Of Grandmasters, Sexual Identity and Lesotho’s First Feature Film – Peter Machen Talks About the Durban International Film Festival

With its range of documentary and feature films from around the world and its role as a continental film market and laboratory, the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) is one of the most important film festivals in Africa – certainly in South Africa. Peter Machen was recently announced as the festival’s new manager, Niren Tolsi quizzed him

Niren Tolsi: Congratulations on being appointed manager of DIFF. You have been working at DIFF for years already, though – can you tell us about your experience during that time?

Peter Machen: Thanks Niren. Yes – I have been with DIFF for about seven years in a freelance capacity, working as a writer and programming adviser. It’s been gratifying over the years to see the festival evolve into an event of global and particularly continental significance. It seems like every year there’s another layer of events added to DIFF and every year the festival grows in stature.

NT: DIFF has grown into, arguably, the foremost film festival on the continent. What do you attribute this to?

PM: The remarkable growth of DIFF is directly attributable to the dedicated efforts of my predecessor Nashen Moodley, as well as those of Peter Rorvik, the former director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts, which houses the festival. In part, the growth of DIFF has also run parallel to the growth and expansion of the local film industry.
It also bears mentioning that the festival has a remarkable degree of support, both locally, nationally and internationally. I was quite moved when I was in Berlin [for the Berlinale] and [at the] Rotterdam [Film Festival] earlier this year by the large number of people who pledged their support to the festival. While it’s easy to think of the festival as marginal due to Durban’s geographical remoteness, in fact the festival is a significant event on the global festival circuit, offering a rare showcase for African film and films from the global South.

NT: DIFF has also moved from being a Merchant Ivory type period-piece festival to one that embraces innovative film-making from around the world, including the East, Australia etcetera. What is your vision for the festival going forward?

PM: While this shift is certainly attributable to the visionary curation of Nashen, at the same time the direction that the festival has taken over the year has also been driven by the expansion of world cinema. My vision for the festival is essentially to maintain Nashen’s legacy, while continuing to reflect the constantly shifting nature of world cinema.

NT: Have any films been confirmed for this year’s edition? Can you tell us more about some of these?

PM: We have already secured a number of titles from around the world, including Dennis Côté ‘s Vic+Flo Saw a Bear, Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, and The Forgotten Kingdom, which is the first film to come out of Lesotho. We have also secured Laurence Anyways from the Canadian prodigy Xavier Dolan as well the Italian film Il Futuro. Finally, we have secured the South African premiere of Evil Dead, the remake of Sam Raimi’s 1981 cult horror flick.

NT: Are there any plans to expand the festival? In terms of scope, but also the festival’s appendages, like programmes for young film makers, the Film Mart et cetera?

PM: Given the transitional nature of this year’s festival, I will not be embarking on any major expansionary plans… There will however, for the first time, be a marquee on the beachfront where festival-goers will be able to relax between screenings and grab a coffee and a bite to eat. We will also, again for the first time, be presenting a small repertory section in which festival-goers will be able to engage with films that are significant in terms of film history.

NT: Documentaries at DIFF have reflected trends especially around human and civil rights and the issues that trouble the most marginalised around the world. What themes and documentary films can we expect this year?

PM: There will be a special focus on GLBT issues this year, both in terms of features and doccies. Additionally, there will be a number of doccies which explore enviromental issues. Other themes that have emerged this year on the doccie front include the conflicts in Syria and Palestine, although it is not year clear whether there will a be a strong documentary focus on these important issues.

NT: What are the trends in global cinema at the moment that you believe are important, or telling important stories?

PM: Judging by the films shown at Rotterdam and Berlin, as well as the hundreds of films submitted to DIFF from around the world, there are several themes that have clearly emerged. These include a large number of films centred around sexual identity in all its forms, as well as a good deal of fiction films that features strong, young female protagonists. Additionally, there is an increasing number of films in which the boundaries between documentaries and fiction features are extremely blurred.

NT: Why should people come to Durban, firstly, and Diff secondly, this year?

PM: Well, Durban is always a beautiful place to be in July. We really have one of the most beautiful winters and the period during the film festival is always one of Durban’s most vibrant. As for DIFF 2013, viewers can expect a diverse and edgy spread of world cinema that will offer a rare opportunity to see these films on the big screen, often in the company of the filmmaker. Beyond the obvious pleasures of movie-going, the festival is also one of the highlights of Durban’s social calendar, offering a plethora of film-based events and some of the best conversations you’ll have all year!

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