Three years after the festival’s final installment of its City to City program, which focused on Lagos, Nigeria, the Toronto International Film Festival remains committed to bringing cinema from underrepresented of regions around the world to its audience of international tastemakers. This year, that effort is especially noticeable for the volume of films made by filmmakers from the African diaspora.
“Making a film is hard, but it’s especially difficult if you’re working without infrastructure or the required resources, in places where film is not necessarily part of the culture,” said Cameron Bailey, the festival’s co-head and artistic director. “And those are the films that we spend the most effort trying to bring to the festival. It’s so easy to get sucked into a bubble of what’s familiar, and I feel that our job is to continue opening audience perspectives.”
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The City to City program, which was a TIFF fixture for eight years, showcased filmmakers living and working in a selected city, regardless of where their films are set. That allowed for the spotlighting of cinema by filmmakers from marginalized regions of the world, including Lagos. But for Bailey and his programming team, while it was a great success, the program had an isolationist quality to it. “We thought, let’s instead bring more of these films from different parts of the world and spread them out through all the different sections of the festival, rather than have a specific city focus each year,” he said.
In addition to higher-profile films like Mati Diop’s Senegalese fable, “Atlantics,” and Malian Ladj Ly’s insurgent “Les Misérables” — both Cannes 2019 winners — Bailey singled out “Rocks,” directed by Sarah Gavron, which open TIFF’s Platform section, as an example of the strong and distinctive directorial voices he sought out. The film follows a British-Nigerian teenage girl and her little brother, who are abandoned by their mother, and are forced to improvise in her absence, in a bid to avoid being separated and sent to foster homes. Bailey called it “one of the strongest films we saw this year.”
He also spotlighted Wakaliwood cinema for the very first time, with a genre film titled “Crazy World.” Wakaliwood is a nickname for the developing film industry in Wakaliga, in Uganda’s capital Kampala, where Isaac Nabwana, director of “Crazy World,” thrives. He’s an enterprising filmmaker who works under the nom de plume Nabwana IGG, and who, with his small production company, Roman Film Productions, has been making films for over a decade, with some 46 titles to date. The films, which are heavily inspired by Hollywood and Hong Kong martial arts action movies, are shot mainly in Wakaliga, a poor community where basic essentials like electricity are a luxury.
Nabwana’s first big hit, 2005’s “Who Killed Captain Alex?”, was made for only $200. Production values and computer-generated effects are expectedly crude, but there’s a real talent, joy and respect for filmmaking on display. All that’s missing are the resources and infrastructure.
“We’re very optimistic about global cinema generally, and there are great films being made all over the world every year, and it’s great seeing new territories that aren’t as represented internationally,” Bailey said. “And the good news is that film and film talent will find its way, wherever it can, and however it can.”
Other noteworthy titles highlighted by Bailey include South African filmmaker Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s boxing drama “Knuckle City.” A fixture at TIFF over the last 3 years, Qubeka has yet to become a breakout success. And it’s certainly not because of a lack of talent. Black South African filmmakers telling stories about black South Africans may not have caught on just yet, but the cinematic artistry is undoubtedly present. “He’s doing something really unique in South African cinema in that he has a very distinct, original voice that the international marketplace hasn’t quite come to associate with cinema from the area,” Bailey said of Qubeka. “I really believe that it’s just a matter of time before he gets the attention he deserves. With ‘Knuckle City,’ it’s a very familiar genre for American audiences, so maybe this will be the one that breaks him out.”
Here are five more films involving the African diaspora in this year’s lineup.
Based on the legendary and inspirational life of the storied abolitionist, “Harriet” recounts the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history forever. Cynthia Erivo bears the insurmountable task of playing Tubman, in what could be a career defining role. It’s uncertain at this point whether controversy over her casting (she’s a British-Nigerian actress playing an African American icon) will have any effect on how the film is received. But the debate will likely be reignited when Focus Features opens “Harriet” in the U.S. on November 1, 2019. Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles, and Clarke Peters round out the main cast; Kasi Lemmons (“The Caveman’s Valentine”) directs.
The biographical drama will mark Michael B. Jordan’s next appearance on the big screen after a banner 2018 that saw him star in two of the year’s biggest films: “Black Panther” and “Creed II.” Based on the memoir by lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, the film follows the real-life case of Walter McMillian, a black man imprisoned for the murder of a white woman in 1986, despite having evidence to prove otherwise. Thanks to the legal work of defense attorney Stevenson and his team, McMillian was exonerated by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in the 1993 case Walter McMillian v. State. Jordan is of course playing Stevenson, and he’s surrounded by a lot of A-list talent, including Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson (reuniting with her “Short Term 12” director Destin Daniel Cretton), as well as O’Shea Jackson Jr., Rob Morgan, Rafe Spall and Tim Blake Nelson. “Just Mercy” is scheduled for release on December 25, 2019, from Warner Bros.
One of two African films (a rare occurrence) that screened in competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and won awards, Ly’s explosive feature debut is based on his powerful 2017 short film of the same name. The searing drama involves what happens when power ends up in the hands of people who don’t know how to control it. Ly’s story was inspired by the violent 2005 Paris riots which involved primarily youth of African descent. The three-week long uprising was rooted in rising unemployment among the youth, who were mostly confined to poor housing estates, and the harassment they routinely experienced at the hands of the police. At the center of the film are three members of an anti-crime brigade who are overrun while trying to make an arrest. The title is a play on that of Victor Hugo’s 1862 classic novel — itself the basis for numerous film, TV and stage adaptations. Starring Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga, “Les Misérables” will be released by Amazon Studios this fall.
Director Mati Diop, the niece of Senegalese cinema pioneer Djibril Diop Mambéty – director of African cinema classics “Touki Bouki” – makes her feature directorial debut with “Atlantics,” which world premiered in the competition at Cannes, earning her a spot in the history books as the first female filmmaker of African descent to achieve that slot. Previously titled “Fire Next Time” (although not based on James Baldwin’s famous essay collection of the same name), “Atlantics” tells the story of a young woman from Dakar, whose fast-paced lifestyle is disrupted by the sudden disappearance of her lover, soon believed to be dead. It’s a familiar and very timely tale on the ongoing plight of families from marginalized countries forced to make often treacherous journeys across land and sea in search of better opportunities in an increasingly intolerant, xenophobic world. But this one tells the story from a female POV, which is rare, and very welcome.
“South Africa deserves a boxing film. I present ‘Knuckle City’,” said director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, who returns to TIFF with his fourth feature, following last year’s rousing “Sew the Winter to My Skin.” A slice of street life in the country’s boxing mecca, Mdantsane township, “Knuckle City” follows the journey of a down-and-out boxer as he struggles to get the one fight he believes will uplift his fractured family. It’s a path that leads him to the underbelly of the boxing world, which is rife with criminality. And he enlists his reckless but resourceful gangster brother to help him navigate the terrain. The filmmaker described the film as an exploration and fundamental dissection of what has come to be called “toxic masculinity,” which lends to its it topicality. Among its influences are great boxing and crime dramas of yesteryear, including “Raging Bull,” “Rocky” and “Mean Streets.” If “Knuckle City” is as courageous as any of Qubeka’s first three films – especially his controversial neo-noir “Of Good Report” which was initially banned by South African censors – it should be an unforgettable ride.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5-15, 2019.