When the organizers of the ION Intl. Film Festival decided to bring their traveling event to Port Harcourt, Nigeria, nearly a decade ago, they called on Chioma Ude – then managing director of a local logistics company – to help it take flight. It didn’t matter that a fest founded in Hollywood was unspooling in the heart of the country’s restive Niger Delta region. Things went smoothly, and a year later, the state governor called Ude with a simple proposition: why not do the same thing for Nigeria?
“I’m a film lover…[and] I always thought I could do something for the industry,” Ude told Variety ahead of the latest edition of the Africa Intl. Film Festival (AFRIFF), the pan-African film showcase that was launched in Port Harcourt in 2010. “I felt I could help in that respect.”
Eight years later, as Nigeria’s dynamic entertainment industry continues to grow, AFRIFF has maintained a steady presence in a country where stability is often hard to come by. Through political uncertainty, through wild fluctuations in the currency, through an ongoing Islamist threat and rampant insecurity, the festival has stuck to a vision Ude hatched eight years ago to use film as a unifying force—both in Africa’s most populous nation, and on the continent as a whole. “I just wanted to show how we could all celebrate [African film] as one, how we could all learn from our different stories,” she said.
This year’s edition opens Nov. 11 with Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s “Sew the Winter to My Skin,” an adventure epic inspired by the real-life story of a Robin Hood-style outlaw in mid-century South Africa. The film, which world premiered in Toronto, is South Africa’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar race. The fest closes Nov. 18 with “Nigerian Prince,” Faraday Okoro’s semi-autobiographical tale of a Nigerian-American high-schooler sent to live with family in Lagos. Executive produced by Spike Lee, Okoro’s feature debut bowed in Tribeca.
Throughout the week, more than 140 features, shorts, documentaries and animated films will unspool at cinemas around Lagos. According to AFRIFF artistic director Newton Aduaka, the globe-spanning program was designed to “open up the palate” of local audiences reared on their homegrown Nollywood industry. “A lot of Nollywood filmmakers…might feel slighted, but I think things have to open up wider” to expose Nigerians to ““a wider international aesthetic of filmmaking,” said Aduaka.
Special sidebars will shine a light on some of the key industries and foreign partners looking to help the local biz blossom. A screening of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” will take place as part of the U.S. Embassy’s American showcase. South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission will bring four features to Lagos, celebrating the fifth anniversary of the country’s collaboration with AFRIFF, while the French Embassy and the Institut Francais will offer four recent French titles, including “Custody” (Jusqu’a la garde), by Xavier Legrand, which won the Silver Lion in Venice in 2017.
In addition, AFRIFF will feature a full slate of industry events focused on some of the hot-button issues facing Nigerian filmmakers. Among the highlights will be a full day of panels hosted by French film professionals, focused on financing and distribution opportunities for the Nigerian industry. South African bizzers will be leading a forum on potential co-productions between filmmakers from the continent’s two largest economies. And the Lagos-based law firm Punuka will offer sessions on some of the pressing legal concerns of the Nigerian entertainment industry, such as intellectual property rights and copyright law.
For the second year running, AFRIFF will also be taking part in the Cine Nomad School, a collaborative training effort between France’s CinéFabrique in Lyon, Poland’s Lodz Film School, Benin’s Higher Institute of Audiovisual Training (ISMA), and Burkina Faso’s Higher Institute for Image and Sound (ISIS). The program selects 15 film students from each of the five nations to take part in hands-on training sessions across two continents. Ude called Cine Nomad a natural extension of AFRIFF’s own education efforts, which trains 200 young filmmakers every year.
Not to be overlooked, the festival will also shine a spotlight on Lagos: Nigeria’s economic and entertainment capital, and the hub of its prolific Nollywood film industry. After its itinerant early years, AFRIFF moved to Lagos in 2014, and it’s been a fitting home for the festival ever since.
While the sprawling megacity of 20 million plus is beset by a host of challenges – including chronic blackouts, rampant crime, and crumbling infrastructure – it’s also a city of sky-high hopes, restless hustle, and a freewheeling joie de vivre. For the week of red-carpet premieres and champagne-soaked after-parties that will mark AFRIFF’s 2018 edition, visitors will get a taste of one of the continent’s most dynamic cities. “Flying into the country,” said Ude, “you don’t want to go anywhere else but Lagos.”