Durban 2007: South African complexities

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The 28th edition of the Durban International Film Festival was held from the 20th June to the 1st July 2007. With nearly 200 films and 300 screenings, it is South Africa’s most important film festival. The Best Film prize was awarded to Newton Aduaka’s Ezra (Nigeria), already winner of the Golden Stallion at the Fespaco. While its rich program allows the discovery of fictions from all over the world, often exploring intercultural issues, workshops covering all film practices, shorts and documentaries, were given pride of place. This year, furthermore, it presented a program dedicated to the Indian Ocean (cf. the other article), with the French embassy’s support.

Societal stakes
In a South Africa still marked by the memory of years of hatred and separation, it is clear, besides the huge social challenge consisting in restoring an economic dignity to the Black population that the main stake is to allow it access to education and self-expression. As Eddie Mbalo, director of the National Film and Video Foundation and thus at the head of South African cinema recalled in our interview: Black people only had very little access to cinema under apartheid and this cannot change overnight. The NFVF considers it imperative to « create national platforms allowing all South Africans to keep control over the expression of their own images, thus reinforcing democracy and prosperity ». It is indeed today’s stake, the education of all remaining the central challenge, and for cinema, the emergence of a generation of young representative filmmakers. In this respect, the Durban Film Festival, with its numerous workshops and round tables, plays the not insignificant role of providing an opportunity for debate, training and bringing people together, at least for its province, Kwazulu-Natal.
If inequalities remain blatant, the country has developed and enjoys an efficient industrial infrastructure in all fields. But if power is black, money is still white. Cinema is no exception to the rule. The South African industry entrusts its White filmmakers with classical, Hollywood-style films, entertainment films, or films that take up the Black community’s big issues in a sentimental, sensationalist or sordidly realistic register (violence in Tsotsi, AIDS in Yesterday, etc.). For their part, Black filmmakers are looking for new expressions able to apprehend post-apartheid contradictions. Zola Maseko was an exception in 2005 with Drum, a memory film distinguished by its American production, but he himself said: « A co-production is a compromise. At the end of the day, the Americans come with their conditions. I’ve learnt to know the system. I don’t think I will repeat the experience: that’s what it has taught me ». (1)
Television to address the widest audience
The biggest successes in the country, with all kinds of audiences, are still Leon Schuster’s films, whose coarse comedy does not avoid the perpetuation of racist stereotypes, the only ones that can be found in DVD shops in malls sharing the shelf with Hollywood films. (2) Pragmatic, young Black filmmakers too strive to address a large audience via television. Series are the best vectors. Tebolo Mahlatsi, born in 1974, grasped the idea with his cult series shot for the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation, public television), Yizo Yizo (2001), whose title meaning « That’s how it is » evokes the problems of the youth in townships. Slang, weapons, sex and drugs: nothing more was needed to trigger a heated controversy amongst parents and teachers, which even led to a request for its withdrawal by the ANC and an impassioned debated in Parliament. The main roles were played by well-known actors but also by young people from Soweto. A music video style aesthetic set to kwaito, township rap music provided the final ingredients guaranteeing its success amongst the youth. While waiting to make Scar, his first feature project selected at the Cinéfondation workshop at Cannes in 2006, Mahlatsi recently made a sitcom for M-Net, the wealthy South African private television, about the young Black jet set to allow young Black people to dream about reversing social relations.
The talented Khalo Matabane (famous for his international award-winning documentaries, Story of a Beautiful Country and Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon, currently working on a feature with DV8, Violence) adopts a completely different approach. Screened at the festival, his When we were black, a beautiful four-part series (a total of 192 min.) shot for the SABC and a great success when broadcast on prime time in early 2007, ends with the tragic 1976 Soweto riots, when the government imposed the teaching of Afrikaans in schools. Here again, the film stars young amateur actors from the townships. The young Fistos (Matli Mohapeloa), politically neutral and extremely shy, loves Mangi (Lali Dangazele), an activist in love with her leader Modise (Wandile Molebatsi). With its gentle rhythm, its chiaroscuros à la Georges de La Tour, its discrete camera, its insistence on gazes and uncertainties, the series favors the intimate to explore the relation of individuals to politics. The scenes with the constantly reduced field of vision of a withdrawal into the private sphere following the forbidding of public expression, where the light only reveals certain facets of moving bodies, are separated like tableaux by black frames while archive images reestablish the daily context of the time. « None of your plans seem to want to work », Fistos tells his friend Casper (Motlatsi Mafasthe), who takes it upon himself to guide him in his initiation into love. It is probably what makes this memory film so topical in a South Africa that, after turning the page on activist slogans, is meditating on its future more than trotting out certainties. « When we were black » evokes the title: in the third episode, Father Ntate (Jerry Mofokeng) is cruelly humiliated by two White policemen who force him to dance « like a monkey » in the presence of his children. Fistos and his sister Nozipho (Ndoni Khanyile) only find the ability to speak again to say: « I hate Whites ». Confronted with hatred, Fistos is only able to exist with a stone in his hand. « When we were black » was a time of confrontation that cannot be forgotten if we are to think the present.
