It’s extremely rare for a documentary to make it on to South Africa’s mainstream cinema circuit. So if you’re a fan of documentaries, it’s worth diarising the 14th annual ‘Encounters’, South Africa’s international documentary festival. REBECCA DAVIS takes a look at what’s on offer.
Encounters kicks off this weekend in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and the schedule is full enough to ensure a busy fortnight if you intend to catch everything going. Now in its 14th year, the documentary festival is bringing 29 international films and 22 South African films to screens in the two cities. The 51 chosen documentaries were whittled down from 487 entries, in a selection process programming head Andreas Spath describes as extremely onerous.
“We put out calls for submission, but we also actively go out and seek films. We keep an eye out on international festivals and generally on the industry press, and also solicit entries from certain filmmakers.”
Spath explains that what they look for is partly thematic, partly aesthetic and partly subjective.
“We look at where the film came from, and its subject matter, because we want to end up with a broad range of themes,” he says. “But we’re also looking for quality filmmaking, what it looks like, from a stylistic perspective: is it beautiful? Having said that, it also just comes down to a gut feel.” Ultimately, Spath says, the most important consideration is: will people watch it? He’s confident that, looking at the programme, “most people should find something they’ll find interesting”.
Spath says the point of Encounters is to attempt to expose a wider audience to documentaries. “You can see watching a feature film as being like reading a novel. Documentary films are like reading non-fiction, and we want to foster audiences for that, to make them see how cool documentaries can be.”
In recent years the genre of documentary film-making has grown steadily internationally, with the likes of Michael Moore producing big-hitting personality-driven doccies that have drawn huge audiences. In South Africa, challenges remain. It largely comes down to money, Spath says. “You’ll find a lot of commercial ad makers have a sideline in documentaries, because they have all the equipment and so on.” He cites as an example commercial director Bryan Little, whose documentary about Cape Town street-dance, The African Cypher, is showing at the festival. “I think that kind of crossover is healthy, given that there are such limited resources.”
Spath has his favourites on this year’s Encounters programme, but in general, he says, “I’d go see them all again. In fact, I feel a bit sad, because I’ve seen them all on the small screen, and I haven’t had the chance to see any of them on a proper cinema screen.”
The programme is indeed as varied as Spath claims, though at first glance it may seem intimidatingly stacked with big issue pieces – you can choose between films about rape, rhinos, gay rights or female circumcision, to name a few, and that litany may inadvertently serve to confirm the fears of some that that’s what documentary festivals are all about. Viewers who feel that they get more than enough of that on the evening news shouldn’t be deterred, however – there are lighter options available too.
Probably the best of these is The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, which is UK art writer Ben Lewis’s investigation into the hugely inflated prices of the contemporary art world. Setting out to explore the question of why the prices of art are rising faster than any comparable commodity, Lewis shines a light on a tightly-knit, closed-ranks group of art collectors, gallery owners and auctioneers who are essentially colluding to inflate the prices associated with Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and others.
Lewis, an agreeable character who has a Louis Theroux-like idiot savant approach to interviewing, speaks to a host of individuals from the art world to back up his thesis that contemporary art is bought and sold as a form of market speculation much as you would undertake with currency. One of the most memorable moments of the film comes when Lewis goes to visit a Hong Kong art collector called Greg Liu, who purchased one of Chinese flavour-of-the-moment Zang Xiaogang’s Bloodlines paintings for a record $6 million. When Lewis asks to see the painting, Liu leads him into a basement warehouse where the artwork is still in its cardboard packaging from its purchase. He hasn’t looked at it since he bought it.
Neither are the artists themselves blameless. Interviewing German artist Anselm Reyle, who has his assistants produce “stripe paintings” – literally abstract compositions consisting of different coloured, juxtaposed stripes – which sell for around half a million dollars, Lewis asks him whether he has anything against his works of art becoming a form of currency. Reyle looks bemused by the question. “No, I knew that would happen if I was lucky,” he says.
