A Journey Through Sight and Sound’s Top 100 Films and Their African Complements

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Sight & Sound’s survey of the top 100 films is known for its influence and prestige and serves as a compass guiding film enthusiasts to the most exceptional works of cinematic artistry across the globe. It is through the lens of the esteemed list that you are invited to an exploration of African cinema, via a curated selection of African complements.

To make this journey more digestible and engaging — and to allow me the time necessary to research and select the most sensible titles — I’ll be exploring these films in bite-sized chunks of 5 to 10 at a time per day, launching on May 31, 2023.

So let’s traverse the cinematic landscapes of Africa, the resonance between Sight & Sound’s revered classics and the often unexplored films that have emerged from the African continent, as a showcase of the universal power of cinema across borders and cultures.

For the African titles that are already on the Sight and Sound list, I will suggest a non-African equivalent.

1. “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975) and the Tunisian drama “The Silences of the Palace” (original title: “Samt el Qusur,” 1994) are both films that take a deep dive into women’s lives, challenging the usual norms and expectations. “Jeanne Dielman,” directed by Chantal Akerman, tells the story of a widowed mother living a very structured life, subtly hinting at how women are often boxed into certain roles. On the other hand, “The Silences of the Palace” by Moufida Tlatli, spotlights the lives of women in a Tunisian palace, giving voice to those who were silenced and showing the complicated relationships they have in a male-dominated society.

It’s set in the 1950s, during the period of French colonial rule. It explores themes of gender, class, and sexuality within the context of patriarchy, offering a critique of the oppressive structures that exist within the palace walls, and by extension, within society at large. Both films, with their sparse dialogue and strong visual storytelling, pull the audience into the emotional worlds of their female characters. They tell stories that touch on the experiences of women that often go unnoticed.

“The Silences of the Palace” isn’t readily accessible. There’s a poor-quality copy on YouTube.

“The Silences of the Palace”

2. “Vertigo” (1958) and “Of Good Report” (2013) both dive into the themes of obsession and the darker side of human desire. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” is about a former detective who becomes deeply infatuated with a woman, exploring ideas of obsession, identity, and the fuzzy line between what’s real and what’s not. Similarly, “Of Good Report,” by South African director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, uncovers the dark side of desire when a high school teacher develops a dangerous obsession with a student.

It’s a stylish, contemporary noir film that explores the dark side of a small town, offering a critique of the abuse of power and the silence that often surrounds such abuses in society. Both films provide a chilling look at what can happen when obsession goes unchecked, showing us its destructive impact on people and their lives.

“Of Good Report” is on Netflix, Netflix Basic, Tubi, and Vudu.

“Of Good Report”

3. “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “Hyenas” (1992) both delve into the damaging effects of power and wealth. “Citizen Kane,” directed by Orson Welles, is about Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper bigwig who climbs to the top but ultimately falls due to his ambition and loneliness. The film highlights the moral downfall that can come with chasing power. In a similar vein, “Hyenas,” by Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, tells the story of a rich woman who comes back to a poor village and uses her money to twist and corrupt the people there.

Both visually arresting films act as warnings, showing the sad outcomes and loss of humanity that can come from unchecked ambition. The film is a retelling of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play “The Visit”, and like the play, it explores the moral decay of a community when faced with the prospect of wealth.

“Hyenas” (1992) on MUBI, Kanopy, Prime Video, iTunes, and YouTube.

4. “Tokyo Story” (1953) and “Mother of George” (2013) both offer touching looks at family dynamics, cultural norms, and societal pressures. Yasujirō Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” shows the cultural and generational clashes that happen when an older couple visits their adult children in Tokyo, touching on themes like family duty, tradition, and how family dynamics can change. On the other hand, “Mother of George,” directed by Andrew Dosunmu, explores the complexities of a Nigerian couple’s marriage in Brooklyn, showing the tension between personal wants and group expectations.

The film explores the cultural pressures faced by a woman struggling to conceive a child. Both films provide deep insights into the common struggles people and families face when dealing with tradition, identity, and societal norms.

“Mother of George” is on Paramount+, Kanopy, Tubi, and Hulu.

5. “In the Mood for Love” (2000) and “Love Brewed in an African Pot” (1980) both explore the ins and outs of love and the complicated nature of romantic relationships within their unique cultural settings. Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love,” tells the story of two neighbors in 1960s Hong Kong who share a quiet connection, looking at unmet desires and unexpressed feelings against a backdrop of societal norms. Similarly, Kwaw Ansah’s “Love Brewed in an African Pot” shows the struggles of Esi, who is caught between two suitors in Ghana, dealing with cultural dynamics and family pressures.

“Love Brewed in an African Pot”

While “In the Mood for Love” is a film that stands out in its own right, both films draw you in with their storytelling techniques and give insights into universal themes of desire, and the complexities of romance within the confines of cultural and societal expectations.

Love Brewed in an African Pot” isn’t readily accessible.