The end of certainties
1994 has left its mark. Living together is both the trial and challenge for the new South Africa. Introspection has replaced the struggle, in the quest for what creates unity on which to build the new democracy of the rainbow laboratory. The risk is no longer confrontation but that the consumer society engulfs identity-based references and singularities. It is both the awareness and battle of Black filmmakers, but their films are little seen. Who goes to see Ramada Suleman’s fictions (Fools, Zulu Love Letter) or Teddy Matera’s (Max and Mona) in a country that is nonetheless equipped with big multiplexes in huge malls? Equally, books are rarely bought by a Black public still marked by illiteracy and for whom the price of a paperback – around 15 euros – remains a luxury for average incomes per capita of 300 euros a month. Better adapted to the living standard, the price of a ticket in the multiplexes is around 25 rand (2.6 euros), but the price of parking and travel often needs to be added: for many people, cinema thus remains an absolute rarity. And in any case, it is neither a culture nor nearby for the inhabitants of the townships.
Why dwell on the differences between Blacks and Whites in the new South Africa? Because skin color and social origins still matter today and play a role in the choice of themes, or even of aesthetics. But also of course and above all because the stake of living together remains completely topical in a country made vulnerable by unemployment and the criminality it generates.
For want of a major recently produced South African film, the festival programmed Darrell James Roodt’s Meisie for the opening and world première. The film is captivating and focuses on the world of people’s feelings and relationships, contrasting with Roodt’s bigger productions (Sarafina, Cry the Beloved Country, Yesterday, nominated at the Oscars, as well as thriller Prey, also presented at the festival, in which an American family’s trip turns into a nightmare when lions want to share their food). Esmeralda, a new schoolteacher from Cape Town, arrives at Riemvasmaak, an isolated village, and notices Meisie, whose father forces her to keep the goats instead of attending school despite her desire and her talent. A short film script extended into a feature, which, like all of Roodt’s cinema, remains very classical, Meisie, shot in Afrikaans, is well mastered but does not go beyond the good intentions of a reconciliatory happy end.
Dark shorts
The film thus stresses the priority of education. The shorts made by the Cape Town film school, AFDA, are often marked by this will to inscribe on screen the difficulties and the stakes of the new South Africa- a lucidity that denotes the current concern for reinscribing the South African myth in its reality, that of the contradictions of a democracy in which civil rights are acquired but social differences remain huge and injustice blatant. In such a context, reconciliation and national rebirth must be redefined daily.
In Together alone (14′) by Riordan Allen, shot in English and Xhosa, White Sarah’s Black boyfriend introduces her to his mother, who refuses to go beyond the racial barrier. Tragedy: he is killed by a gangster and Sarah, pregnant with his child, decides to keep the baby, declaring: « As long as I will have that baby, I will be your family ». The last image, which shows Sarah looking at Cape Town, pulls back to include the Black family. It is clumsy, but such forcing of emotions reveals a will to live together, a way for Whites of reminding that they are part of the picture. Just as voluntarist and pragmatic, Perena (15′) by Brandon Oelofse presents a young Black girl, passionate about mechanics, who gradually impresses an old White cantankerous garage owner with her talent, to the point of driving the racing car they fixed up together, a prelude to an improbable professional partnership worthy of a fairytale.
Other shorts tackle social realities more directly. Also a student of the AFDA, Martinus Lamprecht was awarded a special Jury Prize for his brave 15′ Amambuka we strike, in English and Zulu, dedicated to the 58 lives lost during the security guards’ strike in April-May 2006. Forced to work to earn enough money to buy his ill son medicine, a guard is beaten to death by the union, which accuses him of treason for not participating in the strike. The contributors to the debate that followed the film made no bones about warning the young White filmmaker about the risks he was taking by showing his film in certain politically committed spheres. In Mina Nawe (13′), a short shot in English and Xhosa, better mastered and graceful, Rethabile Shongwe, also from the AFDA, presents a woman from the Black bourgeoisie who, in the township, meets again with a classmate who tries to steal her car, but a love affair builds up and changes the course of events.
