MacKenzie: GOA Ready To Debut At TIFF

Holly MacKenzie - Raptors.com

To know Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri is to know his passion. Whether he is talking about the Raptors, basketball in Canada or something else entirely, it’s almost impossible to finish a conversation with him without having more energy than when it first began. Of all of Ujiri’s passions, giving back to the youth of Africa is one that’ll always be at the top of the list. Ujiri’s dedication will be on full display during the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of the Giants Of Africa documentary this Friday.

“On behalf of [director] Hubert Davis and the team that worked so hard to tell the story of these children with a dream in Africa, we are honoured that Giants Of Africa will be showcased at one of the world’s greatest film festivals,” Ujiri said. “We believe that sport really can change the world and encourage these youth to dream big. We are very grateful to the Toronto International Film Festival for giving us such a powerful platform to tell their story and ultimately helping these young people realize their potential through the game of basketball.”

Ujiri founded Giants Of Africa in 2003 with a mission of using basketball as a tool to help educate and enrich the lives of youth in Africa. Mixing basketball instruction with life lessons, the summer camps aim to be a positive space to encourage growth and urge campers to dream big. Executive producer Michael Gelfand started assembling a crew to capture footage and tell the story in the spring of 2014. Two years later, the group couldn’t be more pleased to be invited to the festival.

“To have this film screen at TIFF on the heels of such a great basketball season for all of us, it’s just really special,” Gelfand said. “It’s an added bonus and it’s really prestigious. We’re very grateful that TIFF invited the film to the festival and we’re excited for people to get to see it.”

After 13 years of camps, Giants Of Africa extended its basketball mission to six countries this past summer. Ujiri and his team visited Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Botswana and Senegal in August.

It’s something he’s passionate about,” Gelfand said. “His job is fully the Raptors, and he’s passionate about the team, but when he goes home at night he lives and sleeps and breathes Giants Of Africa and his home continent. He created these camps to use basketball as a tool that would empower both through sport. Our Open Gym crew had actually gone a couple of years ago and experienced the camps first hand. Watching the footage, I felt like it was a perfect fit for a long format storytelling like a documentary. After talking with Masai he agreed that would be something that would be amazing to explore and here we are.”

Gelfand believes viewers will not only learn more about Giants Of Africa and the work the foundation does, but also be inspired as they watch the stories unfold in front of them.

“The camp is all about positive momentum and creating opportunity,” he said. “When you’re watching the film, one of our goals from the filmmaking team, and the director of the film, Hubert Davis, captured this beautifully, is this is supposed to be positive. This is about hope. This is about sports providing an arena for the youth in Africa to find their place and do something positive with their time. That’s really what it’s all about.”

While the camps are centered around basketball, the lessons and life skills passed along extend well beyond the court. Conversations about education, respect and kindness are as likely to be happening as ones about the fundamentals of a jump shot.

Gelfand views the documentary as the beginning of storytelling through Giants Of Africa. As the foundation continues to grow, so will the stories that are born because of it.

“I think we’re going to continue telling the stories of the campers to see where they’re going and how they do in life,” he said. “[We’d tell viewers] to stay engaged with Giants Of Africa because we learn a lot from the kids that go there.”

The first time the film was shown, was during All-Star weekend. Of course, this past February marked the first time that an All-Star game had been held in Toronto. From there the Raptors completed their best regular season and made it to the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. It has been a very big year for basketball in the city and, in Gelfand’s eyes, the timing of the project showing at TIFF couldn’t be better.

“The message resonates globally,” Gelfand said. “It’s really for everybody, everywhere. It’s kind of like a timeless story. It’s for everybody.”