There is a scene in Nanny, the supernatural horror film directed by Nikyatu Jusu about an undocumented Senegalese immigrant working as a nanny for a white couple in New York City that riffs on the jollof wars popular in West African culture. Nanny’s heroine Aisha (an aptly cast Anna Diop) is walking the streets of New York when a love interest flirtatiously asks her who makes the best jollof rice. According to him, the Nigerians have the market cornered. Aisha sharply retorts that Nigerians think they are the best of everything.
Nanny, which won Jusu the grand prize in the US dramatic competition (the second time the prize is won by a director of West African origin) might be American in reality, but the spirit is distinctly African.Jusu, a Sierra Leonean-American, peppers the film with West African mythological figures like Mami Wata and Anansi the Spider, not to mention thematic and stylistic influences from Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl and a tiny nod to Nollywood.
At this year’s Sundance film festival, there was no big win for African films on the scale of Akinola Davies Jr’s Lizard - the surprise winner for best short film last year. But in Nanny, at least there is a small claim to an African win, thanks to Jusu’s insistence on cultural specificity in the film’s overall design. The one African feature film was found in the Spotlight section, a home for gems that have enjoyed success at festivals in the last year: Neptune Frost, the Burundi set sci-fi Afropunk musical co-directed by Rwandan filmmaker and playwright Anisia Uzeyman.
The cluttered but visually striking NeptuneFrost – shot by Uzeyman - bounces in a circular, obtuse manner and in place of a familiar plot, condenses in free-flowing form, scathing critiques of big tech, imperialism, and binary thinking. Uzeyman’s visual work is supported by her writer and co-director, American slam poet Saul Williams. Together they create a modestly imagined futuristic world where a group of hackers and rebel students are bold enough to imagine alternative futures for themselves with the power of technology.
In the festival’s premieres section, South African auteur Oliver Hermanus (Moffie, ShirleyAdams) made the crossover to mainstream international cinema with the bittersweet sentimentality of Living, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic, Ikiru.
Working from a screenplay by the Nobel Prize winning British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, Living transfers Ikiru’s action from Tokyo, Japan to post-war Britain and stars veteran actor Bill Nighy as a mid-level civil servant searching for meaning through renewed focus on his work after he is diagnosed with a terminal illness. A departure from Hermanus’ regular fare, this thoughtful melodrama feels like his most accessible work yet with its universal themes and graying visual design pushing ever so gently to a heart-tugging final act. There will be a lot of comparisons to the original certainly, but Hermanus and his collaborators do enough to ensure that their film has a chance of standing on its own merits.
The short films sections housed some of the most dynamic representations of contemporary African existence. The colorful Precious Hair & Beauty directed by the United Kingdom-based John Ogunmuyiwa is a playful ode to both the quirkiness of an immigrant hair salon and London’s high street. From the vantage point of the titular hair salon owned and run by Nigerian immigrants to the United Kingdom, Ogunmuyiwa observes the highlights of a day in the life while spoofing the zany energy of the big city’s busiest locations.
Things take a turn to more weighty reflections of social issues with Moïse Togo’s advocacy project $75000. The title is lifted from the tragic belief in certain segments of sub-Saharan African society that the complete bones of a person who lived with albinism is worth that amount. The reason for this price tag being the dangerous myth that their body parts bring good luck. As a result, people living with albinism are at risk of violence. Togo’s film is a unique hybrid that gathers recorded audio accounts of people who have suffered traumas in various African languages and pairs them with 3D motion capture images.
Matters of gender identity and sexual expression remain lightning rod issues in plenty of African communities regardless of progress made in others. Almost half of the 69 countries in the world that criminalize homosexuality are in Africa with some states brandishing the death penalty as a deterrent for non-binary modes of expression. Two shorts, Prayers for Sweet Waters shot in South Africa, and Egúngún (Masquerade) from Nigerian filmmaker Olive Nwosu approach these concerns through different lenses.
Elijah Ndoumbe’s Prayers for Sweet Waters follows a trio of transgender sex workers living in Cape Town as they reflect on their specific concerns including finding community, faith and healing in an increasingly hostile world.
In Egúngún (Masquerade), Nwosu plants a dramatic seed that has her reflect on grief, healing, and the process of moving on from traumatic childhood memories. A young queer woman Salewa (Sheila Chiamaka Chukwulozie) returns to Nigeria from London to attend her mother’s funeral and shares a brief encounter with a childhood crush. Their brief exchange helps Sheila process her feelings of displacement as well as resolve her resentments towards her late mum.
Conversations with the African diaspora were not left out of the Sundance lineup. In addition to Jusu’s Nanny, another US dramatic competition title to feature an African immigrant protagonist was Emergency, a rapid attack paranoid comedy that unearths all the things that could go wrong when three Black and brown college students find a white girl passed out in their room one wild night.
Directed by Carey Williams, Emergency also welcomes the chance to touch on the tensions within Black communities in the United States through the complex but ultimately loving dynamic between the lead Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and his pothead best friend Sean (RJ Cyler). As the first-generation son of successful Nigerian immigrants, Kunle’s overachieving eagerness masks a naivety about the realities of being Black in America. Between the wild events of the night and the tough love lessons of his best friend, he is about to receive an education beyond the safety of their college walls.
The biting mockumentary of Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul directed by Adamma Ebo may be all-American but African audiences are sure to relate with the preposterousness of the Pentecostal pastors at the center played divinely by Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall. Ebo, a second-generation Nigerian-American filmmaker manages a sharp line between pure comedy and a scathing takedown of toxic megachurch culture.
In the film, Brown is a pastor who has recently fallen from grace thanks to a scandal that was nasty enough to shut his Atlanta megachurch temporarily. As the church readies for a grand reopening, the pastor hires a documentary film crew to record every cringe worthy, tone deaf moment that leads up to a sobering excavation of accountability and complicity in contemporary church crimes and misdemeanors.