Even in the best of times, a young film festival might expect growing pains as it preps for its third edition. But the organizers of the Africa Rising Intl. Film Festival, which ran online and in Johannesburg, South Africa, from Nov. 27-29, were faced with the additional and monumental task of pulling it off in the midst of a global pandemic.

Ayanda Sithebe, ARIFF co-founder and artistic director, says the festival had been “very fortunate” to raise its curtain at a time when life in South Africa was slowly returning to normal. After a strict, six-month lockdown, the country has begun reopening its economy and loosening restrictions on travel and public gatherings. International flights began returning in early October, while cinemas are again operating, albeit at limited capacity.

For a festival that was founded as a proudly community-driven event, however, the coronavirus pandemic didn’t just present logistical challenges, but an opportunity to double down on the role ARIFF hopes to play both in the South African industry, and in the society at large.

“The theme this year was ‘Film for Change,’ and how narratives can really start conversations that can move us forward as a community,” Sithebe tells Variety. “We thought as a film festival, we cannot just ignore what’s going on around us. As a global community, we’ve been through a lot. And we thought…[about] what can film and storytelling do for our societies.”

The festival opened with “Softie,” Kenyan director Sam Soko’s portrait of political activist Boniface “Softie” Mwangi, who realizes that his country’s corruption is difficult to combat with idealism alone after he decides to run for office. Sithebe says the acclaimed documentary, which world premiered in the Sundance World Documentary Cinema competition and was acquired by PBS’ doc arm POV earlier this year, was a fitting way to open ARIFF as audiences “reflect in terms of what our continent is going through.”

With closing film “Antebellum,” the time-bending horror film starring Janelle Monáe that revisits slavery in the American South, Sithebe says the festival hoped to showcase its international reach. “As much as we’re exporting African content, we’re also, as a festival, very open to the global community as well,” he says. “There could be beautiful cultural exchange, and a lot of learning from each other.”

Sithebe is the creator of the South African industry digital portal Actor Spaces, and has spent much of his career training actors from disadvantaged communities, an experience that he brought to bear on one of the founding pillars of the Africa Rising Film Festival.

“For us, we saw a big gap with film festivals, in a sense that if you’ve been to a film festival for the first time, you know how intimidating that space is as an emerging filmmaker,” he says. ARIFF was founded in no small part as “a film festival that speaks to accessibility, that speaks to development,” and that could “bring in emerging filmmakers and put them in the room with more experienced filmmakers.”

Festival co-chair and president Lala Tuku, an executive producer and industry consultant, agrees. “We thought it so opportune to start a platform that would highlight and that would give a spotlight and give a voice to previously disadvantaged and marginalized groups of our society,” she tells Variety. “For us, we wanted to create something that everybody could feel a part of.”

The festival’s third co-founder, Kweku Mandela, is a veteran film producer, as well as the grandson of Nelson Mandela. Working together, the trio have used their years of combined experience as a way to build a platform that they say addresses some of the inequities of the South African film industry, which in a country that is roughly 80% Black is still white- and male-dominated.

Along with physical screenings in downtown Johannesburg, ARIFF hosted a number of online masterclasses and panel discussions centered on much-needed skills development for aspiring filmmakers, while also addressing some of the structural issues facing the South African industry, particularly in terms of representation for Black, female, and LGBTQ filmmakers. “From a transformation point of view, it still lags very much behind,” says Tuku.

The festival also commissioned 16 young filmmakers to produce short films focused on gender-based violence, which in South Africa as in the rest of the world has seen an alarming rise during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as other societal ills. The films will screen in South Africa during Africa Month in May 2021.

Sithebe says the initiative offered a practical way for ARIFF itself to begin fostering industry transformation. “If we say we’re speaking to ‘Film for Change,’ can we start helping young filmmakers produce content that’s more meaningful?” he says.

The organizing team is already looking ahead to ARIFF’s 2021 edition, which will run Nov. 25-28, as it looks to build on the success of previous years. “We’re still very young, ready to become a leading African film festival,” says Sithebe, “so that we can bring the world here and export African content as well.”

Pictured (left to right): Ayanda Sithebe, Kweku Mandela, Lala Tuku