A still from the film The King's Horseman of a man in shackles behind bars
Photo: TIFF

The late Biyi Bandele's final film, 'The King's Horseman,' will debut at the Toronto Film Festival.

This year’s edition of the popular film event, which takes place in Canada over the next ten days, from September 8-18, hosts a handful of notable African films to keep an eye on, including the final project from writer-director and novelist Biyi Bandele.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has traditionally been a hospitable place for a wide selection of African cinema to debut. Over the years, films like Dieudo Hamadi's Downstream to Kinshasa and Jahmil X.T. Qubeka's Sew the Winter to My Skin have found rapturous audiences. This year, there's a variety of titles making their North American and world debut, from South Africa, Burkina Faso, Kenya and more.

Opening the festival this year is Welsh Egyptian filmmaker and screenwriter Sally El Hosaini’s The Swimmers. The film, based on the true story of two Syrian sisters who left the war and their home behind to seek a new life in Europe, along with the chance to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics, plays on Thursday evening, making its global premiere. El Hosaini will be receiving the TIFF Emerging Talent Award at the annual TIFF Tribute Awards, for directing “one of the most urgent, moving films of the year,” says festival CEO Cameron Bailey. French Senegalese director Mati Diop won the award in 2019, when she brought Atlantics to the fest.

South African actress Thuso Mbedu, who stars alongside Viola Davis in The Woman King, which is also making its world debut at the fest, is among the emerging talent of the TIFF Rising Stars program. Recognizing the rise of Mbedu’s career, on the back of her leading role in The Underground Railroad, the program is dedicated to giving her, and those selected for the program, a boost in the form of networking sessions, industry events and development sessions.

Among the Special Presentations at TIFF this year is the buzzed-about Nanny, from Sierra Leonean American Nikyatu Jusu, who won the jury prize at Sundance earlier this year, for her horror fable about an undocumented Senegalese woman who becomes a nanny to a wealthy family in New York. The film has continued to gain momentum since its big win and will certainly be on many must-see lists when it releases on Prime Video in December.

A still of the film, Nanny, showing two women, dressed in colorful attire smiling at a birthday party.

Nikyatu Jusu's 'Nanny' plays at TIFF, before releasing on Prime Video in December this year.

Photo:

The entertainment industry is still mourning the death of prolific author and playwright Biyi Bandele at 54 years old last month. Notable for having adapted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandiwe Newton, Bandele had been working on the cinematic interpretation of Wole Soyinka’s stage play, Death and the King’s Horseman, with Mo Abudu, founder of EbonyLife Studios, before his passing. The film, which is part of a deal EbonyLife signed with Netflix, is premiering at TIFF before heading to the streaming service – making it the first Yoruba language feature to play at TIFF.

Inspired by true life events in the Oyo Empire in the 1940s, the film is also known by its original title, Elesin Oba. Abudu told CNN about Bandele’s dedication to the story. "He was so passionate about Elesin Oba, more so than any of the other projects he had worked on with us ... and was so excited when he heard about our selection at TIFF. I am sad he will not be at TIFF and that he will not get to see how loved his last project was.”

South African actress Charlbi Dean, who passed away suddenly just a few weeks ago, will be remembered posthumously when the film that many said was sure to make her a star plays at TIFF. Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness won the coveted top prize at Cannes this year, thanks in large part to Dean’s role in it.

Moroccan director Maryam Touzani’s The Blue Caftan, which sheds light on homosexuality, is also on the festival’s schedule. The film played at the Cannes Film Festival in May where it was awarded the International Critics' Prize from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), for highlighting the taboo topic in Moroccan society.

French-Burkinabe director Cédric Ido brings his second feature, the sci-fi The Gravity, to the fest, while Kenyan editor Angela Wanjiku Wamai turns in her first directorial venture, Shimoni. The drama centers on a school teacher-turned-criminal who restarts his life in the rural village that lends its name to the title of the film.

In the World Cinema presentation, The Umbrella Men, a long-pursued feature from South African director John Barker, makes its debut. Stars of the idiosyncratic comedy, about a heist taking place during Cape Town’s Second New Year carnival, will attend the film’s premiere.

On the shorts front, Kenya’s Mbithi Masya, part of the Afropop outfit Just A Band, has Baba on the line-up, about a six-year-old boy living on the outskirts of Nairobi, while South Africa’s Sandulela Asanda will premiere Mirror Mirror.

In the documentary section, famed South African artist William Kentridge brings the film Self-Portrait As a Coffee Pot to the fest, which spans nine parts. TIFF will show three of those segments, which TIFF programer Thom Powers says stand on their own as “equally entertaining and enriching.” Kenyan director Sam Soko, who made Softie, heads to the fest with his follow-up, Free Money, co-directed by Lauren DeFilippo. The doc follows the rollout of a universal basic income by a US organization in one Kenyan village and asks some hard-hitting questions about the topical subject matter.

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