If there is a weakness to Lewis’s film, it is that it is now three years old, which raises the question of why it hasn’t been brought to Encounters before. But there is every indication that the observations made in The Great Contemporary Art Bubble are still valid in 2012, particularly given the recent controversies over Damien Hirst’s ‘spot’ paintings. The film is really worth seeing, for entertainment value as much as information, and it would be interesting to know whether the dodgy art-world practices documented by Lewis are as prevalent locally as he suggests they are internationally.
In terms of the lighter side of Encounters, you can also take your chances with You Laugh But It’s True, a film about South African comedian Trevor Noah’s attempts to make it big on the comedy circuit. This one, however, is strictly one for diehard Trevor Noah groupies. Having said that, there are some interesting insights into the trials and tribulations of the SA comedy scene – particularly the strain of corporate gigging – and there are also intriguing hints that Noah is not particularly beloved by some of his fellow local comics. (Dinosaur comedian Mel Miller comes off particularly mean-spiritedly, rasping about how young middle-class black comics “mustn’t come bitching about Apartheid”).
Noah has charm in abundance, but over the course of 90 minutes the mixed-race schtick he leans on so heavily for comic mileage runs thin, and he’s doesn’t come across as old or interesting enough as a character yet to sustain a full-length film about his life at this time. The documentary, in fact, has the feel of a reality TV-show episode stretched two-thirds longer than is warranted. Despite its local subject matter, You Laugh But It’s True is actually an international production, and it’s clear it’s angled at US audiences in the way Noah is shown interpreting the South African context for the camera. This is no doubt helpful for the Yanks, but it grates for a local viewer, and Noah’s version of SA history contains some inaccuracies.
If Noah himself has a night free over the next fortnight, he could consider taking himself off to see Clifford Bestall’s excellent documentary about Hillbrow, the Johannesburg suburb which Noah makes some dubious assertions about on camera. In Between Heaven & Hell Bestall examines what he calls “the most feared neighbourhood in South Africa” by exploring the lives of five of its residents. As much as it is a portrait of Hillbrow, however, it’s also a meditation on urban loneliness and the precariousness of the immigrant position in South Africa.
Three of the people Bestall follows are connected to a boxing club run by former amateur champion George The Brick: female boxers Busi, from Zimbabwe, Congolese Mimie, and South African Les, a nightclub impresario trying to organise a boxing night. Busi and Mimie both see boxing as their ticket to fame and fortune, but also as their means of surviving Hillbrow – the idea that you have to be strong, smart and aggressive to make it in Hillbrow is a running theme throughout the doccie.
But the fifth character is an intriguing exception to this rule: Bernice, a Jewish woman in her 80s living with only a small dog for company, who has been in Hillbrow her whole life and is simply too old to move. Bernice gets her hair cut at a local Hillbrow hairdresser, and says that on the two occasions when she’s been mugged on the street, people have instantly come to her assistance. When the lifts in Bernice’s apartment block aren’t working, she walks up 19 floors to reach her flat – a journey which takes her two hours because she stops on every landing in between to do her “yoga breathing”.
Between Heaven & Hell succeeds because its portraits of these individuals are so intimate and moving, but it also offers up some fascinating truths about Hillbrow – such as the fact that the heightened police presence in the suburb in recent years, and its general renewal, poses a huge threat to the safety of immigrants from the African diaspora who previously depended on its chaos. While the film avoids demonising Hillbrow, it still presents a suburb which seems more hell than heaven.
Two of the finest films about South Africa in the festival are, disappointingly, not made by South Africans, although One Day After Peace is a joint South African-Israeli production, directed by Erez and Miri Laufer. The film tells of the quest by South African-born Israeli, Robi Damelin, to come to terms with the death of her son, an Israeli soldier killed by a Palestinian sniper. Damelin travels back to South Africa to learn about truth and reconciliation from a country which presents itself as expert on that subject, at least on the surface.
