Kenyan filmmaker Ng’endo Mukii recently lamented what she observed as a shocking scarcity of contemporary African films in top film festival lineups, but the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival is a happy exception. This year, TIFF maintains its history of ensuring that African cinema is well represented among its selections with as many as 15 feature films representing the continent, compared to about six that tell specifically African-American stories. Ahead of TIFF’s September 6 kickoff, here are eight highlights that center on black lives.
“Sew the Winter to My Skin” (South Africa)
South African filmmaker Jahmil X.T. Qubeka returns with his third feature, which was also a 2017 Cannes L’Atelier selection. The film is inspired by the life and times of John Kepe, a Robin Hood-esque rebel who lived in a mountain cave while stealing from colonist white farmers to give to the indigenous poor, eluding capture for years during the 1950s in South Africa. Beginning with Kepe’s final mission before capture, the film pieces the legend together from multiple perspectives, including that of the white farmers, the town militia, a torn journalist covering Kepe’s trial, farm laborers and the locals.
“Fig Tree” (Ethiopia)
Ethiopia, September 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted by a pro-communist military junta who then installed a totalitarian-style government. Communism was officially adopted, and as a result, the new regime gradually began to embrace anti-religious and anti-Israeli stances, which meant hostility towards Jews of Ethiopia (also known as “Beta Israel”). Concerned for the fate of the Ethiopian Jews, the Israeli government officially recognized the community as Jews in 1975, for the purpose of the “Law of Return” (an act that grants Jews all over the world the right to return to Israel). In the early 1980s, Ethiopia went through a series of famines and civil wars. As a result, the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, including the Beta Israel community, were on unstable ground. The Israeli government stepped in to assist, and in several covert military operations, eventually rescued much of the Beta Israel population, taking them to Israel – operations that continued throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s. “Fig Tree” tells the story of one family’s trials and triumphs during the above operations. Ethiopian-Israeli filmmaker Alamork Marsha Davidian makes her feature film debut with the drama, which is based on her experiences as a child in war-torn Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the late 1980s.
British-Nigerian actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje makes his feature directorial debut with “Farming,” a fascinating true story about a young Nigerian boy’s search for love and belonging within a brutal skinhead subculture. Based on his own story as a troubled youth in London, the title “Farming” refers to the practice of giving children over to informal fostering, which many Nigerian parents did in 1960s and 1970s Britain. Adewale’s parents, a Nigerian couple studying in London in 1967, gave him to a white working-class couple in Tilbury, which was then a fiercely insular dockside community, where he was in constant danger of physical attack from local kids who, encouraged by their parents, nurtured a violent fear of black people. Seeing his skin color as a burden, and actually thinking of himself as white, and angry and confused teen, he developed a reputation for violence, eventually joining the local skinhead gang that ran the streets and made his life miserable. Eventually, he would later become their leader.
“The Weekend” (USA)
Canadian writer/director Stella Meghie’s last film, the 2017 Warner Bros/MGM drama “Everything, Everything” (based on Nicola Yoon’s bestselling novel) put her in a club with very few members: black women directors helming studio pictures. Her third feature in as many years, “The Weekend” was independently financed. The romantic comedy centers on an acerbic comedian who goes away for the weekend with an ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend, and they’re drawn into an unexpected romantic entanglement with the arrival of another male guest. Meghie’s acerbic debut, “Jean of the Joneses” — a fresh and funny portrait of a bickering Jamaican-American family — premiered at SXSW 2016 and scored a Best First Screenplay nomination at the Spirit Awards that year.
Nigerian superstar actress Genevieve Nnaji (likely the most well-known performer of Nollywood, and considered something of a national treasure), makes her feature directorial debut with “Lionheart.” The drama follows the hurdles of an Igbo family and their ailing transportation business. Nnaji also stars as the competent but routinely overlooked daughter who must find a way to save the company, by working alongside her inept uncle. The film promises sharp and comical commentary on the dynamics of a middle class Nigerian family. Western audiences will likely be most familiar with Nnaji from her appearance in the big-screen adaptation of “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2013), alongside Thandie Newton, John Boyega, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Dominic Cooper. Depending on how “Lionheart” is received at TIFF, where it’s making its world premiere, it very well could be the film that becomes her international breakthrough. She also appears in another TIFF 2018 selection, the aforementioned “Farming” from Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.
After making its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka’s offbeat love story “aKasha” will also screen at TIFF. The filmmaker found success here with his feature debut, the Sudanese civil war documentary “Beats of the Antonov,” which won the festival’s People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary in 2014. “aKasha,” his second feature, once again set against the backdrop of civil war, follows a Sudanese soldier who is considered a war hero. His love for his AK-47 rifle is equalled only by his feelings for his long-suffering sweetheart. When he is late to return to his military unit after his leave, his army commander launches “akasha” – the rounding up and arresting of truant soldiers. Caught off guard, the hero makes a run for it with his pacifist friend as the two plot ways to reunite with his lover. Through a series of comedic incidents over 24 hours, the film promises to explore life and ideology in rebel-held areas of Sudan.
“The Mercy of the Jungle” (Rwanda)
At the outbreak of the Second Congo War, a veteran Rwandan Sergeant and his young private are accidentally left behind in the jungle. With only each other, they embark on an odyssey across the most perilous forest on earth, where the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda meet, facing the depths of their own war-torn souls. Rwandan director Joël Karekezi, who studied filmmaking at Uganda’s Maisha Film Lab (which was founded by Indian director Mira Nair), made his feature directorial debut with the Rwandan genocide-focused “Imbabazi: The Pardon” in 2013. The TIFF-bound Belgium/France co-production, “Mercy of the Jungle,” is his second feature.
“What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” (USA)
Also making its world premiere at Venice before it heads to TIFF is Italian-born, Texas-based photographer, music producer and filmmaker Roberto Minervini’s fifth feature, a documentary that tells the story of a community of black people in the American South during the summer of 2017, when a string of brutal killings of black men sent shock waves throughout the country. Described as a meditation on the state of race in America, the film promises an intimate portrait into the lives of those who struggle for justice, dignity and survival in a country that marginalizes them, directed by a filmmaker who is known for immersing himself in the communities in which his films are set. The title — “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” — is likely borrowed from the song by late folk and blues singer Lead Belly.