The film in­dus­try is head­ing to the coast for the 37th an­nual Dur­ban In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, which opens on Youth Day. But the drama over this year’s open­ing film points to big­ger ques­tions about the na­tional sto­ries we are punt­ing, writes

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Here’s the story so far: re­spected South African film maker Oliver Sch­mitz has a big new apartheid-era fea­ture out called Shep­herds and Butch­ers, which was pro­duced by Anant Singh’s Video­vi­sion En­ter­tain­ment.

It pre­miered at the Berlin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, but was not cho­sen to be the open­ing-night film at the Dur­ban In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val (Diff) – os­ten­si­bly be­cause of a vi­o­lent, old school nar­ra­tive.

Singh wasn’t happy and queried the de­ci­sion, at which Diff’s own­ers, the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Natal, over­rule the fes­ti­val’s man­ager, Sarah Daw­son, and tell Singh his film would in­deed open the fes­ti­val. Daw­son and oth­ers quit in protest.

Then her re­place­ment chose a youth doc­u­men­tary, The Jour­ney­man, to open Diff in­stead. Singh was of­fered a 6.30pm pre­miere and with­drew his film, un­happy with the slot. This was a big deal be­cause Sch­mitz made the sem­i­nal Ma­pantsula and Singh has pro­duced an opus of im­por­tant, of­ten lit­er­ary, Os­car-sub­mit­ted films (Yes­ter­day; Mandela: Long Walk to Free­dom; Cry, the Beloved Coun­try; Sara­fina!).

The drama is more than just an in­dus­try hissy fit. It points to a sea change in our cinema nar­ra­tive that the acad­emy, the state and the old guard seem un­will­ing to ac­knowl­edge – to the detri­ment of our film de­vel­op­ment and the sto­ries we tell.


The grand post-apartheid South African film nar­ra­tive – ex­em­pli­fied by the (of­ten beau­ti­ful and ac­com­plished) films of Sch­mitz and film mak­ers such as Dar­rell Roodt – is most of­ten ru­ral, im­pov­er­ished and con­cerned with suf­fer­ing, HIV and apartheid guilt, as ex­plored by white men (Lit­tle One; Yes­ter­day; Life, Above All; and many oth­ers).

In a re­cent cri­tique of South African lit­er­a­ture – Stop go­ing back to the farm – aca­demic Wa­muwi Mbao wrote: “South African lit­er­a­ture, to bor­row a joke from Tom Waits, is dom­i­nated by Grand Weep­ers and Grim Reapers. It re­flects a so­ci­ety in which re­pressed sad­ness and spec­tac­u­lar violence trade reg­u­lar places at the fore­front of our na­tional at­ten­tion span ... The tree [of Pa­ton’s Cry, the Beloved Coun­try] con­tin­ues to bear bit­ter fruit.”

You can see many of th­ese kinds of films at Diff this year – cour­tesy of a pro­gramme in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the state’s Film and Pub­li­ca­tion Board (FPB). The same board in ef­fect banned the edgy film Of Good Re­port a few years back, ac­cus­ing it of child pornog­ra­phy. The rul­ing was over­turned on ap­peal.

I’m not say­ing we must not watch and learn from the grand old films, but why must they open the fes­ti­val, be the of­fi­cial Na­tional Film and Video Foun­da­tion (NFVF) se­lec­tion or get spe­cial FPB treat­ment?


Given the rise of a new era of the black con­scious­ness strug­gle and the am­pli­fied voice of Fal­lists (ver­sus Rain­bow­ists), it doesn’t make sense to me for Diff to open with Shep­herds and Butch­ers. Not if it is to be seen as a pro­gres­sive, dy­namic, African fes­ti­val.

Here is a his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant film that por­trays the bru­tal­ity and trauma of apartheid through the eyes of a young white prison guard and as­sis­tant state ex­e­cu­tioner who opens fire on a group of black pris­on­ers. But black view­ers who have seen it have told me they were left reel­ing by the end­less ex­e­cu­tions and bru­tal­ity in­flicted on the black body.

They say they did not feel the same un­ease with black film maker Mandla Dube’s biopic of (ex­e­cuted) free­dom fighter Solomon Mahlangu, Kalushi, which is on at Diff this year.

If a story res­onates, does it mat­ter if it is not as slickly ex­e­cuted as a big-bud­get film?

And the truth is that Diff has – since the fi­asco around Of Good Re­port – made it its mis­sion to open with new nar­ra­tives – a SMS the key­word FILM and your com­ment to 35697. You can also email us at trend­ing@city­ SMSes cost R1.50. Please in­clude your name and prov­ince young crime thriller, Hard to Get, and a PanAfrican love story, Ayanda.

The Diff jury has cho­sen rad­i­cally youth­ful films as the win­ners of top South African film for the past two years – Jenna Bass’ quirky ur­ban bad-ro­mance Love the One You Love and Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s ni­hilis­tic sub­ur­ban drama Neck­tie Youth. So, why stop now? Mbao points to a new gen­er­a­tion of black writ­ers he hopes will pre­vail with a new nar­ra­tive. It’s the same in our cinema. New voices ex­ist, but they are of­ten un­able to gain vis­i­bil­ity be­cause their work is made on low bud­gets and of­ten chooses not to rely on NFVF script-de­vel­op­ment funds be­cause many young voices find the process pre­scrip­tive and old.

Young Africans are in­creas­ingly ur­ban, do not shy away from sex, em­brace fu­tur­ism, are reimag­in­ing the strug­gle and are fo­cused on iden­tity, gen­der and a new kind of satire.

The Jour­ney­men sounds like a rel­e­vant open­ing film for 2016. It shows three young pho­tog­ra­phers (one marred by a sex­ual as­sault case, which will hope­fully lead to ro­bust con­ver­sa­tion) trav­el­ling the coun­try to try to make sense of the com­plex­ity of our democ­racy.

The four young di­rec­tors pre­sent­ing shorts on the Cannes South Africa Film Fac­tory pro­gramme em­brace fan­tasy and dark com­edy. And bril­liant young film mak­ers like Oliver Her­manus are tack­ling so­cial re­al­i­ties from new an­gles. They are the ones who will con­nect with new global au­di­ences and tell the new South African sto­ries. It’s their time.

Diff runs from June 16 to 26 at var­i­ous cine­mas in Dur­ban. Visit dur­ban­film­

for all the films and events on of­fer


OLD SCHOOL Shep­herds and Butch­ers and white tears

NEW SCHOOL Kalushi tells of the anti-apartheid strug­gle through the eyes of Solomon Mahlangu

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