×

JOHANNESBURG — As the curtain gets set to rise on the first edition of the Joburg Film Festival, which runs from Oct. 28-Nov. 5, fest director Pedro Pimenta is eager to stress, “We do not define ourselves as an African film festival.”

For the veteran Mozambican helmer, the JFF’s diverse slate of films from around the continent only underscores how African filmmakers have joined a larger conversation in global cinema.

“We like the idea of African film content being treated equally [with] other content,” he says, “not as a charity, sidebar, ghetto approach, but in a healthy and creative confrontation with the rest of the world.”

In Johannesburg this week, that means setting African films alongside foreign fare like Pedro Almodóvar’s “Julieta,” Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” and Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation,” which will close the fest.

Still, the bright lights of Africa’s glitziest city offer a unique chance for the JFF to showcase the continent’s top talents. Along with best film, the fest will be handing out awards for best African and best South African features.

The fact that many of the films on offer have already screened at foreign fests, says Pimenta, signals a recognition of what he describes as “the vitality of African cinema.”

For the host country, the festival showcases a number of films “reflecting creatively the complexities of South African society, and by doing that contributing towards a distinctive voice” for what is still a young industry.

Many of the local pics screening this week will be having their world premieres.

Fest opener “Mandela’s Gun,” a documentary-thriller hybrid directed by John Irvin, tells the story of the pistol Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie gave Nelson Mandela as the young freedom-fighter decided to take up arms in the South African liberation struggle.

Producer Moroba Nkawe says, “We’re extremely delighted to have the film finally ready for the public…find it fitting that its world premiere is here in Africa.”

More than a decade after the release of his acclaimed 2004 debut, “Drum,” Zola Maseko returns to the big screen with “The Whale Caller,” an adaptation of South African scribe Zakes Mda’s novel about a love triangle between a man, a whale, and the woman who comes between them.

First-time helmer Judy Naidoo offers her thriller, “Hatchet Hour,” about an ambitious lawyer whose life is turned upside-down when she accidentally kills her gardener.

Acclaimed actress, screenwriter, and producer Thandi Brewer makes her directorial debut with “Chemo Club,” a comedy heist about a group of rambunctious retirees.

“Push and Shove” is a feature-length compilation of shorts offering a kaleidoscopic portrait of South African life today, helmed by various directors.

“Love and Kwaito,” by actress, producer, and director Stephina Zwane, tells the story of two young siblings surviving on the mean streets of Soweto without their parents.

Among the South African docs getting their world premieres is Rehad Desai’s “The Giant is Falling,” the Emmy-winning helmer’s latest hard-hitting portrait of the ongoing political turmoil in his country.

The South African dream is also in the crosshairs of Siphamandla Bongwana’s “Soweto, Times of Wrath,” which examines the state of the nation through the eyes of six young Sowetans.

Noted Nigerian helmer Akin Omotoso, who’s called Johannesburg home for nearly two decades, will also be having the African premiere of “Vaya,” (pictured) a triptych about three small-town travelers who learn rough life lessons after arriving in the gritty metropolis. Pic bowed in Toronto.

Turning its eyes toward the rest of the continent and the diaspora, the festival offers a rich panorama of African fare.

Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, who won the Jury Prize in Cannes in 2010, documents the legacy of dictatorship in his native Chad with “Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy,” which premiered in Cannes.

First-time helmer Mbithi Masya, of Kenya, arrives in Joburg with his haunting “Kati Kati,” which won the Fipresci Jury Prize in the Discovery section in Toronto this year.

French-Senegalese director Ousmane William Mbaye explores the life and legacy of Senegal’s trailblazing scholar Cheikh Anta Diop in “Kemtiyu: Séex Anta – Cheikh Anta.”

The Brazilian-born, Mozambique-based auteur Licínio Azevedo’s “Train of Salt and Sugar,” which won the Independent Italian Critics Award after its Locarno premiere, sets its gripping narrative in the 1980s in the midst of Mozambique’s disastrous civil war.

Rahmatou Keïta, of Niger, tells the story of a young woman suffering from the pain of lost love in “The Wedding Ring,” which had its world premiere in Toronto.

British-Nigerian helmer Joseph a. Adesunloye’s debut feature, “White Colour Black,” tells the story of a young photographer in London who embarks on a path toward self-discovery when he has to return to his native Senegal. Pic premiered at the BFI London Film Festival.

The feature debut of French-Malian director Daouda Coulibaly, “Wulu,” is a crime-thriller about a 20-year-old bus driver’s improbable journey to becoming a drug lord.

Haitian-American helmer Guetty Felin’s “Haiti, My Love” is a powerful, magical-realist portrait of characters struggling to love and survive in the aftermath of the country’s 2010 earthquake.