• Black/African Films at TIFF 2017

    At this year's Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), three African films are featured in the Contemporary World Cinema category -- spotlighting forty-eight of the best new films world wide. Those films are: The Royal Hibiscus Hotel (Nigeria, Directed by Ishaya Bako), Félicité (Senegal, Directed by Alain Gomis) and The Number (South Africa, Directed by Khalo Matabane). Black documentaries to see at TIFF are also Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart (USA, Directed by Tracy Heather Strain) and Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me (USA, Directed by Sam Pollard).

    Contemporary World Cinema

    The Royal Hibiscus Hotel

    A refreshing Nollywood romantic comedy, The Royal Hibiscus Hotel (directed by Ishaya Bako) tells the story of a disillusioned young aspiring chef in London, England (Ope, played by Zainab Balogun) who chooses to move back to her hometown of Lagos to bring a fine cuisine flair to her family-owned hotel.

    Having been met with frustrating hurdles trying to introduce a more sophisticate Afro-fusion culinary style at her employer's establishment in London, and the dim prospects of one day open her own restaurant, Ope believes that no such hinderances to her creative juices' flow will be present under he own roof. Little did she know, however, that her parents (played by Nollywood icons Jide Kosoko and Rachel Oniga) already had their own plans to sell the small family hotel.

    Mixing up the cards even further, the potential buyer is a rich and handsome young man (Deji, played by former Mr. Nigeria himself Kenneth Okolie) with whom sparks soon start to fly.

    The story humourously delves into common pitfalls of the meandering road to love and the challenges to keep communication lines open. Positive and authentic tales of Black love on the big screen are too rare. Having such a large platform as TIFF is an important step to spread this new narrative.

    Dates: Friday — Sept. 8, Saturday — Sept. 9, Monday — Sept. 11, Thursday — Sept. 14, Sunday — Sept. 17. Buy tickets.

    Produced by EbonyLife Films, the TIFF screening is the film's World Premiere. The Royal Hibiscus Hotel is scheduled for release in February 2018.


    Félicité is a powerful cinematic ode to the strength and resilience of African women in the face of adversity. Franco-Senegalese director Alain Gomis said he made this film to tell the story of the many courageous Black women he grew up around. Women who never buckled under any situation.  

    Another personal element which made its way into his film comes from accident which led to his young cousins leg having to be amputated -- after it was left untreated. The courageous behaviour of the young boy's mother was an inspiration to him.

    The film Félicité precisely follows its namesake protagonist, a club singer in Kinshasa (played by Congolese singer-turned-actress Véronique Tshanda Beya Mputu), as she is faced with the sudden financial burden of caring for her 14-year-old son, Samo (played by Gaetan Claudia), who is hospitalized following a grave accident.

    Her modest wages singing in a bar aren't enough to cover her day-to-day living -- much less to pay for her son's expensive hospitalization. So she resorts to approaching anyone who would listen -- or not -- across the city in search of assistance. Even her son's father declines to help and even chastises her by saying: "You're always parading all proud with your chest pumped out. Look at you now! What are you going to do now?"

    Director Alain Gomis revealed that he got the spark to initiate the film project after watching a music video by Congolese group Kasai Allstars. He was struck by the female lead vocalist ‘Muambuyi’ Ntumba Ngalula Tshibangu. Her voice killed him softly with her infectious personality. She inspired him to represent the daily struggles of strong African women in his film. He however felt that Muambuyi was too old to play the role of Félicité. Véronique Tshanda Beya Mputu, whom he had originally envisioned for a smaller role, soon naturally grew on him for the main role. 

    Filming in the Democratic Republic of Congo's bustling 12-million-population-strong metropolis of Kinshasa, a foreign setting for Gomis, was a conscious decision. The city fascinates him for it massive human activity, grit, entrepreneurial spirit, contradictions and all-around hustling, do-or-die attitude.

    Dates: (Opening was Thursday — Sept. 7), Thursday — Sept. 14, Friday — Sept. 15, Saturday — Sept. 16. Buy tickets.

    The TIFF screening is the film’s North American Premiere. Félécité previously won the Jury Grand Prix award at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival.

    The Number

    I first interviewed South African filmmaker Khalo Matabane for AfroToronto way back in 2006. Even back then the common thread of his documentaries and films was a brutally frank portrayal of South African society. He likewise pulls no punches in his TIFF 2017 film entry, The Number.