Generally speaking, the shorts are nevertheless quite dark. In Untitled (30′), shot in Sesotho, Kaiser Matsumunyane (Lesotho) presents a poverty-stricken, working-class man whose life seems meaningless but who meets a beautiful woman who invites him to see her again. He comes alive again but, thinking he is dealing with a ghost, sinks into despair again. H-49 (90′), by Christopher Grant Harvey, pushes a behind-closed-doors situation and manipulation to the extreme: a reality show shuts a young man away in a bedroom after having implanted a microchip in his brain.
Shot in 35mm within the framework of the New Crowned Hope project with financing from the year of Mozart just like other excellent features by well-known international filmmakers, Sekalli Le Meokgo (Meokgo and the Stickfighter) (16′) by Teboho Mahlatsi (author of Yizo Yizo), shot in Sesotho, cultivates aesthetic effects with a blaze of pompous music and end-of-the-world lighting to tell a story of love and sacrifice. It is magical: the Shorts jury awarded it its two prizes!
Unlike in most other African countries, South African televisions finance shorts. For instance, it is thanks to M-Net’s New Directions program that Nigerian Seke Somolu was able to film Mama Put (27′) on video, with Tunde Kelanu as chief cameraman. A woman is left alone to take care of her children, one of whom is ill. She needs 25 000 naira to save him. From one dramatic event to the next, gangsters take up residence in her home because they like her cooking. But they gradually take her under their wing. Here, we find the same plot structure as in Nigerian home-videos: the fears triggered by the violence of society are reworked by seeking justice on one’s own, without state intervention, in stories that do not hesitate to add action to mobilize the spectator.
The SABC financed Revolutionaries Love Life (48′) by Riaan Hendricks, a remarkable road movie in which the filmmaker leaves on a motorbike with his brother Daniel, unemployed and a drug addict, on the trail of a soldier of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed branch of the ANC. The people they meet talk about yesterday’s fights and today’s struggles: poverty, memory, loneliness, despair. A first person narrative film in Afrikaans, written like a diary, an underlying confrontation between both brothers: Revolutionaries Love Life is convincing by its spontaneity, its proximity with the people it meets, the sharing of this question that pierces South Africa today: « Have we reached our goal? » Revolution? It was an act of love! This journey, gradually improvised as the filmmaker slowly finds a relation with his brother, gives an account of frustrations as much as hopes, and casually makes a sharp analysis of the state of the country. « South Africa’s story is one of renunciation, especially for the youth », said Riaan Hendricks during the debate after the screening: « It is difficult to see it as a dream ». His way of filming the people he met, in dignity and beauty, while categorically letting them speak, could well give hints as to the paths to follow to achieve this.
First short by a filmmaker from Durban who succeeded in convincing the SABC-Education program to produce his film, Sins of the Inner-City (24′), by Similo Gobingca, is a fascinating poetic improvisation on the consumerist danger for the urban post-apartheid youth. First, it is a good example of resourcefulness: Gobingca proposed a one-minute-and-a-half pilot, obtained a 10 000 rand grant (a thousand euros) to acquire material and did his editing on Windows’ Moviemaker. A ten film series is now being considered, with his appropriately named production company Blackstorm. But, in the end, it is also an interesting vision of the disillusion in deprived estates faced with the materialism and hedonism that prevail over the South African dream. Alternating with committed rap and set to a background of urban images, two South Africans and two foreigners from Congo tell of their battle to survive and to find a meaning to their lives in this jungle.
