Encountering the world through film

CARL COLLISON

Billed as “Africa’s top documentary festival”, this year’s Encounters Documentary Film Festival starts today, Thursday June 2, at the V&A Waterfront’s Nu Metro cinema and the Labia Theatre.

Now in its 18th year, this year’s festival will again feature a host of local and international documentaries: from Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore’s latest offering, Where to Invade Next (screened for the first time locally) and the filmic portrait of the American writer, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, to Action Kommandant, Nadine Cloete’s look into the life and death of murdered anti-apartheid activist, Ashley Kriel.

Commenting on the line-up, Darryl Els, the festival’s recently appointed director, says: “The cutting edge line up includes the world premieres of some ground-breaking and politically relevant South African documentaries, plus several new South African voices, including a number of compelling debuts.”

One such “compelling debut” is Soweto, Times Of Wrath, which opens this year’s festival.

Filmed by a group of young Sowetan filmmakers, Siphamandla Bongwana, Jerry Obakeng Gaegane, Stanford Gibson, Nduzo Shandu, Asanda Kupa and Gontse More, the film “concentrates on those excluded from the so-called South African dream 20 years into democracy”.

On his contribution to the six-chapter film, Mr Gaegane says: “For my part in the film, I look at illegal mining and illegal initiation schools.”

On how he came to create the work – his first venture into the world of film-making – Mr Gaegane says: “I was studying at the Market Photo Workshop, where I exhibited some images which looked into illegal mining. I was told about an opportunity to put together a film on it and, while I was filming, I also found an illegal initiation school there. It was quite shocking to find.”

The filming process, which took six months to complete, saw him interviewing two boys (“around 11or 12 years old”) who had been forced into the school.

“Those boys told me that the people who ran the school took them from their home by force. They were basically kidnapped. The owners of the school then called their parents demanding money and that, if they didn’t pay it, they would kill these boys. It was very shocking.”

Also placing the hardships suffered by South Africans under the microscope, is the film, Walking in my Shoes.

Looking into the effects lack of transport has on rural pupils, the film, directed by Melanie Chait, tells the story of Siphilele, who trudges 15km to school, and Nompilo, who has to walk two hours home from school and must still fetch 50 litres of water from the communal tap.

As to why this particular issue drew her to creating her documentary, which took three years to complete, Ms Chait says: “So much is written about the lack of sanitation, teachers, school books and bad results, but very little is discussed about the actual living conditions of so many pupils and how this impacts on their chances for success at school.

“It is, however, also the story of determination and inspiration – and of some adults doing their best to assist.

“It will hopefully be a positive incentive for other teachers to be that caring and involved.”

The film led Ms Chait to the realisation that “this country needs early childhood development centres in rural and urban areas if we are ever to have a chance at success at school – and move out of poverty.”

She concedes to also “being overwhelmed by the determination of young people to succeed despite the odds being so stacked against them – and how so little is really done to help them.”

Also being screened as part of this year’s festival is The Black Christ. The film looks into the controversy around the Ronald Harrison painting of former ANC leader, Chief Albert Luthuli, as Jesus.

On the reasons behind putting the film together, its writer, researcher and producer, Damian Samuels, says: “I was surprised and somewhat bewildered that such an important story about an extraordinary artist from our community had not yet been told in the medium of film. As a young South African, I was perturbed that I did not know about such an important part of our history and how significantly Ronald Harrison contributed to our liberation struggle.

“So we did something about this important yet missing part of our historical narrative: we made a film. We chose to make this film since my interest, as the producer, lies in history and politics and my partner Jean-Paul Moodie’s interest lies in the aesthetics of film.

“We figured that we have to commemorate those who paid dearly for the freedoms we enjoy now – and our right to narrate them into history. Freedom is only realised once we use it.”

Mr Samuels adds: “Film festivals, like Encounters are extremely important for independent producers since we often operate outside the mainstream commercial film industry. It’s an opportunity to show your film to the public on a big screen and to cinema-going audiences who will buy a ticket, which is often and indication of the demand and interest in your film. This elevates the status of one’s film.

“Also, it’s a chance to meet potential distributors and broadcasters, which is the main income stream for documentary film.

They also offer a chance to gauge audience responses to your work, letting the film take on a life of its own, independent of its creators.”

Ms Chait adds: “This festival allows South Africans a glimpse of what is happening globally – in depth and contextualised.”

* The Encounters Documentary Festival runs at Nu Metro Theatre, V&A Waterfront, and the Labia Theatre, 68 Orange Street, Gardens, from today, Thursday June 2, to Sunday June 12. Tickets cost R55 and can be booked through Webtickets.

For more information, visit www.encounters.co.za or call 021 424 5927.