Returning to Johannesburg cinemas for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the Joburg Film Festival kicked off its 5th edition with a joyful relaunch on Tuesday night, as local luminaries walked a gold carpet in Nelson Mandela Square in honor of the festival’s slogan, “Our Stories. Our Gold,” and the crowd was serenaded with a soaring performance from South African soprano Zandile Mzazi and singer Thandiswa Mazwai.

The event, which runs Jan. 31 – Feb. 5, bowed with the African premiere of “Xalé” (pictured), from veteran Senegalese director Moussa Sène Absa, a story of female subjugation and self-liberation that opened last year’s BFI Film Festival and was the West African nation’s entry in the 2023 international feature film Oscar race.

The festival wraps with “The Umbrella Men,” by local helmer John Barker (“Wonder Boy for President”), a caper comedy about first-time bank robbers pulling a heist in Cape Town that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall.

Speaking to Variety on the eve of this year’s event, festival curator Keith Shiri admitted it was a race against the clock for the organizing team after they scrapped plans for a fall 2022 fest. “We managed to do it against all odds,” he said.

The festival’s selection includes movies from over 35 countries, with 20 African and 27 South African premieres, including the continent’s first screenings of a trio of Oscar hopefuls: Florian Zeller’s “The Son,” Elegance Bratton’s “The Inspection” and Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale.”

Running parallel to the film fest is the first edition of the JBX Content Market, a platform created to connect African content creators with buyers from both Africa and the international industry. The two-day event will include a market area with exhibition stands for participants, as well as a full slate of workshops and panel discussions on topics such as the content strategies for both global and regional VOD platforms, and the prospects for Africa’s fast-rising animation scene. The JBX Content Market will complement the festival’s own industry program, which runs Feb. 1 – 3.

Even as African filmmakers remain vastly underrepresented at the world’s major film festivals, with not a single title from the continent selected for the competitive strands at the upcoming Berlinale, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful for the current and future state of African cinema. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other global and regional streaming services continue to open their checkbooks for African creators. Collaboration between African filmmakers — a major focus of industry events in Johannesburg this week — is on the rise.

Jessica Beshir’s docu-drama “Faya Dayi” played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021. Courtesy of Visions du Reel

The wide-ranging JFF program underscores the continent’s many successes, particularly among an emerging generation of directors. Erige Sehiri’s Tunisian coming-of-age drama “Under the Fig Trees” premiered in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section last year, while Mexican-Ethiopian director Jessica Beshir’s docu-drama “Faya Dayi” played at Sundance in 2021. “The Gravity,” from French Burkinabé director Cédric Ido, and “Tug of War,” by Tanzania’s Amil Shivji, are among a number of African films to bow at the Toronto Film Festival in recent years. Meanwhile, the migration documentary “No U-Turn,” from Nigerian director Ike Nnaebue, arrives in Johannesburg after a premiere in the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama strand one year ago.

The fact that most of the African films in the selection are well into their festival careers underscores some of the challenges of programming this year’s event, as production across the continent — limited even at the best of times — tailed off over the last three years. “There were so many challenges to shoot in Africa during the pandemic,” said Shiri. “Most of the filmmakers I know stopped making films.” Occasionally, that meant turning back the clock to fill competition slots in Johannesburg: Omar El Zohairy’s “Feathers” was a Cannes Critics’ Week winner in 2021.

Omar El Zohairy’s “Feathers” was awarded at Cannes Critics’ Week in 2021. Courtesy of Heretic

Meanwhile, the JFF’s February slot puts it just weeks before Burkina Faso’s venerable FESPACO film festival, the oldest and most prestigious fest in sub-Saharan Africa, which remains the first choice for many African filmmakers as they plan their regional premieres (such as Nigerian director C.J. Obasi, whose Sundance prize winner “Mami Wata” will have its African debut in Ouagadougou).

That hasn’t dimmed the hopes or expectations in Johannesburg, a cultural and economic powerhouse that’s yet to host a film festival or industry event that has left a lasting footprint. With a deep-pocketed partner in African media conglomerate MultiChoice, the Joburg Film Festival will try to bring some glitz and glamour to a city built on fast fortunes that Zulu prospectors once dubbed eGoli, or “place of gold.”

More importantly, said festival programmer and industry veteran Jack Chiang, it will offer a wide range of classic and contemporary African cinema to Johannesburg moviegoers hungry for films that reflect their lived experience.

Chiang recalled a screening some years ago of a low-budget South African film in the Johannesburg township of Soweto. “The response from the audience was so overwhelming that we had to move the rest of the Q&A outside because the next screening was about to start,” he said. “The audience in Soweto were just so happy to see a film that is not a typical Hollywood blockbuster, but a movie that was made for them.”