Sharing as a strategy
In South Africa like elsewhere, rap is an experience before being music- lived encounters, commitments, rebellion. Mr.Devious- my life, a feature documentary by John Fredericks, is a tribute to a friend, a talented rapper who, with remarkable energy, committed himself to the cause of the township youth and was murdered at 27 years old in 2004 by one of them when he defended his father who the 19-year-old boy was trying to rob. Fredericks appears as a witness on screen, in the same way as Mario van Rooy’s, aka Mr.Devious’, family. He fights, along with Mario’s wife, Natalie, who was pregnant with their third child, to keep his friend’s memory alive: at the end of the film, Natalie goes up on stage to keep his voice alive while John puts his savings into the publishing of a double DVD featuring both the film and the music. Death divides the film: the biography becomes a tribute, just to show the real depth of Mario’s commitment, who organized workshop after workshop to encourage the youth to take things into their own hands. « Gangsters and I fight against the system », he says from a part of the township where his musicians sit near local thugs, inscribing hip hop in the revolt against the established order. The film’s rhythm is dictated by rap and tight editing, but Fredericks takes care to leave people the time to speak and exist on screen. Perhaps because its rhythm is above all its implication, its proximity with the subject and the urgency of witnessing.
Intimacy, improvisation, proximity: this indeed seems to be the strategy adopted by young South African filmmakers to give an account of their experiences- following in Dumisani Phakathi’s footsteps (Ma n’Wina, Don’t Fuck with Me, I Have 51 Brothers and Sisters), who is a length ahead of the rest. Bunny Chow, John Baker’s feature produced under the auspices of the DV8 project which develops, finances and produces low-budget films shot on HD video with funding from the government, television, a distributor and private sources, is a joyous and crazy black and white work bursting with energy. It brings three unbridled actors together for a weekend at Oppikoppi, the great South African rock festival. Drugs, flirting, sex, jokes, hardships, hopes and disappointments: the mix is not original but the sincere and humane approach and the wild rhythm of the music and editing add a good dose of contemporaneousness. Its spontaneity wins over adherence.
Not as much can be said of Angus Gibson’s Heartlines, a pedantic Christian-inspired fable based on a pedagogic hit TV series of the same name shot in South African languages, which tries to anchor the values of responsibility, tolerance and compassion in society again. By welcoming him into his home, Pastor John gives young Manyisa a fresh start when he comes out of prison, but when he learns that his young brother may have been killed with the help of his protégé, he finds redemption difficult.
However, the reproduction of violence remains one of the central issues in South African cinema. Rather than focusing on Black/White opposition as expected, the first feature made by a Black man after apartheid, Ramadan Suleman’s Fools (1996), already drew on literature (here from an eponymous short story by Njabulo Ndebele), to explore with great maturity how Black people had internalized the violence they suffered and turned it against one another. The Mother’s House by François Vester does it in a documentary mode. The film, awarded Best Documentary at the festival, is the fruit of four years of work: we can imagine the intimacy that the filmmaker, also behind the camera, was able to establish with the Moses family for the three women, teenager Miché, her mother Valencia and her grandmother, to open up to him like this. From 11 to 15 years old, we see Miché growing up in a colored township near Cape Town, one of those suburbs where people of mixed-race were concentrated under apartheid. Most of all, we see her integrate the violence of her environment that has its roots in the harshness of pre-1994 years: the aggressiveness of her mother, HIV positive and alone, and the constant arguments between her mother and grandmother. She too fights, dabbles in drugs or slashes her wrists, telling her friends: « I feel better when I do it, I don’t know why ». When she makes a promise to herself not to project on her children what she received from the two women, emotion is at its peak.
This emotion is sound: it isn’t sentimental, nor does it stem from compassion. Vester’s camera never puts us in the shoes of a voyeur and when the mother hits her daughter, he immediately lowers it and simply records the sounds. However, it knows how to play with the lighting to magnify the faces, to harmonize the colors and the atmospheres to detect melancholy, to capture, like in a family album, the scenes of daily life that gradually inscribe the bodies in the rhythm of life. It is sound because it mobilizes our understanding, destabilises us by opening a rift that must be filled through reflection. We become the active witnesses of a problem that goes beyond South Africa while finding its singularity there: how human relations can create a culture of peace.
The rich complexity of cultural blend
Of course, that is what fascinates us in the South African experience: within the multiculturalism of a rainbow society, this country is exploring the difficult path of living together, when the rest of the world is becoming entrenched in identity-based oppositions. Its cinema clearly tells it like it is: nothing is simple. It shows this current uncertainty about the future of the country and the paths to take, about the conflict between the triumphing consumerism and the quest for identity points of reference, about the delicate experience of cultural blend after the separation. It thus echoes the young authors who have turned the page of activism and mark South African literature: a Niq Mhlongo whose Dog Eat Dog (Kwela Books) depicts the fears of this Black generation who finally attains situations unthinkable until now, like attending university; a K.Sello Duiker who, mentally fragile, committed suicide at the age of 30, himself one of the first Black students to attend a private high school for the White elite, whose The Quiet Violence of Dreams (Kwela Books) presents Tshepo, a Black student who ends up in a psychiatric hospital and unsuccessfully tries to find a consistency to his life; or a Phaswane Mpe, also deceased at 34, probably from AIDS, whose Welcome to our Hillbrow deals with immigration in this hub of what Achille Mbembe describes as afropolitanism, or mixing, beyond the pervading violence of multiple heritages in a new-faced modernity.