    Matabane's new feature film, based on Jonny Stienberg’s book with the same title, examines the underbelly of the violent gang culture inside South Africa's prison system. The Numbers is the deadliest prison gang.

    The story is based on the life of actual gang defector Magadien Wentzel (played by Mothusi Magano). He's part of the 28s -- the warrior faction of The Numbers. We find him at the heights of his power. But he's faced with an existential crisis when a young recruit to the gang is brutally killed. He begins to question his allegiance to the destructive and blood-thirsty culture, and family, which he's been part and parcel of for years.

    He struggles with the prospect of turning on his 28s to save himself and, in the process, obtain an early release. Matabane pierces into his inner demons as he searches for redemption.

    Dates: (Opening was Thursday — Sept. 7), Friday — Sept. 8, Wednesday — Sept. 13, Thursday — Sept. 14. Buy tickets.

    The TIFF screening is the film's World Premiere.



    Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

    Directed by Tracy Heather Strain, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart is a documentary about the life of Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) — who penned the acclaimed play A Raisin in the Sun. The play explores the struggles of an ordinary black family on Chicago's South Side. Toronto theatregoers were treated several years ago to a Soulpepper Theatre production of A Raisin in the Sun, directed Weyni Mengesha.

    A U.S. Civil Rights-era writer, communist, feminist, lesbian, and outspoken trailblazer, Lorraine Hansberry was a friend of James Baldwin and is credited for inspiring Nina Simone. She used both the stage and her every day life to shine a light on societal injustices.

    Drawing on rarely seen archives and interviews with Hansberry’s contemporaries such as Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Louis Gossett Jr., and her sister Mamie Hansberry, Strain provides an in-depth look at life, her work and her impact.

    The film title comes from Hansberry's view that "one can not live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world."

    Dates: (Opening was Thursday — Sept. 7), Friday — Sept. 8, Saturday — Sept. 9. Wednesday — Sept. 13, Sunday — Sept. 17. Buy tickets.

    The TIFF screening is the film's World Premiere.

    Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me

    As a long-time collaborator of Spike Lee, filmmaker Sam Pollard has a long history of covering the Black experience on film. His editing work can be seen in films like Mo' Better Blues (90), Clockers (95), 4 Little Girls (97), and Bamboozled (00). His directing credits include Slavery by Another Name (12), Two Trains Runnin' (16), and his latest film making its World Premiere at TIFF 2017,  Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me (17).

    Using eye-opening interviews with Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, and others who knew Davis well, Pollard's documentary offers valuable insights into the life of this complex personality, dancer, signer, all-round performer, and member of the legendary Rat Pack.

    Sammy Davis Jr.'s long-spanning career traversed some turbulent times with respect to race relations in the United-States. He navigated treacherous cultural identity waters as an African-American man, identifying with Judaism, all-the-while straddling the segregated world of Las Vegas, prejudice and the Civil Rights movement.

    Pollard and the film's producers wanted to go deeper and show some little-know aspects of his life and career. For instance, many people aren’t aware that Sammy Davis Jr. started his career in blackface, that he was bold enough to imitate white celebrities in his nightclub act at the height of the Jim Crow era, or that he was the first African-American to be invited by the President to spend a night in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

    Dates: Sunday — Sept. 10, Monday — Sept. 11, Wednesday — Sept. 13, Friday — Sept. 15. Buy tickets.

    The TIFF screening is the film's World Premiere.


  • Lukumi: An Afrofuturistic Dub Opera

    Coming into its final weekend at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, Lukumi: A Dub Opera, by African-Jamaican dubpoet, playwright-performer and arts-educator d'bi.young anitafrika, explores an Afrofuturist world set in a post­-apocalyptic Toronto in 2167 --- 150 years after World War III. The third installment in d'bi.young's The Orisha Trilogy, Lukumi, reveals a dystopian future ravaged by the environmental disaster caused by the Period of Explosions (PoE) a century earlier.

    As d'bi explained, Afrofuturism is an old genre that’s currently going through an interesting reemergence in the black community; so she was eager to explore the concept. “I love black people, I love black art. It’s all very fascinating to me,” she said.

    "I'm a very hopeful person. And so the future setting allows us to have hope now. The future setting also allows for lots of alternative realities; even though everything I'm talking about is really now," as she further elaborated.

