2014: Encounters with documentary filmmaking
“In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director,” Alfred Hitchcock once intoned. South African documentary-lovers have their annual opportunity for praise and worship, because it’s that time of year: the Encounters Documentary Festival is kicking off in Cape Town and Johannesburg this weekend. REBECCA DAVIS takes a look at what’s on offer, and makes some recommendations.
It’s very rare that you get to see documentaries on the big screen in South Africa. Searching for Sugar Man was a recent exception, and as Marianne Thamm pointed out in Daily Maverick yesterday, Ster-Kinekor deserves applause for showing Rehad Desai’s Marikana doccie Miners Shot Down in cinemas around the country at the moment. For the rest of it, though, documentaries seem to be assumed to be offerings of limited interest, confined to specialist festivals like Encounters.
One happy result of this lamentable situation is that the Encounters team always has a huge amount of potential films to introduce to South African audiences. On this occasion, programmer Jenna Bass told the Daily Maverick, they reviewed around 400 films from around the world, and selected 21 international and 24 South African and African documentaries to show.
“The defining thing we were looking for was a sense of diversity,” Bass said. “I think that’s the best thing about a documentary film festival: in combination they provide a picture of the international zeitgeist.” There is diversity aplenty in evidence at this year’s Encounters – everything from Israel-Palestine to eco-porn – but Bass notes that there are some visible trends to the kind of subjects that international filmmakers, in particular, are choosing at the moment. One is various forms of political uprising on the back of the Arab Spring, Bass says, but there are also lots more documentaries about highly niche subjects.
But diversity of subject is not all that a film festival requires. “You also need a diversity of tone,” Bass says. “Something that’s really evident is that filmmakers are making films about reality in divergent ways.” A notable feature of many of this year’s documentaries is the use of amateur footage: home videos of family, for instance, as well as YouTube clips filmed by citizen journalists. “It’s a sign of how filmmaking itself changes,” says Bass, though she adds that South African documentaries have tended to stick a little more to conventional methods up to now.
If you’re only going to see one documentary from the programme, consider making it Miners Shot Down (and not just because the Daily Maverick’s Greg Marinovich features in it). Particularly in light of the ongoing platinum sector strike, it really is a horrifying, essential reminder of just how badly “public order policing” can go, especially when police, big business and government collude to crush worker rebellion. There are scenes and images from Desai’s telling of the Marikana massacre and its build-up that will haunt you for a long time to come.
Workers’ rights are also central to another very different South African documentary on offer, Paul Yule’s Spring Queen. The film chronicles the annual Cape Town textile industry beauty pageant of the same name. This is no ordinary pageant, however; its contestants are Cape Flats factory workers, often single mothers, and the title is awarded not to the most “beautiful” woman but the person who “best portrays the aspirations of clothing workers”. There is a tremendous amount of pride at stake for the winning factory, which spends months grooming their contender and making her outfits for the annual finals held at the Good Hope Centre in November.
The title of ‘Spring Queen’ is a seriously big deal. Former ‘Queens’ tell the camera that years or even decades after clinching the title, they are still recognised. For one night, they wear outfits they could never afford to buy, instead of painstakingly manufacturing them for others. “Just to feel like you’re part of something…it changes you,” one winner sighs. But there’s no opportunity to become bigheaded: “Monday you’re back in your overalls, pushing for production.”
As much as it is a film about a beauty pageant, however, it is also a worrying look at the state of the South African textile industry, which has suffered a devastating hit from the influx of cheap Asian-manufactured garments from countries with little regard for labour laws. Retrenchments are rife and wages painfully low, but even in these troubled contexts, people find ways to live, to laugh, and to celebrate. Despite its depressing message, Spring Queen is a documentary filled with life and heart.
A South African film which looks likely to make waves this year is Annalet Steenkamp’s I, Afrikaner, which documents four generations of a single Afrikaans family over a nine-year period. Oupa David and Ouma Hester live in fear of their farm being expropriated, and believe that God gave them their land. The threat of violence casts a long shadow over all their lives: “We must live behind bars while the criminals roam free,” mutters Ouma Hester, whose farm has experienced six attacks.
