From its 2018 launch in Johannesburg as an industry event rooted in the local community, the Africa Rising Intl. Film Festival (ARIFF) has sought to promote diversity and inclusion in the South African biz, where Black, female, and LGBTQ filmmakers too often struggle to gain a foothold, and white and male executives still hold a disproportionate amount of power.

“From an access point of view, we don’t have access in terms of the full value chain of the industry,” says ARIFF co-chair and president Lala Tuku. “Women and young people, queer members of our society, they are still being marginalized.”

Giving emerging voices a platform is one of the festival’s foundational pillars, and something that Tuku says “is very close to home.” As a young, Black woman looking to break into the industry two decades ago, Tuku says she found few mentors from a similar background who were able to guide her career path. “When you’re young, and when you’re vulnerable, and when you don’t have a lot of people that you could reach out to—in essence, you are alone,” she says.

The program for ARIFF’s third edition, which ran online and in Johannesburg from Nov. 27-29, included not only award-winning features from some of the continent’s most exciting young filmmakers—such as Kenyan director Sam Soko’s Sundance premiere “Softie,” and Lesotho helmer Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s “This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection,” which scooped a special jury prize in Park City—but a host of films from up-and-coming South African directors.

Actor Thomas Gumede (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”) made his directorial debut with the coming-of-age film “Kedibone” (pictured), about a young girl raised in the rough-and-tumble Soweto township whose life changes when she falls in with the wrong crowd. Sifiso Khanyile’s documentary “A New Country” follows South Africa’s path from the early, hopeful days of post-apartheid democracy to its current state as one of the world’s most unequal societies. “Bakhona,” by Thina Zibi and Robin de Jager, follows a young South African woman torn between traditional spiritualism and Western religion—one of many image constructs South African youths struggle with today.

Collectively such films highlight the festival’s ability to bring social issues into focus. This year ARIFF also commissioned 16 young South African filmmakers to produce short films focused on gender-based violence, which has seen an alarming rise in South Africa and around the world during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as other societal ills, such as police brutality. “I thought we could use the power of cinema to bring [these issues] to the fore,” says Tuku.

The 16 filmmakers are paired with veteran directors to help them through the process of producing their films. “They would get an opportunity to sit in the room with some of the greatest story-tellers we have—in South Africa, and internationally as well,” says Tuku. Their shorts will receive a special showcase in South Africa during Africa Month in May 2021.

Tuku credits the Dept. of Sports, Arts and Culture for aiding the initiative, calling its support “of great importance for us as a festival and for the growth of the industry.” “The mandate of the DSAC is to create an enabling environment for the arts and culture industry. Given what we have managed to achieve under a pandemic as a film festival, [it] speaks volumes,” she adds.

The short film program also speaks to the ways in which Tuku and ARIFF co-founders Ayanda Sithebe and Kweku Mandela envisioned their festival having a transformative role not only for the South African film industry, but for the broader community as a whole.

“Film…has the capacity and the ability to change perceptions, to reflect to ourselves how society is, and to really bring about urgent conversations,” says Tuku. “If we really want to see the change, and if we really want to be part of the change, we need to not only say it, but we need to actively do it.”