Lights, camera, action: Sheila Munyiva and Samantha Mugatsia in a scene from Rafiki, a controversial feature film to be shown at the Durban International Film Festival. Picture: SUPPLIED
Lights, camera, action: Sheila Munyiva and Samantha Mugatsia in a scene from Rafiki, a controversial feature film to be shown at the Durban International Film Festival. Picture: SUPPLIED

The 39th Durban International Film Festival (Diff) celebrates an Oscars achievement for its 40th anniversary next year. From this year on, the best international documentary and the best South African documentary from the festival will automatically qualify for consideration at the Oscars. So the winning documentaries from 2018 will be in line for the 91st Academy Awards.

Diff 2018 runs at various venues in Durban from July 19 to 29. With SA hosting the Brazil, Russia India, China and SA (Brics) summit from July 25 to 27, the Brics International Film Festival will run as part of the festival from July 22 to 27. It is supported by the Department of Arts and Culture and in partnership with the National Film and Video Foundation.

Running from July 20 to 23 in conjunction with Diff is the ninth Durban Film Mart (DFM), the Durban Film Office’s film industry market platform and developmental and economic arm, which attracts an extensive global network for African film makers. DFM has appointed local arts and culture administrator Russel Hlongwane as the curator for both the DFM and Diff’s industry outreach programme in a bid to synchronise the two hubs.

The reason we want to have a greater focus on documentary film making is that a lot of the submissions we’re receiving on the documentary side, we find, are not of international standards. And the Durban Film Mart is about international access
Toni Monty

This year Diff’s industry outreach programme, aimed at entry-level film makers and the general public interested in learning more about film making, adopts its official name, Isiphethu, an isiZulu word for a water spring. This is to help the industry outreach programme establish its identity within Diff and alongside the DFM.

The DFM and Isiphethu programmes will have a strong focus on documentary film making development, with targeted workshops and master classes by internationally renowned practitioners.

"This was decided before the great news about the Oscars," says Toni Monty, who is the head of the Durban Film Office and DFM.

"The reason we want to have a greater focus on documentary film making is that a lot of the submissions we’re receiving on the documentary side, we find, are not of international standards. And the Durban Film Mart is about international access," Monty asserts.

Horror film

Of more than 2,000 film submissions received, 180 films have been selected for curation at Diff 2018.

The opening feature film is a horror flick, The Tokoloshe, from South African director Jerome Pikwane, with which he tackles the perversion of the patriarchal system among other themes. LGBTI love story Rafiki, directed by Wanuri Kahiu, will close the festival.

According to festival manager Chipo Zhou, the thread running through the selected films speaks to the global movements that shook the world in terms of gender-based violence. "As a result, a lot of female-led productions and a lot of female stories came out this year.

"What’s interesting is the shift, the reimagining of the female body and how these stories are no longer stories of victims but of survivors.

"Trauma in its various forms and how we’re dealing with it as a continent is a big theme," Zhou points out.

Among the features in competition this year are local films directed by women: Farewell Ella Bella by Lwazi Mvusi; High Fantasy by Jenna Bass and Mayfair by Sara Blecher.

Blecher, a director of inspired films like Ayanda and Dis Ek Anna, is the chairwoman of Sisters Working In Film and Television (Swift), which is behind the #ThatsNotOk movement, a local response to #MeToo. Swift’s recently launched public service announcements on what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace will precede each screening.

"The … report we did into the industry found that almost 70% of the women who work in film and television do not feel safe.

"We as Swift have developed a code of conduct against sexual harassment, which is beginning to be widely adopted across the industry," says Blecher.

"Things don’t change overnight. But the first step is that people need to become aware that their behaviour is wrong and how devastating it is to the victims.

"That awareness itself is always the hardest step to take. And I think Swift has been instrumental in making sure that as an industry we are beginning to take it," says Blecher.

Bass’s film, High Fantasy, got rave reviews at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It brings together the contentious issues of race, land, gender, class and identity in a fantastical, fresh, collaborative and improvisational way.

Unlike Aryan Kaganof’s SMS Sugarman, the first African film to be shot on a cellphone, a Sony Ericsson W900i, which seemed ahead of its time in 2007 SA, High Fantasy, which is shot on an iPhone 7, is of its time and follows its maker’s ambition of doing things differently.

Different feel

"In wanting my films to feel different, I’ve had to make them differently too. This has led me to question things and to find my own way of doing things which I use each film as an opportunity to experiment with.

"I prefer collaborating, sharing power wherever possible. I also see less distinction between the personal and the political — in my own life, the way I work, and the entertainment I choose to watch or make. Entertainment is political, and as entertainers we have a pretty incredible opportunity to change things," says Bass.

Of resounding importance is Rafiki, which is a pan-African feat. It is based on the Caine Prize-winning story Jambula Tree (on young lesbian love) by Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko. It is produced by South African film and television producer and co-founder of the Encounters Documentary Festival Steven Markovitz; co-written by Bass; and directed by Kenyan film maker Kahiu.

Like the film Inxeba, Rafiki was developed through the DFM and is following the same controversial trajectory, with its being banned in its home country of Kenya.

It got a standing ovation at Cannes earlier this year and it speaks to the repositioning of African perspectives and narratives whose shift needs to resonate at home first.

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