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African Film at the Toronto Film Festival

This story first appeared in The Sunday Times.
The line of people wrapped around the building and carried on across the street. It wasn’t for Arrival, the new science-fiction offering sure to have Academy Award members talking about Amy Adams for months to come. Nor was it for the latest Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone onscreen pairing, La La Land, that’s had critics swooning. For sure, these films drummed up their share of attention at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), but this particular bulging line, filled with people dressed in their finest, was for The Wedding Party — a rom-com set in Lagos.
This year’s festival highlighted Nigeria’s film industry, the second largest in the world. For the past seven years the festival has also selected a city to showcase filmmakers living and working there and chose an African city for the first time.
Eight Nigerian films were screened and two Nigerian actors selected as TIFF International Rising Stars, opportunities usually reserved for Canadians.
South Africa also got a look-in. Akin Omotoso, born in Ibadan, Nigeria, but raised in Joburg, presented his movie Vaya, a drama set in Joburg.
Omotoso considers South Africa his home. “It’s the place I’ve lived the most. And it’s the place where I pay taxes,” he said. “To fly the flag for South Africa feels great.”
It took Omotoso eight years to make Vaya, and during that time he worked on other films. Among these were the romantic comedy Tell Me Sweet Something and Man on Ground, a drama that screened at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival.
“His films are global,” says the festival’s artistic director Cameron Bailey. “He’s truly a vanguard.”
Omotoso’s feature films have picked up attention at festivals around the world. “I think it’s important to be able to tell multiple stories, and multiple stories about Joburg. The same Joburg has the characters that are in Man on Ground, and it has the characters that are in Tell Me Sweet Something, and the ones in Vaya. So a kaleidoscope of stories is quite important.”
He knows the importance of showing films at a festival considered to be a must-do for any serious filmmaker.
“To have it show at Toronto, one of the biggest film festivals in the world, one of the best places to premiere your film, it’s like Christmas,” he says. “These are audiences that really appreciate film.”
It’s a sentiment many other South African filmmakers who have shown their work at TIFF have expressed.
“Having Lagos selected for the City-to- City [programme] is great because it puts the focus not only on the Nigerian film industry, but on Africa in general,” says Omotoso. “Toronto is the kind of place that allows you to have the conversations that people should be having. And not just about Nigeria, but about other subjects too.”
This year’s festival takes place during a time of intense introspection within Hollywood, following the #OscarsSoWhite furore earlier this year, and the protests over the deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers in the US.
Haitian director Raoul Peck, who made the well-received 2000 political thriller Lumumba, about the Congolese leader, brought his new film to TIFF. I Am Not Your Negro is based on the writings of James Baldwin and is about the struggle of black Americans.
The line-up has also played into questions about race and equality in the film industry. “We’re seeing more African-American stories,” says Omotoso.
The festival opened with a remake of The Magnificent Seven, starring a multi- racial cast including Denzel Washington and Byung-hun Lee — almost unheard of for a Western.
Films at the festival dealing with interracial marriage were Loving, set in ’60s Virginia, and A United Kingdom about the marriage between Botswana’s first president and a white British woman. David Oyelowo, the British actor who won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr in the 2014 movie Selma, plays Seretse Khama.
A number of movies that debuted at TIFF are sure to have appeal in Africa, from the gay African-American coming- of-age-story Moonlight, to Queen of Katwe, about a young woman chess prodigy from Uganda.
As a sidebar to the festival, footage from the forthcoming movie Hidden Figures, with Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer, about a group of black women scientists at Nasa, generated much excitement.
“There’s a whole new mix of films and people that involves race and, equally important, I think there’s an appetite for them,” said Bailey.

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