- Malian director Souleymane Cissé became the second African in the festival’s history to receive the Carrosse d’Or award
- An unprecedented number of African films is being screened across the festival’s various selections
- Still, critics believe Cannes and other Western film bodies should give a bigger platform to African cinema
This year, Africa has marked an impressive presence, dubbed Africa’s “Cannes Moment”, at the 76th annual Cannes Film Festival in the south of France.
The festival opened in a grand way for Africa on Wednesday, as Malian director Souleymane Cissé received the Carrosse d’Or award from the French directors guild La Société des Réalisateurs (SRF) .
A record number of African films is showing at the prestigious festival which started since Tuesday and is slated to end on the 27th of this month.
Additionally, Africans are sitting on juries for various categories and participating in a number of other ways at the festival.
More than ever before, Africa seems ready to take centre stage at one of the world’s most renowned film festivals.
Cissé’s Golden Era
The Carrosse d’Or (or Golden Coach) award is given to “a filmmaker who has left his or her mark on the history of cinema, through his or her daring, demanding and uncompromising work”.
The award has been hosted annually by the Directors’ Fortnight, a parallel selection of the Cannes Film Festival, since 2002.
The only other African to have received the award is the late Ousmane Sembène, a Senegalese author and filmmaker who has often been credited as “the Father of African Cinema”.
Sembène died at the ripe old age of 84 in 2007, 2 years after he won the award.
Now, 84-year-old Cissé is the latest African director to take his spot in the list of world-renowned awardees—another win for Francophone West Africa.
Cissé, who has been called “Africa’s greatest living filmmaker”, has led a stellar career spanning over half a century.
His films have been screened at the Cannes Film Festival six times. In fact, his 1987 film “Yeelen” was the first African film to win a prize in the festival’s history. “Yeelen” won the Jury Prize, the 3rd most prestigious prize of the festival, and quickly shot him to international limelight.
At the Carosse d’Or award ceremony, Cissé’s 1975 film “Den Muso” (The Young Girl) was screened as a tribute to his maiden feature at the festival nearly five decades before.
Den Muso told the heart-wrenching story of a young mute girl in Bamako who was raped, got pregnant and was subsequently ostracised.
Through the ground-breaking film, Cissé was able to paint a picture of the prevalent oppression of women in Malian society at the time.
On Wednesday, he explained that the female protagonist being mute was symbolic of the silencing of women, which he admitted had not changed much since his early works.
“Male domination is so deeply rooted it will take something radical to really change things—in Mali or anywhere in the world… Whether it’s male domination, white domination, or subordination to capitalism, injustice is the real outrage. All my films have within them a revolt against injustice,” said Cissé at the award ceremony.
Upon presenting his award, the SRF board lauded Cissé for his masterful blending of poetry and important societal themes, as well as the courage and grace demonstrated through his storytelling.
African Film Features at the Festival
This year, two of the record seven female directors competing for the Palme d’Or—the most prestigious prize of the festival—are African. These two are also the only African runners in the race of 21.
Friday’s red carpet-premiere showcased “Four Daughters”, the part-documentary, part-fiction entry by Oscar-nominated Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania.
Today, the other African contender “Banel & Adama” by Senegal’s Ramata-Toulaye Sy, will premiere at the festival.
At 36 years old, Sy is the youngest director to compete in the festival this year and also the only debut feature in the Palme d’Or race.
The jury who will decide the winner of the Palme d’Or, consists of four men and four women, two of whom are of African origin.
Both women have had their own Cannes moments in the past.
Moroccan Maryam Touzani’s “The Blue Caftan”, an audacious film about homosexuality, earned accolades at last year’s festival, while Zambian-Welsh Rungayo Nyoni’s “I’m Not a Witch” caused a stir back in 2018.
The winner of the Palme d’Or will be announced on the last day of the festival.
African films will also feature in the festival’s parallel selections, including Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight, Critics’ Week and Association for the Diffusion of Independent Cinema (ACID).
The festival’s largest sidebar Un Certain Regard—dedicated to emerging talent—will screen four African entries.
Morocco boasts of 2 entries, with Asmae El Moudir’s “The Mother of All Lies” and Kamal Lazraq’s “Hounds”—both set in Casablanca, Morocco’s commercial capital.
