The Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), now in its 38th year, is tagged “Africa’s largest and longest running film festival.” The festival’s associated Film Mart is only eight years old yet it has become an important platform for good news announcements, official pledges of industry finance and promises of local development.

As an aside, whether important or not, the festival’s vainglory conveniently ignores the fact that the biannual Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) was founded in 1969 making it a whole decade older than DIFF. This year BBC hailed it as “Africa’s biggest film festival.”

But what the hell, that’s nature of the public relations beast. Nobody can be blamed for wanting to be best.

It’s probably better, though, that we don’t live in an era when the creation of a national cinema is a concept dear to filmmakers’ hearts. But it would be nice to hear some political theory and to witness some fervour behind the intentions of local talents.

Not that one is calling for the creation of films by Stalinist committee. But at this year’s Film Mart there wasn’t much robust debate about content, rather there was the annual deliberation about how filmmakers are supposed to get their hands on money, an ongoing industry obsession.

If, as film theorists have predicted, a new era of political film is upon us then it’s definitely not being reflected on the South African screen that remains obsessed with tales of ordinary people tucked into society’s underbelly. It is odd that while the country stands aghast at revelations of state capture, corruption, student revolt and racial mud-slinging none of that even makes a chance appearance in our indigenous fiction cinema. Yet.

Maybe next year movies at DIFF will be as nasty as Facebook, as cutting as Twitter and set somewhere over the Rainbow.  Debates about money are now going to have to be inclusive of debates about content, or so it is said.

While there is a new generation of black filmmakers positioning themselves in the queue for the money, it’s interesting to see remnants of the older generation of white filmmakers skulking around the Elangeni conference centre raising budgets to fund the fresher dreams of their black proteges.

Last weekend the industry was elated at the announcement by Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) director of film production, Nelly Molokoane, that the sector would benefit from a R100 million rollout until March 2018. This would be worked in conjunction with the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), provincial film commissions as well as the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

William Smith, IDC Divisional Executive for High Impact and Regions rounded off his important input about where his organisation is at by saying: “There’s got to be talk about transformation. Statistics say that 10 years ago our cinema-going audience was 7% percent black. Today its 70% percent black. Are we making movies for the right audience? Are we in the right space? Is the industry transformed? At the IDC we want to fund a transformed industry – that’s a change in our strategy.”

Smith provided a compelling description of his organisation’s mindset  regarding stepping into the film funding breach. “We want to fund where there’s a gap,” he said.

In 2001 his organisation looked at the media and motion picture space, and its entire value chain, and decided to lend a hand in making the industry a vibrant one that could realise its potential in job creation, with productions sought after by the rest of the world.

“Until we start producing films and TV for an audience that is not just in South Africa, but that the rest of the world wants to buy from us, then we will start to really build the industry. We will start making money and we will create jobs. And we will be surprised to see how the banks will start showing a massive interest in funding the sector. But for now they are not,” Smith said.

Citing the success of the Cape Town film studios that apparently had to turn away 30 productions last year, Smith announced that the next port of call for filmmakers would be, believe it or not, the old Sky Rink at Johannesburg’s Carlton Centre where this writer spent many truant days in his youth. The IDC is a partner with Transnet and City of Johannesburg in the endeavour.

Under the slogan “the ice has melted,” the “world class studio experience” is a brainchild of two 100% black owned companies: Diallo Works and BBM Bros. The facility will feature control rooms, 10 post production suites, production offices and broadcast capabilities so that, according to Smith, “you can actually shoot your Generations or 7de Laan in that studio, and broadcast it straight out of there. You won’t even have to do that via [the] SABC.”

The vision sees the creation of a “film city” utilising dilapidated buildings around the Carlton Precinct, a motivation for the reopening of the Carlton Hotel, a new design for Main Street and a rooftop events venue.

Sky Rink Studios also intends to embark on a “disruptive process to break the limitation of the current South African private monopolies’ hold on this sector.”

