Big fight for open­ing night

Sev­eral res­ig­na­tions and a dra­matic stand­off over the open­ing-night film have made one of Africa’s most im­por­tant film fes­ti­vals the talk of the in­dus­try, re­ports Charl Blig­naut

CityPress - - News -

‘Iam not able to com­ment, but I have left my po­si­tion at the film fes­ti­val,” Sarah Daw­son, man­ager of the pres­ti­gious Durban In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val (Diff) said this week. Sev­eral in­sid­ers who do not wish to be named for fear of jeop­ar­dis­ing their projects or jobs have, how­ever, told City Press of the drama that played out at the Diff of­fices at the Cen­tre for Cre­ative Arts (CCA) at the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Na­tal (UKZ-N) this week. The univer­sity runs Diff as well as three other yearly fes­ti­vals – for books, po­etry and dance.

Daw­son re­signed, they say, over the se­lec­tion of the im­por­tant open­ing night film at Diff next month, but it also runs deeper than that.

In five years, the fes­ti­val has had five bosses and com­plaints of in­ter­fer­ence from the univer­sity have been raised be­fore – not to men­tion state in­ter­fer­ence when the 2013 open­ing film, Of Good Re­port, was ef­fec­tively banned when the Film and Pub­li­ca­tion Board re­fused to clas­sify it. The rul­ing was later over­turned.

In­sid­ers say that Daw­son, af­ter much de­bate with the se­lec­tion panel, de­cided against an open­ing-night screen­ing for the big-bud­get Shep­herds and Butch­ers, a death-penalty drama set in the apartheid era.

The film, di­rected by award-win­ning South African Oliver Sch­mitz, plays out in 1987. It is told through the eyes of a teenage prison guard who must stand trial af­ter he snaps and com­mits mur­der af­ter wit­ness­ing too many ex­e­cu­tions.

It pre­miered at the Ber­lin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val ear­lier this year to mixed re­views, but scooped the third place of the Panorama Au­di­ence Award for Fic­tion Films.

City Press has re­li­ably learnt that Daw­son com­mu­ni­cated with pro­ducer Anant Singh’s com­pany, Video­vi­sion, that the film was to have a spe­cial gala screen­ing – but not on open­ing night. One of her con­cerns, they say, was the vi­o­lence in the film.

But Singh was not happy with the de­ci­sion and ob­jected. Con­tacted by City Press, he said: “I en­gaged with Ms Daw­son to raise my con­cerns, as I felt it wrong that whilst she com­mended the film, she was play­ing the role of cen­sor.”

Sources say he copied the head of the CCA, UKZ-N Deputy Vice-Chan­cel­lor Hu­man­i­ties, Pro­fes­sor Cheryl Pot­gi­eter, into the mail – though he de­nies ad­dress­ing the mail to her.

Pot­gi­eter al­legedly replied with an apol­ogy, and over­ruled Daw­son, say­ing that Shep­herds and Butch­ers would in fact be the open­ing film this year. Col­leagues say Daw­son re­signed be­cause of what she saw as in­ter­fer­ence. All she would tell City Press was: “I feel that it is im­por­tant to en­sure that Diff re­mains a fes­ti­val in which the op­por­tu­nity for new cine­matic voices to find a plat­form ex­ists.” Sources doubted that Pot­gi­eter had seen the film she had se­lected, but Pot­gi­eter did not re­ply to ques­tions about this.

In­stead, the univer­sity’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of cor­po­rate re­la­tions, Le­siba Seshoka, said: “The film was cho­sen be­cause it seeks to ed­u­cate; is a rel­e­vant re­flec­tion on South African his­tory; and deals with the so­cially rel­e­vant and con­tested is­sue of the death penalty and its ef­fects and con­se­quences. “The film is also a com­mem­o­ra­tion of the thou­sands of peo­ple who were vic­tims of the death penalty in­sti­tuted by the apartheid govern­ment. It is a proudly South African film. “In ad­di­tion, the Film and Publi­ca­tions Board has of­fi­cially clas­si­fied the film with a rat­ing of 16V, mak­ing it suit­able for view­ers over the age of 16. In this light, it is un­clear why Ms Sarah Daw­son found the film to be in­ap­pro­pri­ate or un­suit­able for the open­ing night of the film fes­ti­val.” But that was just the start of the drama. Jack Chi­ang, key pro­gram­mer at Diff for 10 years, re­signed on Face­book on Thurs­day night, ap­par­ently in sol­i­dar­ity with Daw­son. Con­tacted by City Press, Chi­ang said: “There is in­ter­fer­ence against the fes­ti­val and a lack of sup­port from UKZ-N, who is sup­posed to be the back­bone of in­de­pen­dent think­ing, to pro­tect the in­tegrity of artis­tic cu­ra­tor­ship of the fes­ti­val.” Even more wor­ry­ing, say in­sid­ers, is the sit­u­a­tion with Tiny Mungwe, man­ager of Cen­tre for Cre­ative Arts pro­grammes and of the in­dus­try pro­gramme at Diff. Mungwe was be­hind the hugely suc­cess­ful “de­coloni­sa­tion” of the CCA’s Time of the Writer book fes­ti­val this year. “I can­not com­ment be­cause I have a CCMA (Com­mis­sion for Con­cil­i­a­tion, Me­di­a­tion and Ar­bi­tra­tion) ac­tion against the univer­sity,” she said when City Press con­tacted her this week. UKZ-N would not be drawn on the ac­tion. Pe­dro Pi­menta, ac­claimed fes­ti­val man­ager and film maker from Mozam­bique, held Daw­son’s po­si­tion at last year’s fes­ti­val. This week, he ex­pressed sup­port for Daw­son and Chi­ang. “Fun­da­men­tally, I was in­vited to leave when my po­si­tion was ad­ver­tised, with­out my knowl­edge,” he told City Press. “I was con­tracted by the KZN Film Com­mis­sion to drive trans­for­ma­tion of Diff and cre­ate a new, au­ton­o­mous struc­ture out­side UKZ-N. I very quickly re­alised there was re­sis­tance to new ideas and trans­for­ma­tion. The re­sis­tance was aw­ful ... there was per­ma­nent in­ter­fer­ence about ev­ery­thing,” he said. “What’s hap­pen­ing to Sarah and Jack is just a con­tin­u­a­tion of this at­ti­tude. You are deal­ing with peo­ple who know very lit­tle about film. In 10 months I never met Pot­gi­eter de­spite re­quest­ing nu­mer­ous meet­ings.” There are con­cerns that one of Africa’s great­est fes­ti­vals – now in its 37th year – is los­ing its stand­ing. “African film fes­ti­vals to­day need to be au­ton­o­mous en­ti­ties who play a cru­cial role in the in­dus­try, in de­vel­op­ing film-mak­ing and au­di­ences, be­cause of their in­de­pen­dence,” said Pi­mento. The univer­sity con­firmed that Peter Machen, who has man­aged the fes­ti­val be­fore, will re­place Daw­son.

FES­TI­VAL FILM Sched­ul­ing Shep­herds and Butch­ers has caused fric­tion and fall­outs at the Durban In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val

Cheryl Pot­gi­eter and Anant Singh

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