The other African entries are “Omen” by Belgian-Congolese hip hop artist Baloji and “Goodbye Julia” by Mohamed Kordofani. The latter is widely anticipated as it explores the roots of the current Sudan crisis.
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According to Screen Daily, the African films lined up for this year’s Directors’ Fortnight are “Deserts” by Moroccan director Faouzi Bensaïdi, and “Mambar Pierette” by Cameroon-born director Rosine Mbakam
Bensaïdi, whose films have been featured 5 times previously, is no stranger to the festival. He made his debut in 2003 with prize-winning film “A Thousand Months”, while Mbakam will just be debuting at this year’s selection.
Non-francophone Africa is represented by “Nome” by Guinea-Bissau’s Sana Na N’Hada and “Eissa” by Egypt’s Morad Mostafa.
A Call for More Diversity and Fewer Barriers
A number of industry professionals have criticised Cannes’ obvious tilt towards films from Francophone African countries over the years.
This is especially in light of the fact that the movie industries from those countries do not pull as much weight on the continent, compared to giants like Nigeria’s Nollywood, for example.
Nollywood, the world’s second largest film industry, is yet to have a film picked for any of the festival’s official competitions.
Speaking on this to The Hollywood Reporter, Nigerian media mogul Mo Abudu shared, “Cannes, time and time again, seems to support only French-speaking Africa. It’s like they are ticking a box: It’s a Black film, it’s an African film, and that’s good enough for them. But Africa is not a country, it’s a continent. There are different parts of the continent that should be showcased at a global festival such as Cannes.”
However, it could be argued that Cannes’ seeming favouritism is not a function of shared language, but of shared appeal.
The majority of the African films which have gained attention in Cannes and other European film festivals fall into a genre called “art house”.
These are films that dwell more heavily on sophisticated storytelling and so do not have a broad commercial appeal.
In Africa’s bigger movie industries, where movies are churned out every other day, it could be argued that quantity matters more than quality.
This ranking does not take into account the quality of films produced.
Or perhaps, people from these countries are seeking after a different type of quality, the kind that they can easily unwind to in cinemas or stream from the comfort of their homes.
Moreover, movies from Kenya and Ghana—Anglophone countries—have also been showcased at the festival in the past.
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One has to consider the extent to which Cannes can expand its inclusiveness of African cinema without deviating from its traditional catalogue.
Nonetheless, this is not to say that other African countries do not produce any films that are more in line with Cannes’ vision.
The festival, and other European film festivals alike, can carry out a wider sweep and intensify efforts to encourage African arthouse filmmakers.
Aside from the festivals, award winner Cissé reckons the West’s censorship of African cinema is a significant barrier to the continent’s progress in the global industry.
“The Western censorship is very serious. It amounts to contempt. And I say this to the distributors, there are films that could be in cinemas. They don’t do it, simply because they don’t want to put Africa’s image on the same level as others. And that’s a shame,” Cissé complained.
A 2022 CNN report took a deep dive into the censorship issue, but with regards to Hollywood.
The writer, Leah Asmelsah, explained that the world’s foremost movie industry was prone to side-lining Africa based on an ill-formed perception that no one was interested in seeing African-centred stories.
Such a wide-sweeping perception poses a major obstacle to the distribution and accessibility of African films to the rest of the world.
Accordingly, the success of “Black Panther”, which grossed over a billion dollars at the Box Office, was a huge shocker to Hollywood executives.
Even after that, Asmelsah explained that African cinema only got a token number of seats at the table, citing the Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars, as an example.
At the time, only three African movies had ever won the best international feature film award, amidst several submissions. Ironically, those three movies were directed by White men.
Even last year, Africa saw little success at the Oscars, with not a single nomination from the continent.
Cissé believes that African cinema gaining more exposure could be a way to better shape the world’s perception of the continent.
“Denying people access to the movies will only fuel misunderstandings,” he asserted.
Thankfully, the continent is making more headway on streaming platforms, a fact the CNN report also attested to.
Notwithstanding, Africa’s Cannes Moment may very well be the turning point for African cinema on the global stage.