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Encounters SA documentary festival 2023 — powerful must-see films

Encounters SA documentary festival 2023 — powerful must-see films
The Encounters South African International Documentary Festival is regarded as the country’s most enlightening and popular documentary events. This year, it will be screening contemporary South African and International features and short documentaries, including Milisuthando, The Long Journey of Clement Zulu, Seven Winters in Tehran and All That Breathes. (Photos: Supplied)

Here are some of the highlight films at the 25th Encounters South African International Documentary Festival taking place in Cape Town and Johannesburg from 22 June to 2 July 2023.

Encounters documentary festival

After three years, the festival has fully returned to live screenings, which will take place in a variety of theatres in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Tickets are R80 for The Labia Cinema and V&A Ster-Kinekor in Cape Town, and The Bioscope Cinema and The Zone Rosebank in Johannesburg. There are also free screenings at satellite theatres: Bertha House Khayelitsha, Bertha House Mowbray, and Goethe-Institut Joburg. Tickets are available on the official festival website

Milisuthando: 22, 23, 24, June in Cape Town. 26 June, 1 July in Johannesburg.

Fresh from its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the opening film of Encounters this year is both a retrospective and prospective of the legacy of apartheid, by South African director Milisuthando Bongela. She depicts her journey of self-discovery as a young person in Transkei in parallel with South Africa’s transition to democracy. Each chapter of her memories takes on a distinct tone, but always with an unfaltering earnestness and vulnerability in its exploration of her identity and that of her country. The juxtaposition between the old family footage of her Transkei childhood home and a trove of archival footage of apartheid South Africa is almost bitterly comedic, a dissonance contemplated with painful openness in her conversations with those close to her.

20 Days in Mariupol: 1 July in Cape Town, 1 July in Johannesburg.

This ground-level first-person documentary by Pulitzer Prize-winning Ukrainian journalist, Mstyslav Chernov, depicts the first three weeks of Russia’s war on Ukraine from journalists trapped within Mariupol, which was besieged for 86 days before the city fell to invading Russian forces. Rather than focus on the political context of the war, the film’s approach is raw and emotive — we viscerally experience the onslaught upon the city. “If the world saw everything that happened in Mariupol, it would give at least some meaning to this horror”, says Chernov. 

Chernov and his team were the last journalists who stayed behind in Mariupol, and initially, they were treated as an annoyance — without the benefit of hindsight, some Ukrainians on the frontlines understandably found the attempt to film the violence voyeuristic and told Chernov to turn the cameras off (Chernov euphemistically refers to them as “shy”). By the end of the film, it was deemed so crucial that Chernov’s team survived to share their footage that they were given a personal escort from a Ukrainian general alongside his daughter. The film won the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition. “It’s painful to watch but it has to be painful to watch.”

Subject: 23 June in Cape Town, 30 June in Johannesburg.

A highly reflective documentary about the ethics and impact of documentaries, this “meta-doccie” is a must-see for filmmakers and those interested in impact-driven journalism and art. Directors Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall examine the positive, negative and oft-times unforeseen impacts that five famous documentaries from the past decade have had on their real-life subjects. Those films, Hoop Dreams, The Staircase, The Wolfpack, The Square, and Capturing the Friedmans, become case studies in a varied philosophical discussion about the purpose of documentaries and how they should be made. 

All That Breathes: 25 June in Cape Town. 2 July in Johannesburg

An achingly gentle, visually exquisite meditation on the sanctity of life and our coexistence with it. It’s the first film to win Best Documentary at Cannes and Sundance. While the heart-warming narrative sets up a character study of two brothers who fall in love with a bird — nurturing it back to health in the basement of their home in the smoggy city of Delhi, India — the dreamy nature cinematography weaves a silent concurrent tale of the mechanisms of human impact on life: destroying through apathy and vitalising via conscious intent. “One shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes”. 

Seven Winters in Tehran: 26 June in Cape Town, 1 July in Johannesburg.

Humbling, infuriating, profoundly tragic, brutal. In 2014, Reyhaneh Jabbari, a female student in Tehran, was hanged for murder after stabbing her rapist in self-defence. This devastating documentary by director Steffi Niederzoll (Germany/France/Iran) tells the story of Jabbari’s conviction and stoic resilience over the seven years from her imprisonment to her execution, and her family’s futile attempts to extract leniency from the state and the dead rapist’s family. 

In Iran, murder is a ‘blood revenge’ crime — the punishment is determined by the family of the victim. The blood-boiling irony of calling a rapist a “victim” notwithstanding, the perpetrator having been a former agent of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence only added to the complex social dynamics of the trial. The film is reconstructed from secretly recorded videos from Jabbari’s family and letters she wrote in prison. Both her bravery in life and the injustice of her death made Jabbari an enduring symbol of resistance and women’s rights to which this film pays homage. 

Theatre of Violence: 27 June in Cape Town, 28 June in Johannesburg.

Dominic Ongwen was forcibly recruited into Joseph Kony’s army and made a child soldier at just nine years old. Decades later, he became the first former child soldier to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes. Theatre of Violence offers a thought-provoking perspective on the events from both the ICC’s perspective in The Hague and the Northern Uganda region, where restorative justice is practised. 

Everyone shown in the film wishes the questions it poses didn’t need to be answered, but as matters of life and death that will set a precedent for similar cases to come, they are unavoidable. How effective is the ICC and does its reach function as a mechanism of modern-day colonisation? More specifically in this case, why hasn’t the Ugandan government, led by Yoweri Museveni, been held accountable for their crimes? 

Through thought-provoking storytelling, the ongoing appeal of Ongwen’s sentence becomes an example of the limitations of the international justice system in addressing such complex moral quandaries.

The Long Journey of Clement Zulu: 30 June in Cape Town.

Directed by South African filmmaker and Carte Blanche producer, Liz Fish, this 1994 film is a landmark development in South African documentary. It follows the lives of three of the last prisoners to leave Robben Island after the release of Nelson Mandela, and their deliverance into a painful and imperfect liberation. They are Ebrahim Ismail, Ebrahim James Mange and Clement Zulu. 

With intimate sincerity, the film captures a moment in South African history that is seldom considered without political rhetoric. Each man reflects with raw honesty on the reforming of his sense of self post-incarceration and upon reuniting with friends, family, and the shards of a past life. Having been screened by the BBC, the historical context of the time is succinctly explained, making the film just as accessible to those who weren’t around in South Africa in the late 80s. DM

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