    At its core, Lukumi is a play about environmental consciousness. “I have poetry that, here and there, talks about the environment. But I've never written an environmental play. So far, my focus has been on people, women and black men. So I feel tackling this important issue is part of my own growth, as not only an artist, but as a human being,” as she explained. 

    “Lukumi is an exploration of the environment. Lukumi is an environmental play. It looks at deforestation through the vehicle of poetry, music, song and dance. It's called a Dub Opera because the original meaning of Opera is to tell a play through music.”

    In d'bi's mind, the culture, spirit and history of black people are transmitted through black bodies and the land. "I am interested in exploring the black body as it's diasporized. But along with the body comes all that the body retains. Which is the spiritualities, the cultural knowings, and the ancient knowledge. The body retains so much for black people to have survived. We would have in fact retained quite a lot. So, Lukumi is a continued exploration of this concept. That's a part of it."

    Indeed, the name of the main character, Lukumi, played by d'bi.young, is the name of an Afro-Cuban ethnic group of Yoruba ancestry who practices the African spiritual tradition of La Regla Lucimí (Santeria). Because our bodies carry the tradition, it was a conscious choice of her's to name this central character after an entire Yoruba tradition. "I want people to think about that," she said.


    Lukumi, the full-length Dub Opera is showing at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until October 14, 2017

    Tues - Sat at 8pm Wed at 1:30pm | Sat at 2:30pm | Ticket Price General $32.00 + Arts Workers/ Students $27 | PWYC Wed matinees Tarragon Theatre Extra Space | 30 Bridgman Ave. | Advance Tickets bit.do/lukumi


  • Meet Miss Universe Canada 2017 pageant finalist Katherine Highgate

    The Miss Universe Canada 2017 pageant will be held this coming Saturday, October 7, 2017, at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre's John Bassett Theatre. One of the finalists this year is Toronto-based Katherine Highgate. She also previously advanced to the Miss Universe Canada national finals back in 2013 after winning the GTA regional pageant.

    A native of Dresden, Ontario, Katherine moved to Toronto seven years ago to attend Ryerson University's Radio and Television Arts program and has stayed here ever since, after obtaining her bachelor's degree. “Usually, in my high school, I was one of three black girls there,” she said. “So coming to Toronto was a completely different experience. There is so much culture. You kind of get to network with people from different backgrounds and talk to people who can relate to your experiences — which is really great.” Although she also feels that, unlike in a small town, it’s not always so easy to stand out and break into networks.

    On building confidence

    Interestingly, getting into her first pageant at the age of 13 was a great way to help Katherine break out of her shell. “As a kid, I was painfully shy. I went from being the kid in class who mumbled and was too nervous to put her hand up to stepping onto a pageant stage and, all of a sudden, witnessing this sort of diva personality coming out.”

    She credits her early pageant experience across the U.S and Canada with giving her more confidence and gaining the ability to feel much more comfortable about approaching new people. “So for me it’s been a really good opportunity. I think of it almost as a finishing school because you learn how to talk to people, how to present yourself well, and develop a stage presence,” she added.

    While Katherine loves being in front of the camera, she’s also interested in being a creator behind the scenes. She enjoys writing, editing, videography and blogging.

    On being a role model

    Being on the pageant circuit for many years and making many connections has afforded her with valuable opportunities to explore various career avenues. Just as she was mentored before, now as one of the older girls, she enjoys taking younger girls under her wing.

    “Even though everybody's competing, it's a great experience because you have all these women that are really goal-oriented, driven and motivated. So you do network with them a lot and get to work with them outside of the competition on other projects,” she said.

    Another aspect where Katherine is able to make a difference is through her impact as a woman of colour. “That's one of the things that I talk about all the time. When I was a kid, finding a black Barbie doll for example was a struggle. I feel like being able to watch a competition like Miss Universe and see different women of all backgrounds, with different features and different hair and body types being celebrated, I think that's something super positive,” as she recounts.

    Pioneering black pageant contestants

    “For myself, trying to be a role model, I want to give kids the perspective that: 'Hey, there's somebody that looks like me that's on this stage. So I can do that too, right?' Because every winner doesn't have to have blond hair or brown hair, curly hair or straight hair. I think that's one of the really special things about this competition.”