This cinema and this literature show a productive will to find the paths that lead to living together without disowning one’s origins. There is so much to learn there and the duration of a festival is much too short and superficial. Yet, the commitment and open-mindedness of a remarkable team and the quality of the program successfully contribute to it. Despite its lack of a centre and its scattered screening places, the Durban festival pulled off the delicate challenge in a long-isolated country: linking South Africa to the rest of the world.
Exploring otherness
It was impossible to give an account here of the international selection, mostly built around the question of the relation to the Other, with special focuses like the one on Italian cinema, which notably presented Riparo (Shelter) by Marco Simon Puccioni, starring Maria de Medeiros, Antonia Liskova and Mounir Ouadi. The latter is a sort of outside graft in the already complicated lives of these two very different women in love with each other in a narrow-minded and strictly hierarchical environment: he simply hides in their car boot in Morocco to get to Europe. They try to help him and go through all the stages, from paternalism to rejection. In this sensitive film, it is this range of evolving reactions to the Other, both fascinating and incomprehensible, that is interesting. But let us keep to a striking film on the same issue: Operation Filmmaker, Nina Davenport’s fourth documentary (United States). An American actor hears a young Iraqi claim on CNN that Sadam and Bush destroyed his dream of becoming a filmmaker. A magnificent gift tinged with American remorse about the Iraqi disaster, he asks Muthana to join him on a set in Prague, to give him another chance. But very soon, the relationship becomes complex. Muthana is not serious enough: he is accused of not making the most of his opportunity and develops the discourse of a victim to make his interests heard. « You should have made others love you », he is told. Still, the actor who asked him to come pays his fees for a film school in London. He gets a visa and money after long negotiations. The spectator gets the impression that he has learnt to manipulate so as to be taken in charge, that he has understood the system of aid. And yet comes a reversal, enabled by the Davenport’s honesty: by admitting her attempt to find a happy end for her film (Muthana would finally achieve his dream of making a film and he would have been helped, in particular by her), she allows us to go beyond appearances. Isn’t it the situation Mathusa was placed in that determines his attitude? He is stuck in a need to manage on his own. His refusal to show any gratitude, to the point of asking to be paid to be filmed, reverses the humanitarian relation and reveals its pernicious effects.
This reversal would not have been possible if Nina Davenport hadn’t adopted the appropriate aesthetics. Her use of a subjective camera forces the spectator to embrace her viewpoint and doubts. Without commenting, she traces the chronology of her relation to Mathusa only with inserts on a black screen, making the film seem like a secret diary. The hand-held camera assumes the relativity of her position too. Thus, the whole aesthetic device tends to focus on the sharing of her doubts with the spectator instead of on the assertion of the lessons that can be learnt from an experience. There is no message, but a question is raised: summoning each person’s experiences to explore the possibilities together. The film’s open ending gives way to a debate on the delicate handling of otherness.
Like in the South African films evoked, this cinematographic approach keeps the spectator active, recognizing him/herself without identifying, conscious of the sharing made easier by the proximity of the filmmaker with his/her subject. It is a cinema in which fiction integrates documentary, where the documentary borders on fiction, breaking down all categorizations. This intrusion of reality, as well as its poetic depiction, makes improvisation effective but would be ineffective if this cinema did not focus on the intimate sphere. It is indeed by exploring what drives these bodies that this cinema testifies to the soul of a country in the making: South Africa, true, but also that of an imagination for the future.

1. « Si vous suivez la route américaine, il vous faut lâcher un peu de vous-même », interview with Zola Maseko on Drum, by Olivier Barlet [Not yet translated into English], article 3773 on
2. Read what Keyan Tomaselli has to say in his new book, Encountering Modernity- Twentieth Century South African Cinemas, p.46-48.
Translated by Céline Dewaele///Article N° : 6809


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