When it comes to traveling to new locations abroad, one of the best ways to prepare for the differences in culture and people is to watch films and documentaries about your destination. If you're traveling to the continent of Africa, there are plenty of films out there that can inspire you to explore places you might not have thought to go otherwise.
In fact, Nigeria even has its own booming film industry called Nollywood that releases a number of African-made films each year, which you can browse on iROKOtv. Alternatively, you can also check out the African Film Library, which lets you rent movies about this continent for just $5.
While there are many great films about Africa, its people, and its history—like "District 9," "Searching for Sugarman," and "Invictus," for example—the top 10 films and documentaries about this continent have stood the test of time and continue giving people around the world an insiders look at African culture.
"Cry Freetown" is an incredibly moving documentary by Sorious Samura which informed the world about the terrible civil war taking place in Sierra Leone in 1999. If you enjoyed "Blood Diamond," you'll likely enjoy this documentary as well.
Samura followed up "Cry Freetown" with "Return to Freetown," where he follows the plight of three child soldiers and helps them return to their families. Samura has also made several other excellent documentaries, including "Exodus," which follows the story of sub-Saharan Africans who risk everything to seek employment in Europe.
"Tsotsi" is set in Soweto, one of South Africa's notoriously crime-ridden townships just outside of Johannesburg. Tsotsi (which means "thug" in township patois) is the name of the central character, an orphan, played by Presley Chweneyagae. He's a troubled teenager who steals a car and inadvertently ends up having to look after the young baby that was still in it.
The film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture in 2005. What is so remarkable is the fact that the main actors themselves were living in corrugated shacks in Soweto until the movie experienced its success. Additionally, South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper reported that Terry Pheto and Presley Chweneyagae were cast based on their performances in a theatre group in Soweto.
Battle of Algiers (1965)
A riveting movie documenting the battle for independence in Algeria during the 1950's, "Battle of Algiers" is not for the faint of heart but is very interesting and thought-provoking. In fact, the film was banned in France for five years after its release for its depictions of graphic violence and suffering.
The movie has been revisited by many since the start of the Iraq war, and for some people watching, the parallels that can be drawn are quite disconcerting.
Blood Diamond (2006)
For a big Hollywood movie, "Blood Diamond" is surprisingly gritty and real, and even Leonardo DiCaprio's South African accent is spot on. The movie is set in Sierra Leone during the chaotic 1990s when the country was in the midst of a civil war.
In the film, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a South African mercenary who teams up with Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a local fisherman looking for his son who has been abducted by rebels. The two spend the film looking for a diamond that will change their lives forever.
They are followed by an American reporter (Jennifer Connelly) trying to tell the story about conflict diamonds and the part they have played in fuelling one of the most brutal civil wars the world has ever seen.
Constant Gardener (2005)
"The Constant Gardener" is about a recent widow who searches for the reasons behind his young wife's murder. The film is set in Kenya and is based on a novel by John le Carre. It's a murder mystery involving corrupt pharmaceutical companies trying to use poor Africans as guinea pigs for their latest drugs and British diplomats turning a blind eye in order to save face. The main actors Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Hubert Koundé and Bill Nighy are all excellent.
Much of the filming was done on location in Kenya, including the large slum, Kibera, just outside the capital city of Nairobi. If you plan on visiting Kenya, you may not get to see the slums, so it's good to at least realize that this is how many people live.
"The African Queen" is a classic adventure featuring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart directed by John Huston. Filmed on location in Uganda and the Congo, the movie is about a drunken riverboat captain (Bogart) who takes a missionary spinster (Hepburn) on board his boat.
The movie was based on a fictional novel "The African Queen" (1935) by C.S. Forester and is loosely based on facts concerning the British and German engagement on Lake Tanganyika during the First World War. While the original gunboats are no longer running on Lake Tanganyika, there is an old German Steamer you can take to enjoy your own African Queen experience.
A beautiful movie that was written and directed by Ousmane Sembene—one of Africa's best filmmakers—"Guelwaar" is set in Senegal. This murder mystery unfolds around the death of a district leader whose family gathers for the funeral.
Sembene influenced a lot of West African filmmakers; if you've seen the excellent recent movie "Bamako" you'll recognize his style of story-telling immediately.
The Last King of Scotland (2006)
"The Last King of Scotland" is another excellent Hollywood film about Africa that centers around the story of a young doctor working in Uganda who finds himself unwittingly picked as the personal physician to one of the world's most brutal dictators, Idi Amin. Forest Whitaker plays Idi Amin in the film and won the best acting Oscar for his incredible performance.
The movie was filmed on location in Uganda, so if you're planning to travel in that part of Africa, it's worth watching just to get a feel of the countryside. Of course, Uganda is now at peace and Idi Amin and his equally brutal successor, Milton Obote, are distant memories.
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
During a period of 100 days from April to June 1994, one of the most devastating genocides in African history took place in the country of Rwanda, where over 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis were killed at the hands of Rwandan Hutus.
"Hotel Rwanda" brings a fictionalized retelling of the remarkable true story of Paul Rusesabinga, excellently portrayed by Don Cheadle, a hotel manager who saved hundreds of lives in the midst of the genocide.
Anyone traveling to Rwanda should read up on the genocide and try and get a better understanding of what exactly happened, but you could also read "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families" by Philip Gourevitch for a more thorough observation of the events. Additionally, BBC has an informative page dedicated to the causes and effects of this atrocity called "Rwanda: How the Genocide Happened."
Out of Africa (1985)
One of the most effective marketing tools for tourism to Kenya, "Out of Africa" is a 1985 film starring Meryl Streep opposite Robert Redford. Loosely based on the autobiography of the same name by Isak Dinesen (Danish author Karen Blixen's pseudonym), published in 1937.
"Out of Africa" won over 25 film awards internationally including seven Academy Awards. The scenery is spectacular and a great way prepare for your own East African safari—just don't go expecting to fall in love with a handsome hunter like the character played by Redford or you might be severely disappointed!