A Beginner’s Guide to Queer African Cinema

Today we’re excited to present a guest post by Lindsey Green-Simms, author of the new book Queer African Cinemas. The book examines films produced by and about queer Africans in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, showing how these films record the fear, anxiety, and vulnerability many queer Africans experience while at the same time imagining new hopes and possibilities. Lindsey B. Green-Simms is Associate Professor of Literature at American University and author of Postcolonial Automobility: Car Culture in West Africa.

In my new book, Queer African Cinemas, I look at all the different ways queer African films have registered various forms of resistance and have shown the multiple ways that queer African subjects love, dream, negotiate, flee, and craft new worlds. The following 10 fiction films capture the difficulty of queer existence but also highlight the potentials for queer life-building and joy.  Some of them are difficult to find, but some can be streamed on platforms that many readers will be able to access.  All of the films ask us to listen carefully to subtle and quiet modes of resistance and to think about queer Africans in all of their complexity, not simply as objects of homophobia.

Dakan, dir. Mohamed Camara (Guinea, 1997)

Dakan

Dakan, the first Black African feature film to depict homosexuality, was a film that was, in many ways, ahead of its time. It opens with two high school boys, Manga and Sory, making out in Sory’s red convertible. But neither Manga nor Sory’s parents approve of their relationship. Manga is sent off to a traditional healer and then eventually married off to Oumou, a white woman. Sory, who is expected to take over his father’s lucrative business, is also married off to a woman. Dakan premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and screened primarily abroad where audiences in the diaspora were often elated to see representation of queer love on the continent. But when Dakan screened at FESPACO —the famous pan-African film festival held every other year in Burkina Faso—Camara had to change hotels every day and leave screenings early to avoid being beaten up. Likewise, when the film screened in Guinea, where local imams issued a fatwa against him, Camara narrowly escaped an angry crowd. But, despite the challenges Camara faced funding, casting, and screening the film, Dakan ends defiantly and holds out hope for the possibility that queer African love can exist, and perhaps even flourish, on the continent. It is available for streaming on Amazon, Vimeo, and Kanopy.

Karmen Geï, dir. Joseph Gaï Ramaka (Senegal, 2001)

Fig 1.01 - Karmen Gei

Karmen Geï is another pioneering queer West African film, though its queerness is not necessarily central to the plot. Karmen Geï is a Senegalese adaptation of Georges Bizet’s famous 1875 opera Carmen. In Ramaka’s film, the first ever African adaptation, the music is not opera but Afro-jazz with a host of famous African-American and Senegalese musicians creating a pulsing, improvisational jazz and drumming score. Moreover, in Karmen Geï Carmen is not an outlaw from Southern Spain caught in a love triangle between two men. Instead, Karmen is a Senegalese woman, recently released from prison after seducing the female warden, who loves both men and women but who, like all Carmens, insists on her own freedom even though it costs her. And though this artful and somewhat opaque film does not necessarily say anything directly about what it’s like to live as a queer person in Senegal, it is a beautiful portrait of refusal, love, waywardness, and eccentricity. It can be streamed on Kanopy, Vimeo and YouTube.

Stories of Our Lives, dir. Jim Chuchu (Kenya, 2014)

Fig Intro.03

The Nest Collective and Jim Chuchu did not set out to make Kenya’s first queer film but that’s precisely what happened. In 2013 members of the Nest Collective, a multidisciplinary art collective, had been traveling around Kenya collecting stories from queer-identified people for a book project called Stories of Our Lives.  They decided to turn a few of the stories into short films to show to the community of people they had interviewed. One of these shorts was shown to a curator of the Toronto International Film Festival who then asked if the Nest Collective could make more vignettes for a feature-length film. The collective agreed, and Stories was slated to show in Toronto before the film was even finished. The Stories of Our Lives film anthology consists of five emotionally charged black and white vignettes that show the different ways queer Kenyans live and love. Unfortunately, though the film was met with well-deserved critical praise internationally, it was banned in Kenya and has not been screened there. It can be rented on Vimeo.

Rafiki, dir. Wanuri Kahiu (Kenya, 2018)

Fig 4.07 - Rafiki

Rafiki is another film that was banned in Kenya, though a judge did lift the ban for seven days so that the film could be eligible for an Oscar. Theaters in the country were so packed that Rafiki became the second highest grossing Kenyan film. Based on Monica Arac de Nyeko’s prize-winning short story “Jambula Tree,” Rafiki tells the story of two girls from opposing politicians’ families who fall in love in Nairobi. The film is a gorgeous homage to the colors, sounds, and street life in Nairobi as Kahiu fills the screen with pinks, purples, and bright green and introduces us to Kenyan musicians, fashion labels, and artists. The film stands out for its vibrancy as well as for its belief in the possibility of young queer love. And though it’s difficult to see in Kenya, outside of its country of origin, it can be found on Amazon, Hulu, ShowTime, and Apple TV to name just a few.

Inxeba, dir. John Trengove (South Africa, 2017)

Fig 3.05 - Inxeba

Inxeba, or The Wound in translation, takes place on a mountain in the Eastern Cape during the Xhosa male circumcision and initiation rites known as ulwaluko. Two of the protagonists are Xolani and Vija, old friends and lovers who resume their secret queer affair every year when they journey to the mountain and act as caregivers to the young boys who come for their initiation. But when Xolani becomes the caregiver to Kwanda, a brazen, out gay boy from Johannesburg, Xolani and Vija’s desire to remain quiet is challenged. This film breaks away from the tradition of situating African queerness primarily in urban settings and asks pressing questions about the role of tradition, the premium placed on being out, and ways of disrupting the violence of heteronormative masculinity. It is currently available to stream (under the title The Wound) on Vudu, Google Play, Apple TV, and Amazon.

