Middle Eastern Drama About Search for Justice ‘Yellow Bus’ Takes Top Prize at Joburg Film Festival

Rexa Vella

Middle Eastern Drama About Search for Justice ‘Yellow Bus’ Takes Top Prize at Joburg Film Festival

Wendy Bednarz’s “Yellow Bus,” which follows a mother’s quest for justice after suffering an unthinkable tragedy, won the prize for best film at the Joburg Film Festival during an award ceremony Saturday night at the Sandton Convention Center in Johannesburg.

The film, which world premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, is set in an unnamed Arabian Gulf country and follows an Indian family that endures a tragedy when their daughter is neglected on a school bus in the sweltering desert heat. Consumed by grief, mother Anada (Tannishtha Chatterjee) sets out to find the truth about who is accountable.

In its citation for the prize-winning film, the jury noted: “This film spoke to the core challenges faced by marginalized immigrants. The protagonist’s nuanced performance brought to light the resilience and determination needed when an individual faces a social-political system.”

Bednarz was not in attendance to accept the award. Speaking to Variety ahead of the film’s Toronto premiere, the director said she was inspired to provide a voice to people who are marginalized or face unconscious prejudice in Middle Eastern society. “It’s a dance here to tell these stories truthfully, to give voice to these stories, even invisible people, I was challenged on that,” she said.

The award for best African film went to Ian Gabriel’s topical political thriller “Death of a Whistleblower,” which premiered in Toronto and follows an investigative journalist who, with insider help, tries to expose the state capture of a corrupt South African security group that’s fueling warfare in Africa and beyond. The pic had its African premiere in Johannesburg and quickly shot to the top of Amazon Prime Video’s local charts with its same-day release.

“This brave and important story highlights the plight faced by journalists in their often dangerous and uncharted quest to expose the truth,” said the jury. “This fast-paced political thriller gives urgency to the matter at hand, that of whistleblowing.”

Gordon Main’s apartheid-era documentary “London Recruits,” which opened the festival with its world premiere, won the award for best documentary. The film sheds light on a pivotal moment during the freedom struggle in South Africa, when the politician and activist Oliver Tambo hatched a plan to infiltrate young British activists posing as tourists into the country, to help inspire ordinary South Africans to join the liberation movement.

“This film brought a fresh and different perspective to a well-known subject matter,” said the jury. “The use of humor and brilliant storytelling connects us all in our humanity.”

During his acceptance speech, Main expressed solidarity with the people of Gaza, as well as the victims of conflicts in Congo, Sudan and elsewhere. “I think if you can make a better world, we need to heal the terrible scars that are still unfolding around these tragic events in all of our recent history and current history,” he said.

Describing it as a “childhood dream” to make films that can have a lasting impact, he added: “Of course, films don’t change the world. But they can inspire and bring hope and encourage all of us to do better things with this short life that we have on this earth.”

The jury also awarded a special mention to “Who I Am Not,” director Tünde Skovrán’s exploration and celebration of life as an intersex person in South Africa. The Young Voices Award went to Ntokozo Mlaba for his short film “Everything Nothing.” Veteran curator, programmer and founder of New York’s Africa Film Festival Mahen Bonetti, meanwhile, was feted with a Special Recognition Award for her decades-long work to promote African cinema.

The Joburg Film Festival wraps March 3 with the world premiere of “Snake,” a psychological thriller by South African filmmaker Meg Rickards, ending a sixth edition that screened more than 60 titles from 30-plus countries.

“What a time to be alive in Johannesburg,” said festival founder Timothy Mangwedi on Saturday. “What a time to be alive in Gauteng [province]. What a time to be alive in Africa.”

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