Inclusive Storytelling: A Concern for African Cinema or not? – From Onoh’s Desk #1

Jan 26, 2024

The growth of African cinema over the years has been nothing short of extraordinary. From the early days of stage play adaptations like Kongi’s Harvest (1971) to my childhood curiosity sparked by The Gods Are Not To Blame, where the term ‘moving picture’ first entered my lexicon, the evolution has been profound.

Our journey then delved into post-colonial narratives, exemplified by films like Heritage Africa (1989), expanding further to embrace visually groundbreaking stories like Atlantics (2019) and Mami Wata (2023). Let’s not forget the gems like Tsotsi (2005), a genre-rich narrative that stole the spotlight in an edition of Albantsho’s ScriptLive.

These examples serve as a thread weaving through my reflections as I ponder the theme of inclusion and its significance in my African experience.

Reflecting on the shifts in storytelling, filmmaking styles, and the industry itself is an ambitious task for a single post. While Nigeria and South Africa stand out prominently in this discussion, it’s crucial to recognize that they aren’t the sole contributors. Various regions and industries play significant roles in our evolution, and I approach this reflection with admiration for the diverse contributions of all involved.


Touki Bouki movie - Inclusive Storytelling

Touki Bouki (1971) | Directed by Djibril Mambéty

But first, let’s take a trip down history lane, thematically…

The trajectory of African cinema has unfolded through distinct phases, each characterized by interesting features that I find inexhaustible to comment on. Notably, in the mid-20th century, coinciding with the era of African countries gaining independence, a surge of films emerged. These films delved into themes of post-colonial identity, independence struggles, and cultural heritage, representing a collective effort by filmmakers to assert African narratives and challenge prevailing stereotypes.

Touki Bouki (1971) by Djibril Mambéty is a personal favourite of this kind of film. Along with its post-colonial narrative, it danced to innovation and unrepressed creativity with a non-linear story format and use of surrealism, as proof that filmmakers of that time were equally having fun telling these stories. 

Mambéty, and a notable upswing in independent filmmakers, were challenging conventional storytelling. They embraced a diverse range of storytelling techniques, exploring local cultures and addressing socio-political issues. Renowned directors such as Ousmane Sembène (Senegal) and Souleymane Cissé (Mali) rose to prominence, becoming influential figures during this era. You can watch their works on The Criterion Collection.

After a period, a certain country experienced the emergence of commerce-centric TV films, marked by producing genre films that predominantly catered to popular preferences – the drama, horror, and crime spectrum. This shift prioritized entertainment over thematic depth and creative innovation. If Nollywood comes to mind, you are right.


"Mami Wata" (2023) | Directed by CJ Obasi

“Mami Wata” (2019) | Dir. CJ Obasi


Nigeria’s film industry (aka Nollywood) notably ascended to the top during this period, becoming the second-largest film producer by volume. While the prevalent themes are not entirely clear, the films were marked by a prolific production of low-budget, moralistic choice and consequences narratives. This substantial body of work, which started to shape the identity of the country’s film industry, predominantly leaned towards high drama and what a friend playfully calls ‘filmed theatre’.

In the late ’90s to early 2000s, there was another shift, moving away from mass production for local consumption strategy to actively seeking international acclaim at film festivals. A little caveat here: I acknowledge that this holistic view might result in some loss of context in translation, but for the purpose of this topic, let’s proceed.

Returning to the main point, these festival-touring films were authentically specific and had with them the global sensibilities that signified a growing appreciation for African narratives. Directors like Haile Gerima (Ethiopia) and Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania) gained international recognition for their unique storytelling perspectives and masterful command of visual language as a cinematic tool. Then in 2006, Tsotsi brought home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film—a historic achievement for an African film directed by an African.

While tracing the historical trajectory of African cinema, it’s equally crucial to shed light on its present-day dynamics. In recent years, we’ve witnessed a continuation of groundbreaking films and the rise of innovative storytellers who are reshaping the narrative landscape. Filmmakers like Mati Diop, whose work in Atlantics garnered international acclaim, and the emergence of new voices from diverse regions are indicative of the evolving and vibrant state of African cinema today, also setting the stage for the exciting possibilities that lie ahead.


The Figurine movie starring Kunle Afolyan and Ramsey Noauh

Kunle Afolyan and Ramsey Noauh in “The Figurine” (2009) | Dir. by Kunle Afolyan


To talk about Inclusion, we must identify what is being excluded…

For me, inclusion in storytelling is about recognizing and representing the diverse cultures, identities, and experiences across the continent. It goes beyond rejecting a monolithic portrayal, but also acknowledging the narratives as told by the people who embody those identities and experiences.

When I first encountered Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine (2009), the film industry, as I mentioned earlier, was primarily dominated by what we described as filmed theatre. However, the groundbreaking nature of The Figurine stemmed from the fact that someone with a different perspective got equipped with the Know-How and Resources to tell their story. It served as a reminder of what was possible with more voices given power regardless of their placement on the continent.

While I often speak from the Nigerian context due to my heritage, it’s crucial to recognize the contributions of leading players like Mati Diop (Senegal), Amjad Abu Alala (Sudan), and Wanuri Kaniu (Kenya) who have significantly pushed the boundaries of what African cinema can offer, with films such as Atlantics, You Will Die At Twenty, and Rafiki, bringing global attention to African cinema.

In essence, it has demonstrated that the deficit in inclusive storytelling is not necessarily a lack of insight or imagination; rather, it underscores the need for a greater number of storytellers. People who have divergent interests, and just want to be seen or simply have fun like Diop Mambéty and CJ Obasi.


Academy Award-winning "Tsotsi | Directed by Gavin Hood

Academy Award-winning “Tsotsi” (2005) | Directed by Gavin Hood


Giving writers permission to honour the stories that call to them…

In an era where advocating for inclusiveness in African narratives is a pronounced campaign, it’s crucial to remember trailblazing filmmakers like Ousmane Sembène and Souleymane Cissé. They paved the way for a new generation to explore narratives beyond traditional genres. The inclusion conversation therefore should not aim to impose onto its existing storytellers but, instead, inspire a fresh influx of perspectives.

Drawing inspiration from the diversity seen in the book publishing industry, where a myriad of themes have been explored, we find examples of Frank Edozien’s Lives of Great Men delving into Nigerian LGBTQ realities, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah exploring migration experiences. The key to this vastness is the abundance of storytellers equipped and empowered to tell their stories without waiting for permission.

To champion more diverse and inclusive stories in our cinema, let’s avoid policing people into changing their narratives; instead, let’s provide more opportunities and welcome a broader range of voices. Encouraging a multiplicity of narratives will foster an industry where alternative perspectives are celebrated. This approach gives writers the permission to always honor the stories that call to them.


Read other entries in the From Onoh’s Desk series HERE.

Other Interesting Posts

How to Create Convincing Characters

How to Create Convincing Characters

Characters are the heart of any story, driving the plot and engaging audiences. Every scene they're in should serve a purpose, advancing the story in a meaningful way....

read more