This even-handed exploration of what loss and forgiveness really mean touches on virtually every victim-perpetrator permutation you could think of within the Apartheid context. Taking TRC testimony as its backdrop, we hear from APLA military director Letlapa Mphahlele, who ordered the 1993 bombing of Heidelberg Tavern, and the mother of one of the bombing’s victims, Lyndi Fourie. There’s an interview with white MK fighter Shirley Gunn, who was falsely accused of the bombing of Khotso House in the late 80s, and says she got no solace from the TRC process. Most extraordinary of all, however, is the footage of former Apartheid Law & Order Minister Adriaan Vlok interacting with the families of his victims in South Africa. There’s one particular scene where a woman in Soweto unexpectedly recognises Vlok, which will haunt you long after the screening.
Damelin doesn’t get a clear answer as to what forgiveness entails, although Ginn Fourie (mother of Heidelberg victim Lyndi) has an interesting definition: “A principled decision to give up your justified right to revenge”. The film feels long, and it doesn’t make for easy viewing, but its integrity lies in its refusal to settle for pat answers.
A Common Purpose, by Australian director Mitzi Goldman, is a more straightforward narrative account of the story of the ‘Upington 25’: the 25 Upington residents arrested in 1985 for the murder and burning of a black policeman. The idea that 25 people could be arrested for a single crime may seem ludicrous, but was perfectly possible under South Africa’s common purpose doctrine. This held that even if you weren’t causally connected to a crime, you could be found guilty by being actively associated with the crowd. In this case, it looked likely that all 25 individuals would be sentenced to death for the murder.
Goldman’s documentary tells the story of the ensuing court-case from the perspective of young solicitor Andrea Durbach, who took on the Upington 25 case in collaboration with high-profile barrister Anton Lubowski. The film’s strength lies in weaving together Durbach’s remembrances with testimony from the defendants, both historical and current, and footage from the TRC. Even if you know the outcome of the case, the documentary expertly sustains dramatic tension throughout. It should be compulsory viewing for anyone seeking to get a handle on the absurdity of the Apartheid legal system, or the ways in which Apartheid served to wound psychically both white and black individuals.
There’s another court case-based film at Encounters which is my pick of the festival. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory was nominated for an Oscar, and it’s hard to see how it lost out. The documentary is the final instalment of a trilogy, but all three movies stand alone. They tell the tale of the West Memphis Three, the Arkansas teenagers convicted for the murder and mutilation of three young boys in 1993, largely on the basis that one of them looked a bit like a Goth.
The film traces the radical mis-handling of the case at every step – it’s a truly chilling glimpse into how the US judicial system can be perverted to meet particular agendas, and how the witch-hunt spirit of Salem in 1692 lives on in parts of America today. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary is utterly compelling. In a testament to the potential effect of documentary film-making, the trilogy of films eventually came to have an impact on the trial’s process. When you watch the documentary, it’s easy to see how this might have come about. Don’t miss this one.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory comes with a lot of international heft behind it, but when you’re making your pick of the Encounters programme, note that the most hotly-hyped films are not always the finest. For example, Tiffany Shlain’s Connected arrives garlanded with festival awards and carrying the cachet of its director’s reputation: Shlain invented the ‘Webbys’, the website equivalent of the Oscars. Yet the film, an “autoblogography about love, death and technology” (that “autoblogography” ought to be a warning) is a little underwhelming: a set of feel-good soundbytes about “interconnectedness” strung together with nifty graphics. Very TED. It’s likeable, but there are far more interesting and substantial offerings out there.
As it is with every festival, not everything on screen for Encounters will enchant you. To use a Quality Street metaphor, for every five Hazelnut Noisettes, there’s likely to be one Peanut Cracknell. And, of course, one person’s Hazelnut Noisette is another person’s Peanut Cracknell. But considering how rarely South African audiences get to see good documentaries on the big screen, the whole thing’s a bit of a treat. DM
Main photo: African Cypher