After deciding to shine the spotlight on digital disruption as the focus of this year’s Durban FilmMart, the leading industry confab on the African continent, there was an unsettling irony to the riots that swept across South Africa this July, prompting the organizers to postpone its 12th edition.

“We ourselves were disrupted,” says Magdalene Reddy, acting general manager of the Durban FilmMart Institute.

One month later, the DFM has finally raised the curtain on this year’s event, taking place online from Aug. 13-22. A packed program of in-depth conversations, panel discussions and masterclasses has been tailor made to showcase established and emerging talent from around the continent while looking ahead to what the future has in store for African filmmaking.

The theme of this year’s edition is “Disrupt! The shape of stories to come,” which Reddy says highlights the opportunities and challenges facing filmmakers at a time of unprecedented flux, due both to the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic and larger structural changes to the industry that were already underway.

“With COVID, it’s moved lots of filmmaking online, it’s moved opportunities online. But it’s not just created opportunities, it also changed the landscape a lot,” she says. “We’ve seen the cinemas closing down. Online streaming now is booming. Some of the disruptions, the changes that have been taking place in the industry, are now being accelerated because of COVID… I think with Durban FilmMart, what the program plans to do is to reflect on these changes and see how filmmakers can access [new] opportunities.”

This year’s edition is taking shape through a wide-ranging program of talks including sessions on how to pitch to Netflix and how to take advantage of the digital disruption that is impacting sales and distribution across the globe. The latter is something the DFM seized on last year with the launch of its Content Shop, an online catalog that showcases new films by African filmmakers looking for sales agents and distributors.

That initiative underscores the DFM’s goal to be a launching pad for the next generation of African talents, having previously been a springboard for films such as Wanuri Kahiu’s Un Certain Regard player “Rafiki,” Mohamed Siam’s IDFA opener “Amal,” and John Trengove’s Oscar-shortlisted LGBT drama “The Wound.”

This year’s Pitch and Finance Forum will offer filmmakers a chance to connect with producers, distributors, sales agents, broadcasters, and other industry players during the 10-day digital event. Thirty projects have been chosen as part of the official DFM selection, with an additional 45 projects selected through Story Junction, a presentation of projects from DFM partner programs Talents Durban and Hot Docs Blue Ice Docs Fund Fellows, with a spotlight on selected Lusophone African projects.

A new program focus, meanwhile, will spotlight the boom in African animation and look at how it can serve as a dynamic driving force within the continent’s creative industries.

The goal, says Reddy, is not only to highlight a rapidly changing media landscape both in Africa and around the world, but to explore “how African filmmakers can fit in or plug in to make sure they are keeping pace with what those changes are.”

In many ways, this is also a period of transition for the DFM. After operating under the management of the Durban Film Office for its first decade, last year the DFM was spun off into a non-profit organization. As an independent entity, the Durban FilmMart Institute is now able to do its own fund-raising, opening the door for greater engagement with the local industry through year-round initiatives not pegged to a single, annual event.

“It allows us to be agile in the way we respond to the industry,” says Reddy. “Previously, we were confined to government processes; now we are able to respond more quickly to the industry, and with our year-round program, provide opportunities that will help the industry grow.”

Reddy, who came onboard as acting general manager in 2020 to assist with the transition to a non-profit organization, was part of the steering committee that launched the DFM in 2010. In the decade since, she’s witnessed first-hand the evolution of the film industry in South Africa and across the continent.

“I’ve seen a big difference – a huge growth has taken place,” she says. “And I can confidently say that DFM was part of that growth process.” She points to “the fact that African and South African projects are given this opportunity to network with international partners [and] get access to international markets,” while the DFM has “given them the platform to grow and given them the platform to produce films that can attract an international audience.”

Yet the global market is a fickle place, and learning to adapt to uncertainty is more necessary than ever, Reddy notes, as events last month in South Africa proved.

“Having gone through that, we feel that it’s important for filmmakers to understand that yes, things are going to happen in the industry that will take you by surprise, but through it all we have to be resilient. And how we face those challenges will determine the outcome,” she says. “I think the one thing we can say is that resilience and courage are things that filmmakers need to have in times of disruption.”