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10 African Films to Watch at the Encounters International Documentary Festival

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10 African Films to Watch at the Encounters International Documentary Festival

The Africa Report takes a deep dive into this year’s curated programme and turns the spotlight on 10 unmissable documentaries that represent some of the best of the festival.

!Aitsa (South Africa/Denmark)

The Karoo is a vast desert region in South Africa that is home to the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) science project, considered one of the biggest in the world. When completed, the SKA will consist of hundreds of satellite dishes the size of three-storey buildings that will explore dark matter as well as the beginnings of the universe. Dane Dodd’s experimental confection combines the thrill of high science with the ancient spiritual knowledge of the indigenous population and dares to suggest that a welcome embrace of both spectra could speed up human enlightenment.

Calvinia (South Africa/Switzerland)

Documentaries about going back home are practically a sub-genre these days but Rudi van der Merwe does something with Calvinia that is both surprising and familiar at the same time. Named for the small town in which he grew up, Van der Merwe returns to make a lyrical personal essay composed of family vignettes, social media chats, the weight of his own memories and the ghosts of his past. The town appears stuck somewhere in the past even though there has clearly been some progress.

1001 Days (South Africa/UK)

In Alexandra, a township in Johannesburg, two-thirds of the women are survivors of sexual or domestic abuse. In a heartwarming example of community intervention, a group of local mothers – some, survivors themselves – embark on a quietly radical mission. In this intimate and profoundly feminist documentary, directors Kethiwe Ngcobo and Chloe White follow a trio of empathetic community health workers as they provide much needed support to the new mothers through the first 1001 Days of their babies’ lives.

A Story of Bones (UK)

Directing duo Joseph Curran and Dominic de Vere present an infuriating account of one woman’s fight for justice against the entire machinery that is the British government. While working as an environmental officer for the airport project expected to open the remote island of Saint Helena to the world, Annina van Neel, a Namibian, learns about an unmarked mass burial ground holding the remains of an estimated 9,000 formerly enslaved Africans. Haunted by this historical injustice, she embarks on a drawn-out fight for their proper memorialisation.

Bobi Wine: The People’s President (Uganda/UK/US)

Directors Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo were on the ground with Ugandan pop star-turned-lawmaker Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu) as he attempted a run against President Yoweri Museveni for the number one office in the country in 2021. Bobi Wine: The People’s President is an intriguing profile of democracy under threat and one man’s stand against state oppression. The film captures Wine’s charisma and can-do spirit as he rises from the slums to international prominence while highlighting the bitter price he continues to pay.

Eat Bitter (CAR/China)

Eat Bitter is a sharply observant, character-driven account of two people trying to make a legitimate living in one of the poorest regions in the world. Even though the spectre of war remains at a worrying proximity, Bangui, Central African Republic, is a city undergoing rapid construction and hosts migrants from China at the front of the line for business. Directors Pascale Appora-Gnekindy and Ningyi Sun track the personal and professional lives of two men – a Central African and a Chinese immigrant – as they take different routes to build the nation.

Le Spectre de Boko Haram (The Ghost of Boko Haram) (Cameroon/France)

This affecting and visually striking account of the impact of the terror group Boko Haram as seen through the eyes of child victims debuted at the Rotterdam film festival in January where director Cyrielle Raingou won the festival’s top prize. Raingou follows a trio of children in a border town in Cameroon’s northern region as they come of age amid the dangers of armed conflict. Le Spectre de Boko Haram acknowledges the contrasts of conflicts and chooses to celebrate the humanity of the survivors.

Milisuthando (South Africa/Colombia)

The opening film at Encounters this year is this inventive stunner written and directed by South African writer-turned-filmmaker Milisuthando Bongela. Presented in five unique chapters, Milisuthando is a complex yet personal undertaking that assumes different iterations, exploring several ideas at once while managing to hold on to a coherent core. The film details Bongela’s unique experience growing up in the Transkei, a rural, segregated region established in 1976 as an apartheid-era experiment to promote a sense of independence for the black population.

Money, Freedom, A Story of CFA Franc (Senegal/France/Belgium/Germany)

Katy Léna N’diaye’s Money, Freedom, A Story of CFA Franc is a considered and thought-provoking look into the CFA’s legacy in francophone Africa. N’diaye delves into the history of the currency, rooted as it is in the sins of the past, and traces the consequences of its continued relevance today. Some of her tools include history texts, archival footage and museum artifacts. N’diaye, a documentary veteran, invites significant players in regional monetary and fiscal policy to help give context to her findings and ends with a call to action.

We, Students! (CAR/DRC/France)

Director Rafiki Fariala was an undergraduate at the University of Bangui in the Central African Republic  when he started filming his circle of friends. The result is We, Students! – both a celebration of youth and indictment of the country’s crude education system.

Rough around the edges but with a relatable clarity of focus, We, Students! is scathing as it documents the terrible living conditions on campus. Despite the challenges, the students find ways of pushing through their circumstances. Fariala captures many of these complexities highlighting how people eventually become products of the system.

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