In the years since, they’ve duly fulfilled that purpose and continue to be one of the continent’s flag-bearers for the advancement of inclusive, independent filmmaking.
When I stop by to speak with Ayanda Sithebe, the festival director, he’s on set supervising callbacks for a show he’s casting through his company, Actor Spaces, through which he’s currently casting for shows like MTV Base Shuga Down South and Showtime’s new King Shaka series.
Sithebe talks me through how the ARIFF journey started in 2018 after he received the Youth Achiever Award at the prestigious South African Film & Television Awards (SAFTAS).
He recalls how at that time the Global Citizen team was in the country and they wanted to do pre-events around that year’s Global Citizen Festival in Johannesburg.
This was when he was introduced to Global Citizen’s Kweku Mandela shortly before he and Lala Tuku, an ARIFF co-founder, came up with the idea of the festival.
“For me, the inspiration came from an experience of really going to film festivals and not feeling like I fit because probably I’m not carrying the cool leather bag or whatever.
“It felt intimidating. It’s just filmmakers in their zone. And I was like I think we need a festival that’s more community-driven that wants to build a community of storytellers. And then we started in 2018 as an official pre-event to Global Citizen.”
Over the years, they’ve remained unchanged in terms of those principles of being an inclusive festival that speaks to putting women, the queer community and other disenfranchised communities at the forefront.
Last year, ARIFF opened with a film called I am Samuel, which Sithebe explains was banned in Kenya.
“It spoke about these two amazing guys who just loved each other and had to fight across breaking the barrier or convincing their families and so forth.
“That just speaks to us making the festival very inclusive. Another aspect of it, beyond looking at the transformation within the filmmaking space, we wanted to look at the developmental side where we look at the entire value chain and business of filmmaking.
“The element of affirming the currency of African narratives was a big thing for us in terms of how we encourage filmmakers to package their stories in a way that it could reach the global markets.
“We’ve seen how people come with big budgets and make amazing stories out of our content and our culture, and I think half of the time it’s just in the packaging. We know we can make great work that can reach global audiences.”
‘Africa, your time is now’
Sithebe says he has noticed that Africa’s time is now. “Even from just phrases, T-shirts, ‘Africa your time is now’, I think there’s a big awakening of our value as Africans, from culture to heritage. Over the years we have been consumers of other content from other countries.”
He references how a few years ago people would mostly watch Chinese or American films, but more recently Nigerian films have come to the fore.
“The Nollywood space is big today because they were just telling stories in the backyard. Stories about things they were experiencing, even if some movies were exaggerated or there was more drama, it was who they are from how they dressed and what they look like.
“There’s a sense of awakening that there is value in our culture. International studios have also highlighted that with films like Black Panther and The Woman King… International creatives have seen value in our stories, and with the resources they have they’ve amplified those stories.”
Apart from Nigeria being a region he says is leading the way in telling their own stories, Sithebe says he’s also noticed how Kenyans are on the rise.
New breeds of filmmakers are becoming bolder and finding their voice to tell their stories. With more support, resources and investment, he expects to see more growth in the industry on the continent.
‘Here we are’ theme
Sithebe explains that this year’s theme, ‘here we are’, is a statement on its own.
“Here we are, after four years of really doing this thing with all its hardships and its rewards. Also, after Covid, as people, we’re just in a space where there’s a lot of introspection and a lot of reassuring in terms of how we’re protecting our own space.
“But also we’re turning five, which is a big milestone for us. We’re thinking about the legacy of ARIFF and what legacy we want to leave behind?’ But in this here we are, we’d like to also look back at the journey of ARIFF.
“And beyond ARIFF, the journey of cinema from an African perspective as well as looking at the present: how is storytelling shaping us, where are we, have we ever dropped the ball, are we on track. But here we are, just to also get excited about the future.”
ARIFF will host an array of curated programmes such as Film Screenings, ARIFF Film Child, ARIFF digital hub and ARIFF Talks Series.
The talks programme will position African storytellers as the inspiration to a world that continues to look to Africa for new narratives centred around diverse cultures, traditions and heritage.
Young content creators
ARIFF Film Child is one of the more fascinating programmes. “It speaks to us creating a generation of content consumers and content creators or filmmakers at a very young age,” he explains.
“What inspired this is really what we believe in, which is that film is almost like an appreciating art – when it starts younger the appreciation is just bigger and bigger. What we do as the Film Child is we take kids from different orphanage homes – this year we’ve worked with Gugulethu Orphanage Home – and we’ll be taking over 50 kids to watch a film at Ster Kinekor.
“For most of them, it’s their first cinema experience. When you see the light in their eyes, it’s just amazing… The light that we see in the kids’ eyes when they come out is incredible.”
The festival will conclude with the African Legends Series which will see them select and celebrate one African Film and TV thought leader who has contributed to telling authentic African stories within the continent. “We give them their flowers while they can still smell them.”
The four-day film festival runs from 24 – 27 November.
The festival will be taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa, at three locations: The Bioscope, Atlas Studios and Ster Kenikor The Zone.
As the festival celebrates its growth in the industry it will be embracing its impact through this year’s theme #HereWeAre. More information available at http://www.ariff.co.za/