    “There's so many black women that have done great stuff in Canadian pageantry. Adwoa Yamoah was the first runner up in 2012 and represented Canada at Miss Universe. She did a wonderful job. We had a lot of girls crack into the top five. I feel like the more we encourage people in our community to seek out these opportunities and to go for it, eventually we're going to see more diversity in the way that we're represented, too.”

    Katherine would love to represent Canada on the international stage. It's a long-held dream of hers. "It would be an incredible privilege. I'm fiercely proud to be Canadian. I think it would also just be a huge honour," she said.

  • Other Side of the Game: An interview with Amanda Parris

    "I'm really passionate about telling Canadian stories, and telling them well and authentically," said Amanda Parris during our phone conversation about her play "Other Side of the Game," closing this weekend at Native Earth Theatre's Aki Studio in Regent Park. As demonstrated from the often audible reactions from the audience, the play certainly seems to have struck a chord and served that purpose. "It's been very moving for some people," she added.

    The inspiration for "Other Side of the Game" came out of Amanda's multiple experiences visiting a friend who was, at the time, incarcerated at the Don Jail.

    She was struck by the strange feeling of finding herself in an alternate universe. The prison system was, aesthetically and energetically, a cold and uninviting environment which imposed all these rules — not just for the inmates but for those visiting them as well. Most of the visitors she saw were women. They had to conform to very odd visiting ours — like Monday from 1-4 pm.

    Strumming their pain with these scenes

    Amanda Parris

    “So, I began wondering what these visitors, mostly women, around me had to do with their days in order to get there. In order to be there did they have to take time off work? Did they have to arrange childcare?” she asked herself.

    Amanda embarked on a journey to interview many of these "ride-or-die" women. However, she didn’t feel that the jail’s tense environment was the right and natural place to casually approach these women and probe them about their experiences. Instead, she anonymously interviewed people she knew who had supported loved ones that were incarcerated about their experiences and set about telling their lives with her words.

    Thirteen interviews later, the result was a genuinely told story which has kept all the flavours, accents and vernacular of the local neighbourhoods they came from. "There's a lot of things that are mentioned in the play that people had not heard on stage before. Particular names and locations that are kind of dropped into the conversation; reference points, things like that," said Parris.

    "I've often received some really beautiful messages from people who feel very emotional after seeing the play. I think part of that emotion definitely comes from the story. It's because the story is a reflection that they don't get to see very often," she added. 

    Flipping the script: Embarrassed by the crowd

    This first-time partnership between Cahoots and Obsidian also marks the professional playwriting debut for Amanda Parris. She has been best known as a writer, actor, educator and host of  Exhibitionists on CBC Television, Marvin’s Room on CBC Radio, and her weekly column for CBC Arts. When I asked her about how she managed the transition from showcasing the work of other artists to putting out her own voice out there, she said:

    "It's a really lovely and wonderful thing I get to do in terms of having a platform to share other people's art. But when it's your own art you suddenly are reminded of how much courage it takes to put out these things that have existed inside of you. These ideas and possibilities are being manifested. And everybody gets to witness it, consume it, critique it and judge it. It's very scary," as she shared. Even after sitting in the audience multiple times it wasn't getting easier. "I was sweating and I had butterflies like it was opening night all over again."

    Ryan Rosery, Virgilia Griffith, Shakura Dickson, Peter Bailey. photo by Dahlia Katz

    Busting “the myth of the solitary creative genius,” Amanda makes it clear that she has been nurtured by a community of talented creators -- from her director, dramaturge, choreographer, actors and more. “I feel so lucky to have Nigel Shawn Williams as my director. I feel like I won the lottery with that. The vision he manifested for the play is beyond what I imagined," she said. Selected as part of the 2014-2015 Hot House playwright unit at Cahoots Theatre, Amanda also benefited from her years of working closely with her dramaturge Marjorie Chan.

    “The script was a work in progress right up until opening night,” as Amanda revealed. “I think the team has been absolutely incredible; and when you're lucky enough to work with a group of geniuses it makes your job a lot easier,” she said.

    There are still three chances to go see the play and listen for a while: Friday, November 3 at 8:00 PM, Saturday, November 4 at 8:00 PM and Sunday, November 5 at 2:00 PM.


    Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas Street East
    Until November 5, 2017

    Tickets $37 • Arts Worker & Students $25 includes all taxes and ticket fees
    To purchase tickets please visit: nativeearth.ca/otherside or call 416.531.1402

    For more information please visit
    cahoots.ca | obsidiantheatre.com


  • Q&A with Zainab Balogun

    I recently caught up with Nigerian actress Zainab Balogun to chat about her recent experience at TIFF promoting her film The Royal Hibiscus Hotel. In between her busy travel schedule in Morocco, she graciously shared her thoughts with AfroToronto.com

    AfroToronto: How was your TIFF experience? Was it your first time in the city?

    Zainab Balogun: TIFF this year was absolutely great! Aside from promoting our selection, "The Royal Hibiscus Hotel" I got a chance to really take part in the festival highlights which I didn’t get to last year. I also got to see a little bit more of just how charming Toronto is.

    AfroToronto: How did you get involved with The Royal Hibiscus Hotel project? What appealed to you about the story?

    Zainab Balogun: I had worked with the Executive Producer of the movie last year in the TIFF 2016 selection; 'The Wedding Party'. After having a great experience with them, the first-time round, I was asked to audition for their new movie.

    AfroToronto: Do you think Nollywood can help in growing African cinema across the continent? Is there already a strong collaborative framework across the continent and the diaspora?

    Zainab Balogun: As the leading African film industry, I believe Nollhywood is well on its way to proving to global cinemas that our productions can be exported and well received. The framework for collaborations has already started to develop. With collaborations on distribution and productions with the likes of Netflix as well as recognition from TIFF, this can only further support our position.

    AfroToronto: How would you rate the global awareness about Nollywood and African cinema as a whole?

    Zainab Balogun: I think the world has already caught the bug for African cinema! This comes at a faster rate than what most of us expected but the more eyeballs we get, the more the industry grows.

    AfroToronto: What advice would you give to creatives of African descent looking to enter the movie industry?

    Zainab Balogun: Stay true to your stories and be authentic. The world is on the lookout for something brand new and Africa's serving!


  • The Walrus Talks: Africa's Next Generation

    Traditionally, the Walrus has focused on Canada and its place in the world, however, recently they’ve also widened their vision to include refreshing new conversations showcasing Africa’s future leaders. The series is called Africa’s Next Generation, and was hosted in Toronto and Ottawa.

    According to David Leonard, Director of Events at the Walrus Foundation, “The Mandate of the Walrus is conversations, so everything we do is to try to start conversations, for us its Canada and its place in the world , and we look at Africa right now, look at the conversations on Entrepreneurship, around Women & Girls, around conflicts, around resilience; These conversations define Africa but they also reflect back to Canada.”

    Africa and Canada’s best and brightest came out to offer thoughtful dialogue on how to shape the Continent’s future.

    The Toronto leg of the series featured a gamut of intellectuals among them scholars, entrepreneurs, journalists and lawyers.

    (1) Ikram Abdinur - Edmonton-based filmmaker and human rights activist, (2) Bior Ajak - Vice-president of the McGill African Students’ Society, (3) Alfred Baafi Acheampong - Co-founder of the Land Reclamation and Environmental Conservation Society, (4) Lamia Naji - Learning and strategy at the MasterCard Foundation (5) Nana aba Duncan - Host of Fresh Air on CBC Radio One, (6) Janet Longmore - CEO of Digital Opportunity Trust and (7) Dania Suleman - Quebec labour lawyer and social-justice advocate.

    The eight visionary Africans featured were; Ikram Abdinur, co-founder of the Global Indigenous Youth Coalition, Bior Ajak, MasterCard Foundation Scholar, McGill University, Alfred Baafi Acheampong, MasterCard Foundation Scholar, UBC, Nana aba Duncan, host of Fresh Air on CBC Radio One and creator of Media Girlfriends, Janet Longmore, founder and CEO of Digital Opportunity Trust, Lamia Naji, associate manager, The MasterCard Foundation and Dania Suleman, lawyer and community activist.

    Each spoke on issues around education access & equality, youth, gender equality, and social justice.

    Walrus rep David Leonard, also stated that “in a globalized world we can look at this incredibly rising population and see Africa on the cusp of being a major world power.”

    Africa’s future is bright, Canada and the Walrus are doing their part to illuminate the world.

    For more information on future Talks visit https://thewalrus.ca


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