When the 9th annual Durban FilmMart (DFM) kicks off on July 20, with a busy four-day program running parallel to the Durban Int’l. Film Festival (DIFF), organizers will be looking to build on nearly a decade of steady growth at the continent’s leading finance forum, and the premier springboard for African filmmakers launching into the international marketplace.

“One of the key objectives in establishing Durban FilmMart was to create a platform for African filmmakers to connect with the global markets,” said Toni Monty, head of the Durban Film Office, which jointly organizes the DFM along with DIFF and the eThekwini Municipality. “Durban FilmMart, however, can only take them so far. We work with partner markets in identifying projects that are ready to be exposed to international markets, so in this sense, in many respects, DFM acts as an introduction and entry point for these filmmakers.”

16 African projects, evenly split between fiction and documentary, will be presented at this year’s DFM, pitched to an audience of leading broadcasters, financiers, funding bodies, and other potential investors. The eclectic mix includes not only filmmakers from the host nation, but from Cape Verde, Libya, Niger, and five other countries.

“We are quite excited about this year’s selection, and we have a number of projects from previously untapped territories,” said Monty, heralding what she described as “very personal stories that bring a deeper understanding of life in Africa, but have a universal meaning that audiences can relate to.”

She added, “The selection also depicts the diversity of culture in Africa, with its beauty and its challenges, and hopefully, through the test of time, will bring understanding to global audiences that Africa is not a country.”

Recent DFM alumni include Un Certain Regard selection “Rafiki,” by Kenya’s Wanuri Kahiu; the buzzy, Western-inspired Toronto audience fave “Five Fingers for Marseilles,” by South Africa’s Sean Drummond and Michael Matthews; and “The Wound,” the Oscar-shortlisted LGBT drama by South Africa’s John Trengove.

As the DFM approaches its 10th anniversary, Monty reflected on the evolution of not only the FilmMart, but of the filmmakers arriving in Durban from across the continent to take part.

“I recall in the early years, many filmmakers submitting projects in development for consideration had clearly had not engaged with international markets before. Submissions were generally poorly structured and projects were underdeveloped,” she said. “One of the major evolutionary changes I have noted over the years is that filmmakers have a deeper understanding of what is expected of them in the international arena, and the kind of stories that international audiences warm to.”

She added, “At the same time, filmmakers are resolute about holding onto the African way of storytelling, but have grown tremendously in terms of delivering these stories cinematically.”

Running throughout the four-day market is a full slate of panels, workshops and master classes focusing on everything from the aesthetics of African filmmaking to the nuts-and-bolts aspects of working within the continent’s complex financing structures.

Among the key speakers this year are Dayo Ogunyemi, a Lagos-based creative entrepreneur and investor, who will address the lucrative upside of African film and TV markets; Stephen Follows, a U.K.-based trainer and data researcher in the film industry, who will present key shifts and trends shaping the international film market; L.A.-based screenwriter and story doctor Peter Russell, who will share tips on how to adapt cinematic storytelling methods for TV; and Richard Ray Perez, the director of creative partnerships at the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program. He presents a session entitled, “Stories of Change: A Collaborative Model for Impactful Storytelling.”

Highlighting how the #MeToo movement has sparked an ongoing conversation about South Africa’s own problems with sexual harassment and gender inequality in the workplace, industry body SWIFT (Sisters Working in Film and Television) will be leading two panels during the Durban FilmMart: “Sexual Harassment and Race in the Industry,” which will look at structural challenges and abuses of power as they affect women working in the local film and TV industries; and “Pioneering Diversity in the Industry,” in which prominent and emerging voices in the South African biz will share their personal accounts of rising through the ranks as women in the world of film.

Also, as delegations from Brazil, Russia, India and China arrive in South Africa this week for the annual BRICS summit in Johannesburg, the third BRICS Int’l. Film Festival will take place in Durban from July 22-27, running parallel to DIFF and the DFM. On July 23, a full day of FilmMart sessions will be devoted to opportunities for filmmakers in those fast-growing markets to strengthen ties, access financing, and work toward establishing formal co-production treaties.

“We see real opportunity in expanding affiliations into these markets,” said Monty, “and we hope to make some firm relationships that we can grow in the coming years.”

The Durban FilmMart takes place July 20-23.