Toronto’s Diverse Array of Films From Africa Paint Bigger Picture of Continent

A young Zambian girl banished to a camp for exiled witches, a Congolese singer forced to hustle on the streets of Kinshasa to save her son and an Egyptian imam whose devout lifestyle is thrown into turmoil by the death of Michael Jackson, form part of the rich tapestry of African lives on display in Toronto this year.

The result, according to TIFF Africa and Middle East programmer Kiva Reardon, points to “an abundance of riches” in filmmaking from around the continent.

“The hope is that audiences won’t only respond to the film they’re watching, but find their curiosity piqued and begin to dig deeper into films from the regions,” she says.

Among the highlights will be “Razzia,” acclaimed Moroccan auteur Nabil Ayouch’s kaleidoscopic portrait of five lives touched by a single event on the streets of Casablanca, which world premieres in the fest’s Platform section.

Chadian helmer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun returns to Toronto with “A Season in France,” a moving drama about an African high-school teacher who tries to build a new life in Europe after fleeing his war-torn nation.

South Africa offers a trio of world premieres, with Jenna Bass’ quirky, low-fi, body-swap drama “High Fantasy”; Michael Matthews’ Western-inspired thriller “Five Fingers for Marseilles”; and Khalo Matabane’s hard-knuckled prison drama “The Number.”

Nigeria’s Ishaya Bako premieres his sophomore effort, “The Royal Hibiscus Hotel,” a romantic comedy about an aspiring chef in London who returns to Nigeria to rescue her parents’ struggling hotel.

In “Sheikh Jackson,” which will close the festival’s Special Presentations section, Egypt’s Amr Salama offers a tender and comic portrait of a sheikh gripped by an identity crisis after the death of his childhood idol, Michael Jackson.

Toronto will also host the North American premieres of Franco-Senegalese helmer Alain Gomis’ “Felicité,” which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Berlinale, and “I Am Not a Witch,” the buzzed-about feature debut by British-Zambian director Rungano Nyoni, which world premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar in Cannes.

The diverse program highlights the dynamism of the continent’s cinematic landscape, showcasing a “range of genres, voices, visions and styles,” according to Reardon. It also reflects the efforts of contemporary African filmmakers to reimagine the way their continent is depicted on the big screen.

For Ayouch, who was inspired by “Casablanca” in the making of “Razzia,” history has shaped the way generations of moviegoers think of the film’s namesake city. Yet the director notes that not a single frame of the iconic movie was shot in Morocco. Even in Casablanca itself, he says, many residents are unaware that the movie was shot entirely in L.A. With “Razzia,” the helmer had a chance to pay homage to the Hollywood classic, while also capturing the rich urban tableau of the city as “a way of taking back what is ours.”

For Gomis, the “fight for the image” is central to the way Africans understand their place in the world. Across the continent, he notes, African audiences have grown accustomed to seeing Western lives depicted onscreen. “You have this feeling that your life is not real life,” he says. “It’s very violent. We are destroying ourselves.”

With “Felicité,” which follows a fiercely independent Congolese bar singer on a wild journey through the streets of Kinshasa, Gomis wanted to pay homage to the African women “who fight every day and make life possible” for their families.

He offered the film as a tribute, too, to the citizens of Kinshasa, giving them a rare opportunity to see their lives and their city — with all its flawed beauty — portrayed onscreen.

“This film is made for them,” he says, “to say, ‘We are beautiful and we can love ourselves.’’