Rapid Lion Film Festival enjoying rapid growth as a brand, in search of corporate sponsor, says festival director Eric Miyeni

This year’s 8th edition takes place at UJ Arts Centre in Johannesburg, March 4-11, 2023

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

Seven years ago when I met well known creative Eric Miyeni at a rustic but popular Restaurant in Melville for an interview, he was at pains to point out that the interview should not be about him. Rather, he emphasised, but be about a special project close to his heart that he was to build up from the ground.

And looking at his profile in the creative space, one understands why he was at pains to shift the focus from himself. This is particularly because Eric Miyeni the brand has quite a very strong presence on the country’s cultural and entertainment space. Radio show host. Feature film actor. TV show host. Newspaper columnist. Author. Film producer. Worked in advertising. The list goes on. Therefore given that kind of profile, it can be argued therefore that any journalist who has been observing the entertainment and cultural space in South Africa in the past three decades would therefore want to associate such as person with everything to do with his various roles he has played in those spaces. Often at the expense of any new idea that such a person was coming up with and intent on promoting. That is the context of why during that interview, Miyeni emphasised that the interview be not about him.

Fast forward to this week, seven years later. We were exactly at the same venue, Xai  Xai Restaurant in Melville. And this time, he did not have to plead that the interview not focus on him. This is because for the past seven years, Miyeni has been busy building up that something special, a project he is passionate about and that he strongly believes has the potential to put South Africa on a pedestal globally, using the soft power of culture.

Indeed Miyeni has built Rapid Lion-The South African International  Film Festival, step by step, from the ground up, from an idea in his head to an important role player on the film scene on the African continent. Rapid Lion International  Film Festival has indeed grown rapidly, featuring and profiling films from mainly Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as well as from the rest of the African continent and its Diaspora.

Funded by the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture, today Rapid Lion International Film Festival, which since its first iteration has been taking place at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, has grown to become an important cultural feature on the country’s events and cultural map. It has featured award winning films from the Brics countries as well as from the rest of the African continent and African Diaspora.  The filmmakers whose films have been featured have so far enjoyed the spotlight and prominence as filmmakers in the market.

It has unearthed new film talent and rewarded them handsomely through its award ceremony section of the Rapid Lion film Festival. It has brought excitement and injected energy in the local film industry. These days the media no longer focuses on Miyeni and his profile on the country’s entertainment scene, but Miyeni and indeed his project of passion, Rapid Lion International Film Festival. He has indeed managed to build the film festival  as a brand that can stand on its own as a prominent film festival in Africa.

Speaking to CITYLIFE/ARTS this week, it became clear that Miyeni feels a sense of fulfilment when it comes to what Rapid Lion International  Film Festival has managed to do for the South African film market and the brand South Africa through this platform that started in his head, growing to become a force to reckon with has achieved.  The only headache so far being to get a headline sponsor, who will come on board and compliment the limited funding he gets from government, which is not enough to cover all aspects of putting together an international film festival of its stature and prestige, he says.

Speaking to him, one gets a sense and frustration of not having yet  gotten that headline corporate sponsor. Getting one, he says,  would ensure not only a sustainable growth trajectory of this important film platform, but also harness the soft power of culture to put South Africa up as a country of significance among other nations.

“I am grateful that the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture has been supporting us since the beginning. But the funding has been cut significantly since 2016. First time by 25 percent. The second time by 33 percent. This does not only threaten the scope of the festival, but its very future unless we get a corporate sponsor to come in,” he revealed. And Miyeni has not been idling when it comes to looking for money in the corporate sector in the past seven years of the existence of Rapid Lion Film Festival.

“There has been a year when we were not funded, and to make sure that the festival takes place, I had to sell my personal possessions. I continue to knock on doors of especially potential corporate sponsors. So far we have not had a breakthrough in that regard. I blame the lack of success on my own lack of ability to sell this brilliant brand to sponsors. This is because the festival has achieved everything that would attract a corporate sponsor looking for soft power to put their brand up there by associating itself with a film festival of this stature,” he said.

Among potential sponsors he has approached so far are those in the financial services sector. Though so far the doors have not opened there, he is hopeful that there is a chance that one day they will.

“I mean cultural products are soft power. Look at how America harnesses the entertainment sector through such platforms as the Oscars and Hollywood to sell us the American dream. Look at how France uses Cannes Film Festival to sell the country to the world. Look at how France promotes cultural products from mainly Francophone Africa to position itself strategically. My argument therefore is that South Africa can do the same, harnessing its culture to project a good image of the country. Not only on the African continent, but globally. Rapid Lion Film Festival provides such an opportunity.

One of the financial institutions whose doors he has been knocking on is Standard Bank. He has been courting them to come on board for the past three years.

“I will continue to knock on their doors. My belief is that a big brand such as Standard Bank, which has a huge presence on the African continent, is a good alignment for a brand such as Rapid Lion International Film Festival. This is simply because we have a presence on the film industry on the continent through the films we bring to the festival that are from the continent and African diaspora. There is an opportunity here for brand alignment with us,” he argued. He revealed that he is engaging the bank with a view to convince the financial institution to come on board. But he did not give further details.

“The truth is government funding is important for the creative and cultural sector. But it is not enough.  Corporate sponsorship must come and fill the gap.  If I were for example Minister Nathi Mthethwa (Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture), I would for example call the CEO of say Standard Bank and say look I have 50c to put into important cultural events such as the Rapid Lion International Film Festival or the National Arts Festival.  How much can you come up with and fill in the gap as these events are important for the country? The problem though is that government when it comes to funding the arts thinks in in terms of creating jobs and making sure that artists do not starve to death and die as paupers.  Yes jobs will be created in the process. But the arts are more than that. They are soft power for the country, and therefore government must look beyond the issue of creating jobs when they fund projects, but how to use the arts as soft power in international diplomacy,” Miyeni argued.

This year however there is more good news coming the way of Rapid Lion International Film Festival.

“This year, the 8th iteration of Rapid Lion International Film Festival, we now have a new  venue partnership with the University of Johannesburg. Rapid Lion International Film Festival will therefore this year take place at the UJ Arts Centre. We are excited about this development because what this means is that this partnership brings in an academic dimension into the film festival. Just like the New York Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival and Edinburgh Film Festival, for example have universities as partners. We are excited about this partnership with UJ,” Miyeni said.

As we parted ways, it became clear that for the past seven years of its existence,  indeed Miyeni in Rapid Lion International Film Festival has built a strong brand that is a making a difference, an impact to the lives  of  filmmakers in the country with notable feature films such as Kalushi for example, having debuted there to critical acclaim. Any corporate sponsor out there to take the film festival to the next level?

.Rapid Lion- The South African International Film Festival takes place at the UJ Arts Centre in Johannesburg from March 4-11, 2023.

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