Kanarie, dir. Christaan Olwagen (South Africa, 2018)

Fig 3.07 - Kanarie

Kanarie is, like Karmen Geï, a film infused with musical numbers and dance sequences, but its setting and content could not be further from that of Karmen Geï. Kanarie takes place during the South African Border Wars when the apartheid regime fought insurgents in Namibia and Angola.  The war, which began in the 1960s, lasted for decades but Kanarie is set during 1984-1985 when a state of emergency was declared that led to draconian law enforcement and military operation against non-white South Africans. At the beginning of the film Johan Niemand, the small-town Boy George-obsessed protagonist is conscripted into the army and joins the Defense Force Choir, the Kanaries. Despite its heavy topic, the film is a quirky coming out story, full of 1980s pop music, set in the most unlikely of spaces, and it takes the audience on a complicated journey with Johan as he tries to understand both his own sexuality and what it means to be a white, gay South African serving in the apartheid government’s Defense Force. It is currently available to stream on the Roku Channel, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, Apple TV, and Tubi.

Moffie, dir Oliver Hermanus (South Africa, 2019)

A scene from the trailer of 'Moffie'. (Screenshot: YouTube/
Portobello Productions)

(Screenshot: YouTube/ Portobello Productions)

Moffie is set slightly earlier than Kanarie but is also about a white gay South African boy who discovers his queer identity after being conscripted into the army. However, Moffie, an adaptation of André Carl van der Merwe’s semiautobiographical novel, has none of the lightness of Kanarie and follows the protagonist, Nicholas Van der Swart, through his grueling training and active duty in a particularly violent counterinsurgency unit. Even Hermanus himself admits that the film is triggering and brutal as it’s intended to depict the multiple ways the military dehumanized non-white and non-straight bodies. Thematically, the film also serves as a prequel to Hermanus’s 2011 film Skoonheid about a closeted Afrikaner man (formerly in the Defense Force) who becomes violent with another man. It is currently available to stream on Hulu, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon, and Apple TV.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore, dir Tope Oshin (Nigeria, 2018)

Fig 2.13 - We Don't Live Here Anymore

We Don’t Live Here Anymore is the first feature-length film produced by The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs), a Nigeria-based human rights non-profit that focuses on sexual minorities. We Don’t Live Here Anymore is the second film TIERs produced – the first was the short film Hell or High Water, which is available for free on YouTube. With both films, TIERs worked with stars and directors from Nollywood, the popular Nigerian film industry, to combat homophobia and elicit compassion both for gay characters and their family members. We Don’t Live Here Anymore centers on the fallout after two teenage boys are caught together on school grounds. Rather than supporting their sons, the parents flounder. One mother decides to use her wealth and connections to paint her son as a victim. The other fails to get her son to safety soon enough. In many ways, the film is less about the two boys and more about the mothers, and it serves as a cautionary tale, as many Nollywood films do, about the failure to stand up to both internal and external homophobia. It can be streamed on Amazon and Google Play.

Walking with Shadows, dir. Aoife O’Kelly (Nigeria, 2020)

Fig 2.14 - Walking with Shadows

Walking with Shadows is a co-production between TIERs and Oya Media, the production company of the former Nigerian talk show host Funmi Iyanda. Walking with Shadows is the adaptation of Jude Dibia’s novel of the same name, the first Nigerian novel to focus on a gay protagonist. Both Iyanda and former TIERs executive director Olumide Makanjuola had long dreamed of making Dibia’s groundbreaking book into a film and when they teamed up to do so they made a beautiful rendition of this classic coming out story. The plot is straight-forward: when the successful businessman Adrian Ebele Njoko is outed by a co-worker seeking revenge, Adrian must re-evaluate his life and his relationship with his wife, family, and friends. Like Dibia’s book, the film asks audiences who might otherwise reject queer people to think about them as fully human and also provides the type of gay protagonist that is rarely represented in Nigerian film and literature. The film screened to packed theaters at the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) in Lagos and toured globally but has not yet been made available on streaming platforms.

Ifé, dir. Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim (Nigeria, 2020) 

Screenshot from the lesbian film Ife

(Screenshot from PM News)

Ifé is a 35-minute short film, produced in partnership with Pamela Adie’s The Equality Hub, a Lagos-based organization focusing on the rights of female sexual minorities. (Adie also made a coming out documentary, Under the Rainbow, about her own life). Ifé begins with the titular character preparing for a date with Adaora, a woman she has not yet met in person. Adaora and Ifé immediately connect and their one-night date stretches into three intimate days. Unlike other queer Nigerian films, Ifé is not about how these women’s love might affect their larger community, nor is it a film in which anyone is trying to save anyone from the supposed sins of homosexuality. Rather, Ifé, the first Nigerian film written, produced, and directed by queer women, focuses on queer women’s intimacy when it gets to exist, for just a moment, in a protected space, safely inside the walls of Ifé’s home. Ifé, along with Adie’s first film, can be rented on the Equality Hub’s own streaming platform.

Use coupon code E22GRNSM to save 30% on Queer African Cinemas by Lindsey Green-Simms.

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