I can count the number of movies shot in, or about, Sub-Saharan Africa that I genuinely like and respect on one hand. One finger, actually: The Lion King.*
Now that finger has some company: I highly recommend Tall as the Baobab Tree. It’s easily the best movie I’ve seen in 2014 so far, and one of my top three favorites of the past three years.**
Set in a small Senegalese village, TatBT focuses on one family – a father, a mother, a son, and two daughters – that, like a starfish, is being pulled in multiple directions at once, and is trying to stay in one piece. (catch the trailer here)
The film doesn’t proselytize and isn’t a black-and-white examination of culture, tradition, and the ever-present creep of change; there aren’t good guys, bad guys, victims, and winners – just a family navigating poverty, modernity, and fate.
Interestingly, the actors aren’t actors, exactly; they’re villagers, often playing the same role they do in real life. Coumba and Debo, the two young sisters and first-generation students, are actually from the village; actually sisters; and actually first-generation students. In the film, their mother was a child bride; in real life, she was too.
More than actors, they were improvisers and writers, crafting the story more to hew to reality than to a specific message. The film benefited, and it has an intimacy and a realness that would have simply been impossible otherwise.
You should definitely check it out. It may be hard/impossible to find at the theaters – I saw it at the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College – but it’s on iTunes.
*I haven’t seen that many in total, to be honest, so framing it this way is more to make a point than to be completely fair. Maybe I’m over-generalizing, but it seems that most of the movies treat the Africans as props, plot advancers, stereotypes, and pretty much everything else but characters. A short list of movies set in SSA that I haven’t seen: Hotel Rwanda, Out of Africa, The Last King of Scotland
**The other two, as best I can remember, are A Separation and The Intouchables (both of which are also foreign films, incidentally)