As a young, Black woman growing up in Soweto, the sprawling township built by South Africa’s apartheid government on the outskirts of Johannesburg, Lala Tuku had dreams of making movies. But after making inroads into the local industry in the mid-2000s, she found her path to the director’s chair blocked. “There were no people that were Black, that were female, that were directors,” she says. “The opportunities were very limited.”
Tuku found herself in front of the camera instead, acting for several years before evolving into an executive producer, industry consultant, and most recently co-chair of the Africa Rising Intl. Film Festival (ARIFF). While curating the industry program for this year’s festival, which ran online and in Johannesburg from Nov. 27-29, she wanted to examine the ways in which ARIFF could both develop technical skills and improve access for aspiring filmmakers while “celebrating the authenticity of African stories, and recognizing their currency,” she tells Variety.
Film studies in South Africa are prohibitively expensive for those from poor and disadvantaged communities, so Tuku and the festival team organized the masterclass program as something like a boot camp for up-and-coming filmmakers, with workshops led by industry veterans addressing key components of the filmmaking process, from cinematography to musical scores.
The program also served up wide-ranging discussions on some of the big-picture questions facing the industry, such as “Women in Film: The conversation beyond shattering the glass ceiling,” which focused on both the challenges and possibilities for women in the male-dominated South African film biz. Another panel, “The inclusion of queer narratives in Black storytelling,” examined how marginalized LGBTQ voices could be better incorporated into local filmmaking. “We also thought that is something that we couldn’t do without,” says Tuku.
The festival president points to the panel “Film for Change: Producing content that travels,” as an example of how ARIFF can drive the conversation for the film industry not only in South Africa, but across the continent and beyond. “As authentic as we need to be, what is it going to take for us to be globally recognizable?” she says.
The panel included Laurence Ralph, a filmmaker and anthropology professor at Princeton University, known for his book and documentary short on police violence, “The Torture Letters”; and Brenda Gilbert, co-founder and president of Bron Studios, the Canadian indie studio best known for financing the comic book blockbuster “Joker,” as well as the Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starring “Fences” and Apple TV Plus’ “The Morning Show.”
Gilbert has been a regular since the festival’s first edition in 2018, where Bron’s social justice drama “Monster” was the closing film, and says she was “incredibly sad not to be able to attend this year.”
“ARIFF is an incredible festival that showcases both local and global talent, giving accessibility and visibility to filmmakers, and providing opportunities for people of all ages to attend panel discussions, digital hubs, film screenings, celebratory events and other activities,” she says. “Lala and [artistic director Ayanda Sithebe] have worked tirelessly to ensure that content included each year at the festival is socially impactful and educationally insightful.”
The desire to both educate and entertain has been a driving force behind ARIFF, as has been the need to recognize that transforming the South African industry demands a comprehensive strategy—an approach requiring the buy-in of stakeholders across the board.
“It’s not only about the producer, or the director, or the performers,” says Tuku. “We really tried to be holistic from the entire value chain.”
Pictured: Lala Tuku (left) and Brenda Gilbert