If this makes the film sound like an apologia for Steve Hofmeyr’s ‘white genocide’ fixation, it’s really not. The filmmaker makes no attempt to gloss over the troubling racism of her older family members. The “k-word” is used on camera. When Eugene Terre’Blanche’s murder is reported, her grandmother sobs in sorrow: “Thank God no black hands have ever touched me.”
But times are changing: a poignant counterpoint is provided in Steenkamp’s niece, a ‘Born-Free’ who speaks fluent Shona and declares herself most at home with her black friends. In their company, she says, she feels only “love and friendliness”. The niece struggles to understand the fear and insularity that stalks the rest of her family, and asks why everyone can’t just be friends. When violence intervenes, however, it’s hinted that her rosy vision has been punctured.
The sense produced by the documentary is that of a community under siege, struggling to maintain a coherent sense of identity in uncertain waters. It is neither a romanticisation of Afrikaner identity nor an explicit critique: just a beautifully-shot portrait of a family evolving over time.
Of the African-focused films, a major recommendation is Coach Zoran and his African Tigers (Sam Benstead). The documentary practically makes itself, because it’s one of those subjects that filmmakers probably dream about. Zoran Djodevic, an eccentric Serbian who has previously coached soccer sides in countries like Iran and Kuwait, gets an offer to coach the national team of the world’s newest country, South Sudan. Djodevic admits that he had never heard of the country before accepting the position, but that doesn’t dim his pride in his newly-adopted nation.
But endless troubles befall his quest to select the best possible side to represent South Sudan. He is promised a car, but none ever materialises. His attempt to purchase a South Sudanese road map is met with blank stares and the response: “There is no map. This is not Europe.” In the end, he embarks on a scouting tour for talent on a public bus.
Despite the lack of institutional support, his resolute belief in his players wins their hearts. Djodevic adopts a baby goat, which he names ‘Champion’, as the team mascot. “He is very beautiful, like Picasso designed him,” he says proudly. The players say that if they run out of food they can eat it.
The view the documentary presents of South Sudan is that of a state in big trouble – and the film was shot before the current civil war. Djodevic is a character born to be immortalised on film, however, and Coach Zoran and his African Tigers is bittersweet in the best possible way: hilarious and deeply moving at the same time.
There are plenty of interesting international films on offer, but a quirky gem is Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, deservedly nominated for an Oscar this year. It tells the story of the 39-year relationship between Japanese artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, who live in a chaotic space in New York and worry how to meet their rent payments. You might see Ushio Shinohara described as a “boxing painter”, which makes it sound like he produces art about boxing, but the reality is more interesting.
80-year-old Shinohara paints by literally boxing a canvas, using boxing gloves with foam tips dipped in paint. He was huge in Japan’s avant-garde art scene in the 60s, appraised as that country’s answer to Andy Warhol, but late life in New York City has not brought him the fortune he once expected.
But the real heart of the documentary is his wife Noriko, a long-suffering soul who for years has put up with her own art being sidelined in favour of her husband’s. Noriko is “just an assistant,” Ushio explains airily. “The average one has to support the genius”. Noriko retaliates by being hilariously cutting towards Shinohara’s work. “I don’t think it’s good,” she says flatly, inspecting a new painting.
“It’s not a typical romance,” Noriko explains at one point. But it makes for an exceptionally entertaining documentary.
Typical romance is also nowhere to be found in Fuck for Forest, worth mentioning because it’s certainly the most out-there piece on offer at the festival. Polish director Michal Marczak’s documentary chronicles a German NGO by the same name which produces and sells “eco-porn” to raise money to preserve indigenous forests. They are a strange, cult-ish bunch, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Norwegian leader Tommy might be in it slightly more for the sex than the environmental stuff.
Much of their work involves approaching total strangers on the streets of Berlin and asking if they’d be up for a quick pornographic movie shoot. Amazingly, many comply: their estimated success rate is about 1 in 10. It’s worth noting that they only seem to approach young and reasonably attractive people, despite their claims of a democratic sexual revolution.
If you’re not in the mood for lots of nudity and pretty explicit eco-couplings, give this one a wide berth. But one of the great mind-expanding benefits of documentaries, often, is that they introduce you to worlds you simply had no idea existed. DM
Encounters is on in Cape Town and Johannesburg from 5-15 June 2014.
Full programme: Encounters website
- Miners Shot Down: The film every South African should see, and never forget; in Daily Maverick.