South Africa has a new film festival.
Alongside well-established events in Durban and Cape Town, the action is heading to the country’s biggest city, Johannesburg, for the four-day Africa Rising International Film Festival, which opens Monday evening. And this time the focus is squarely on public participation and accessibility, with an aim to embrace new technology and challenge old norms.
ARIFF is the brainchild of artistic director Ayanda Sithebe, who caused a stir with his digital portal Actor Spaces, likened to a South African version of IMDb, and had been encouraging actors to engage in workshops within communities that didn’t traditionally get access to arts and culture.
“His whole dream was making film accessible to people here in South Africa,” says film producer Kweku Mandela, the grandson of Nelson Mandela, who brought on board the late leader’s estate House of Mandela to support the project. “I took it to my family and said, ‘I really want to support this young man.’ A big thing for us is that we want to focus on how to empower the next generation, and give them a new voice and opportunity.”
Put together in just three months thanks to the help of around 40 young South African filmmakers, the inaugural ARIFF is now ready to launch with the curtain-raising screening of Kagiso Lediga’s coming-of-age film Matwetwe, soundtracked by local hip-hop artist Cassper Nyovest.
Across the four days, a number of African and international film premieres and screenings — including A Star Is Born — are set to take place (roughly an 80-20 split between African and international titles), alongside roundtables, panel discussions and master classes. On Thursday, a group of filmmakers will shoot a scene in front of a live audience, who will be able to stop them at any time and, via a facilitator, ask questions about what’s going on and why.
The entire festival is taking place in the Johannesburg district of Newtown, which Mandela says is surrounded by major universities and colleges and is within easy reach of a number of young people. Each morning, students from local elementary schools will be bused in for a series of free screenings.
Mandela says that whereas the festivals in Durban and Cape Town can often feel “very industry focussed,” the hope is that ARIFF — which he anticipates will have around 8,000 people coming through over the four days — really gets the public out to engage.
It also lands just two weeks before the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100, acting as a handy pre-event to the major celebration of the centennial of both Nelson Mandela and fellow anti-apartheid campaigner Albertina Sisulu.
“It’s early days yet, but [ARIFF] is something we want to see grow each year. We’ve definitely put it in capable young hands and I’m excited to see what come of it,” adds Kweku Mandela. “We feel strongly that Africa’s moment has come in terms of storytelling, and it’s time we take ownership of that.”