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A ridge of cowrie shells braided into her hair, the Amazon reaches out and smashes a rebellious slave to the ground. The she-warrior is just one member of an elite army running slave raids for King Adanggaman, a powerful African monarch who seizes villagers to sell to European slave traders.

This is the 17th-century coast of West Africa, as reconstructed by Ivory Coast film director Roger Gnoan M'bala in one of three new African films that take a controversial look at one of the continent's most painful chapters.

As African cinema increasingly becomes a force to be reckoned with, filmmakers are multiplying efforts to use the big screen to tell stories about politics and history.

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"Slavery is a wound that nobody talks about. Nobody. So we have to," M'bala told Reuters. "Now that we have a powerful tool like cinema, we cannot keep quiet."

Already screened at the Toronto and Vienna film festivals, Adanggaman made its African premiere last month at Fespaco, the pan-African film and TV festival. Audiences were so hungry for an alternative approach to the slave narrative that many could only find space to sit on the floor of packed cinemas.

Following recent U.S. films tackling slavery, such as Steven Spielberg's Amistad and Oprah Winfrey's Beloved, Adanggaman dares to tackle the role of Africans in orchestrating the trade. Stirring strong emotions, Adanggaman drew criticism from some.

Namibian documentary producer Ebba Kalondo told Reuters Television: "I really get the feeling that it's basically saying: 'Oh, but black people imprisoned each other all the time so they were quite ready for you when you came around.' "

Journalist Estelle Cornado had a different view. "White people are always the guilty ones. It may sound a little bit selfish but it's reassuring to see that African filmmakers have started to acknowledge that history is not that simple."

Adanggaman interweaves several love stories, one of them between an Amazon and a slave prince she captures, but M'bala says his main mission was to confront slavery's horrors. "It affects us. It's our history. We are the great victims," M'bala explained. "Three centuries of slave trade -- we're talking of 280 million people, from Angola to Senegal."

Winner of Fespaco's top award -- the Stallion of Yennega -- in 1993 for his Au Nom du Christ ( In The Name of Christ) M'bala has further polished his prestige with Adanggaman.

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The journey M'bala begins with Adanggaman continues in The Middle Passage,directed by Martinique's Guy Deslauriers and chronicling a sea voyage by slaves from Africa to America. A lone slave ship labouring through the sea symbolizes the vessels that crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean, their hulls bloated with a cargo of black men, women and children.

A haunting violin supported by a male narrator's soliloquy drives the emotion of a story of disease and death at sea.

"You can taste it and you can smell it," said Ashara Eckundayo, organizer of the Denver Film Festival. "We were stunned. It was so painful that I just had to embrace it."

So evocative is The Middle Passage that it struck a chord with such people as film-industry worker Dan Occo, who hails from Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. "This film talks about me, my own history. What else can I say? Everything is there."

A fresh cinematic exploration of slavery would be incomplete without Little Senegal. Set in the 21st century, this soulful tale by Algerian film director Rachid Bouchareb examines the modern consequences of slavery.

At 65, Alloune retires from his job as a guide at a slave museum in Senegal and decides, like his forebears, to cross from Africa to America. Although free, Alloune rediscovers the shackles of slavery.

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While hunting for his slave ancestors' descendants, he encounters deep pockets of animosity that exist between African immigrants and African-Americans.

"I wanted to put my character in a new dynamic. He's not just going to look for ancestors taken as slaves," Bouchareb told journalists at the Berlin Film Festival, where his movie was screened in February. "I wanted to make a movie about the wounds of Africa, and its history. My idea was to do a film about Africa and then take it to the American continent."

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