Over the past decade, however, cinema has become an important pastime for the country’s inhabitants. Several short films were produced locally and co-productions with former colonial powers such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany made it possible to move into feature-length film production. The country hosts no film school, but this hasn’t stopped aspiring professionals from going abroad to get an education in film.

Before its independence in 1964, Zambia – then Northern Rhodesia – was part of the British Union of South Africa. In Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch (2017), the aftermath of colonialism can still be felt: the country boasts an intriguing mixture of traditional values with modern, Western influences. In the film, Shula, an 8-year-old girl is accused of being a witch after a villager blames her for the troubles their village is facing.

Superstition still dictates the lives of many of the tribes living in Zambia, and I Am Not a Witch shows that even the country’s ‘modern’ justice system still adheres to it. Shula is convicted and sent to a witch camp, where a spindle of ribbon is attached to her back to keep her from flying away. Were she to cut the ribbon, she would risk turning into a goat. Held captive by superstition, Shula joins the commune’s witches and becomes a tool for government official Mr. Banda, who exploits her supposed powers to solve civil cases. I Am Not a Witch juxtaposes ancient and modern believes with poignant humor, showing that the nation still has a long way to go to modernization.

Found guilty of witchcraft, 8-year old girl Shula is exiled to a witch camp in the Zambian desert, where she is tied to a spindle of ribbon to keep her from flying away.

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Botswana: The Gods Must Be Crazy

Directed by: Jamie Uys, 1980.

World Cinema 049 - Botswana (The Gods Must Be Crazy)
(Credit: The Gods Must Be Crazy)

Botswana was introduced to film through South Africa, where film first appeared in the early 20th century. Though often featured in newsreels, documentaries, wildlife films, and South African productions, Botswana itself never really managed to establish its own film industry. In fact, the country’s most famous film – and arguably Africa’s most famous film – The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) is not even a true Botswanan film.

Set near the Okavango River in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, the film was actually filmed in South Africa and Namibia. Though The Gods Must Be Crazy was made with South African government subsidies, the film was presented to the world as a Botswanan film rather than a South African one to avoid sanctions against the release of an apartheid film. Though this technically invalidates this entry into our list as a Botswana, the film’s cult status and questionable origin make it an interesting supplementary entry into this list.

The Gods Must Be Crazy broke several box office records in both the United States and Japan, leading to the production of no less than four sequels, each one becoming just a little more ridiculous: The Gods Must Be Crazy II (1989), Crazy Safari (1991), Crazy Hong Kong (1993) and The Gods Must Be Funny in China (1994). All five films starred Nǃxau ǂToma, a member of the San (also known as the Bushmen).

In the films, ǂToma plays Xi, an innocent Bushman whose tribe is turned upside down when Xi finds a glass Coca-Cola bottle in the Kalahari Desert. Initially, Xi’s people assume the strange artifact is a present awarded to them by the gods, but when concepts such as “need” and “possession” start affecting relations within the tribe, it is decided that the gift is cursed, after which Xi is tasked to return it to the gods. The Gods Must Be Crazy is an innocent, light-hearted slapstick comedy about the life of a naive African Bushmen and the clumsy white men he encounters along his way.

In rural Botswana, bushman Xi crosses paths with a clumsy biologist, a British school teacher, and a violent guerrilla leader.

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South Africa: Yesterday

Directed by: Darrell Roodt, 2004.

(Credit: Yesterday)

At the start of the 19th century, the British gained control over the Dutch Cape Colony. Just like the Dutch before them, the British had little interest in the country’s resources, using it mainly as a strategic port on the way to the Asian colonies. South Africa’s many clans, kingdoms, and minorities frequently clashed during British rule, and until 1994 the apartheid – an institutionalized system of racial segregation laws dating back to 1856 – haunted the nation. Many South African and British (co-)productions, such as Goodbye Bafana (2007), Red Dust (2004), and the science-fiction film District 9 (2009) deal with the apartheid. Additionally, several films were made about the life of anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela‎.

South Africa became a sovereign state in 1931 and gained independence as a Republic in 1961. The first film studio in South Africa was established under British rule in 1915 in Johannesburg when the region was known as the Union of South Africa. During the 1910s and 1920s, several South African historical films were shot in the country. The country’s national film industry followed suit with the rest of the world, moving into the production of sound films and color films in later decades.

Following the formation of the Republic of South Africa, the country’s film industry expanded rapidly, outgrowing most other African industries. Jamie Uys’ 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy gained universal acclaim and in both 2004 and 2005, a South African film was nominated for the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film. The two films, Tsotsi (2005) and Yesterday (2004), showcase opposite sides of South Africa’s modern-day culture: where Tsotsi focuses on life in the slums of Johannesburg, Yesterday takes a deeper look inside the lives of the country’s villagers.

What makes Yesterday stand out is its focus on the problems many South Africans living outside of the big cities still face. Set in the rural village of Rooihoek in Zululand, the film sketches a portrait of the African countryside where a lack of education, water supply facilities and proper health care still threaten the lives of its inhabitants.

Yesterday, the mother of the 7-year-old Beauty, spends her days working in the fields to provide for the daughter while her husband works as a miner in Johannesburg. When Yesterday learns she has HIV, her goal becomes to live long enough to see her child go to school.

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Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from South Asia, films from West and Central Asia, films from East and Southeast Asia, films from Oceania and the Pacific, films from North America, films from Central America and the Caribbean and films from South America.

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