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “Yeelen” (1987): Finding an African cinema complement to “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) is a challenging task, given the unique nature of Stanley Kubrick’s film — a science fiction landmark that explores themes of evolution, technology, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrial life, all of which are not commonly addressed in African cinema.

However, if we consider the film’s exploration of human evolution and its philosophical undertones, one potential complement could be “Yeelen” (1987). Directed by Souleymane Cissé from Mali, “Yeelen” is a film steeped in West African folklore and mythology. It tells the story of a young man with magical powers on a journey to confront his father. While it doesn’t deal with space exploration or technology, “Yeelen” shares with “2001: A Space Odyssey” a deep interest in human nature, destiny, and the forces that shape us.

Another potential complement could be “Pumzi” (2009), a Kenyan science fiction short film directed by Wanuri Kahiu. “Pumzi” imagines a dystopian future where water is scarce, and humanity lives in enclosed communities. While not as grand in scope as “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Pumzi” shares its interest in imagining future directions for humanity and the ethical questions that arise from technological advancement.

You can stream “Yeelen” (1987) on Kanopy, Plex, and filmingo. You can also rent or purchase it on some platforms.

7. “Beau Travail” (1998) and “Camp de Thiaroye” (1988): A film that might complement Claire Denis’ classic directly in terms of its focus on the military and the psychological impacts of colonialism on the colonizers, is “Black and White in Color” (1976). This Ivorian film, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, is a satirical take on the absurdity of war, set during World War I in a French colony in Africa. However, Annaud isn’t an African filmmaker; necessary for this experiment.

A potential complement directed by an African filmmaker could be “Camp de Thiaroye” (1988), a Senegalese film directed by Ousmane Sembene and Thierno Faty Sow. The film is based on a historical event, the Thiaroye massacre in 1944, where African soldiers who fought for France in World War II were killed by the French army. The film explores themes of colonialism, racism, and the exploitation of African soldiers by the French military, providing a more direct critique of colonialism and its impacts on both the colonizers and the colonized.

“Camp de Thiaroye” is available to stream on YouTube.

8. “Mulholland Dr.” (2001) and “Sankofa” (1993): Like Kubrick’s “2001,” finding an African cinema complement to “Mulholland Dr.” (2001) is a challenging task, given the uniqueness of David Lynch’s film. Its complex narrative structure, dreamlike sequences, and exploration of identity and reality are not common themes in African cinema.

However, one potential complement could be “Sankofa” (1993). Directed by Haile Gerima (Ethiopia), “Sankofa” is a film that explores the theme of identity through the lens of a self-absorbed African American model on a photo shoot at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana (historically used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade), who is transported back in time to a plantation in the West Indies where she becomes a slave.

The film’s exploration of the past and its impact on the present, as well as its critique of historical amnesia, could provide an interesting counterpoint to “Mulholland Dr.’s” exploration of identity and reality.

You can stream “Sankofa” on Netflix. You can also stream it on Plex, Hulu, and Prime Video.

9. “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929) and “Sembène!” (2015): Both films are meta-cinematic documentaries that celebrate the power and potential of cinema as a means of expression, edutainment, and social change. Both films also use montage, animation, music, and humor to create a dynamic and engaging portrait of their respective subjects: the city life of Moscow in the 1920s and the life and work of Ousmane Sembène, widely regarded as “the father of African cinema.”

However, they differ in their approach and subject matter. “Man with a Movie Camera” is an experimental film that uses no actors, nor does it have a traditional narrative; “Sembène!” is a biographical film that uses archival footage, interviews, and dramatizations to narrate Sembène’s personal and artistic journey.

But ultimately, both films share a love for cinema and its potential.

The film is available to stream on Netflix.

10. “Singin’ in the Rain” (1951) and “Yaaba” (1989): Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, the classic American musical comedy known for its memorable songs, choreography, and depiction of Hollywood during the transition from silent films to “talkies,” celebrates the joy of performance and the magic of movies.

Another challenge, but its African twin could be “Yaaba” (1989) by Idrissa Ouédraogo from Burkina Faso. While it’s not a musical (African film musicals are not as common), it shares a similar sense of joy and a focus on the power of storytelling.

“Yaaba” unfolds in the spectacular landscapes of rural Burkina Faso in a mythical time when everyday life was still unspoiled by colonialism. It tells the story of a friendship between two children, Bila and Nopoko, and an old woman shunned as a witch by the rest of the community. Unafraid of her, twelve-year-old Bila calls her “Yaaba” (grandmother) and learns the value of tolerance and what it means to be a human being.

Ouédraogo, who shot the film in his own village, said that it was “based on tales of my childhood and on that kind of bedtime storytelling we hear just before falling asleep.” It’s as visually striking and enchanting as its Sight & Sound complement.

While “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Yaaba” are different in genre and style, they both share a love for storytelling and a celebration of human connection. They also both provide a window into a specific time and place, whether it’s Hollywood in the late 1920s or rural pre-colonial Burkina Faso.

You can stream Yaaba on YouTube, BetaSeries, and Filmingo.

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