The word “disruption” popped up again at the Durban Film Mart when a panel of women in the industry said they had formed a lobby and advocacy organisation called Swift (Sisters Working in Film and Television) with the aim of “disrupting the status quo”.

Producer and director Sarah Blecher unleashed a shock statistic of a Swift survey which found that “70% of women working in this industry don’t feel safe going to work”.

“It’s such a struggle for us to get into the industry, and to make films, and then to not even be feeling safe.” However she did note that “many of the leadership positions in this industry are women. So it’s not like we have to fight the way that people have to fight in Hollywood.”

It will be easy then for this collective of women to achieve their first objective which will be to “develop a code of conduct that protects women”, Blecher said.

“One of the things we are trying to do is to make sure that all funding bodies in this country, and all the broadcasters, come on board. We had a meeting last week with the (government) Department of Arts and Culture and we can get the code of conduct put into our contracts. We have to start by telling people it’s not ok to touch a woman who doesn’t want to be touched.”

There were some cheers of delight until Amanda Evans, director of the opening night film, Serpent, basically told the house that she’d never personally experienced anything but kindness from men in the industry. She said she hoped that her film had not been chosen to open the festival simply because it was directed by a woman.

The women-led film focus with its partner the Caribbean Tales Media Group has been a key moment in the film mart proceedings. And it’s highly likely that Evans’ feature film was chosen because it ticked the gender box. Not that there’s anything bad about her film, it just wasn’t opening night material.

Neither South African nor African, or told from a particularly woman’s perspective, Serpent is a riveting genre movie that plays havoc with the Adam and Eve in Eden biblical narrative. It’s rather fun and shows the skill of this young achiever in the commercials industry.

“I am going to stand here quite humbly and say that I was not held back by being a woman,”. “I had some incredible opportunities in my career that I ruined all by myself. I was given studio offers when I was a commercials director, major feature films that didn’t transpire due, probably, to my rising too quickly to being in that position.  And none of the people, from the studio executives to the producer that I crossed ever said ‘Oh, this is excellent; we can tick the box of you being a woman.’”

She did come to her own rescue, though, when she said: “If anyone feels disempowered then we have to make them feel empowered.”

But many have been left wondering why the major premiere of Mbongeni Ngema’s feature film Asinamali has been left to close the festival on July 23. Ngema is a legendary local hero in KwaZulu-Natal. His new feature is based on a Struggle classic first directed by him in 1983 for the stage.

Nevertheless, recently appointed festival director, Chipo Zhou, assured members of the media at the opening briefing that two committees had in fact passed Serpent with recommendations that it play as the festival’s opening night film.

Yet another contender would have been Akin Omotoso’s hugely successful feature film titled Vaya.

An epic tale of arrival and survival in the city, it’s a kind of Jim and Jane come to Jo’burg tale for the 21st Century. Omotoso has already won a Best Director Award at 13th Africa Movie Academy Awards, as well as a Screenplay Achievement award with the film.

Vaya shows how every individual’s story is also the gateway to someone else’s story. How one person’s achievement can be the path to another’s failure. How the underprivileged are, daily, faced with life altering choices that the rest of us don’t have to make in a lifetime.

Even so, with its symphonic plot and deeply conventional moral foundation Vaya is not an act of high risk filmmaking.

That would be left John Trengove’s much discussed feature film Inxeba: The Wound. A gay story set in the context of the Xhosa initiation rite, the film is exceptionally brave and the delicate cultural context has meant that the director has had to take a terribly mild approach to promoting locally. The thing we’ve learned from queer cinema, and from feminist cinema, is that in the service of the Struggle it pays to be out, loud and proud.

But local cultural sensibilities may push the film further to the margin. That is why it is important that Inexba does indeed find its way to becoming next year’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

 

Main Photo: A scene from Mbongeni Ngema’s Asinamali, the Durban International Film Festival’s closing night film –Supplied

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