You think you like movies? Get a load of passionate cinephile Freddy Ogterop
Fans of the Encounters Festival may not know that the line-up is recommended from among hundreds of documentaries by a legendary 82-year-old film aficionado.
Freddy Ogterop watches more films in a month than most people watch in a year. A film historian, librarian and archivist, he has exactly the passion for cinema, obsessive organisation and comprehensive frame of reference you would expect from those three titles respectively.
As well as many other things, he was the general secretary of the Federation of Film Societies of Southern Africa and the film selector for the Western Cape Provincial Library Service for more than 40 years, during which he curated a collection of 13,500 titles. In 2014, he was the programmer for the Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival and has continued as senior reader ever since.
What this involves is keeping an eye on the programmes and prize winners at documentary festivals around the world to compile a list of promising films, and then watch them. All of them. Usually about 400 titles over half a year. Ogterop started scouting for films for the most recent Encounters Festival in November 2022, and he says the only reason he doesn’t watch them even faster is to avoid losing his objectivity.
“You could watch more at a time but it’s not good for the films if you have to see masses of films deep into the night, because then you start playing them off against each other.”
Ogterop’s short answer for which films he chooses to recommend to the festival is simply, “the ones I think are good”, but the full process involves a variety of factors.
“When you’ve been doing this for such a long time, you recognise names of filmmakers who’ve done great stuff. I send recommendations to other people at Encounters, and they try to get me links for the films. I see the South African ones later because you can’t see everything at the same time. Encounters has always been quite a human rights-minded festival, so any films that are issue-driven are always something that I would look at. Obviously, that doesn’t mean they’re all good, but you hope it’s going to make a difference, that enough people will come and see it.
“But our festival is small. When you go to Amsterdam or Copenhagen they may show 240 films – we’ve got 40. So, for example, we received eight films that came from Ukraine this year, but the problem is, which ones do you show?
“We showed 20 Days in Mariupol, which has done very well at festivals but wouldn’t have been my first choice personally. It’s very good, but it finishes before the destruction of the theatre and the battle of the steel mills. There was another one called When Spring Came to Bucha – I thought that was the film to show. But we have to be selective and that’s why I don’t want to be involved in the final selection. I don’t want to fight with my friends.”
Ogterop has kept an Excel sheet documenting every film he’s seen since 1965, and every one has a synopsis, a short review and a rating out of 10. At the time of writing, it has 13,973 entries, and that doesn’t include the 13,500 titles he compiled during his time at the Provincial Library Service. Of the several hundred films he watches in the months before each Encounters Festival, he only recommends the ones he gave 10 out of 10 and mentions the nines worth investigating.
Ogterop often reads reviews by the official writers on sites like Metacritic, but he admits that, generally, he doesn’t like rating systems, and wouldn’t pay attention to how a film is rated on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes.
“When you start giving points on specific things, so much for photography, so much for scripts, so much for editing, it doesn’t work. Because ultimately those can all be terrible and it can still be a lovely film. IMDB doesn’t work for me. I’ve never done it for them and I never will either. My opinion isn’t more important than anybody else’s, but you look at all these comments and you think, ‘Why should I take any notice of you? Why do you think this detail is important?’
“Just because lots of people like a particular film, that doesn’t mean it’s good. Lots of people like Trump! To be honest, you only know whether it appeals to you and how it compares to other films you’ve seen before. I don’t really care at this stage whether anybody agrees with me or not, but I’ve done this a long time – you do develop a certain insight and expertise, I hope.”
Ogterop also mentions that even an individual’s taste changes over time. As well as his passion and career, part of the reason he’s seen more films even than other film enthusiasts and critics who’ll attend Encounters, is simply because he’s older, and there are pros and cons to that. It’s interesting to consider that the majority of people he is curating films for are quite a lot younger than him. Some movies get sent his way which are simply too Gen Z-oriented for his taste, but films are cultural time capsules, and watching so much current content has definitely contributed to his progressive opinions and understanding of societal zeitgeists, and kept him youthful.
The day before Ogterop’s 82nd birthday, we asked him if he had any plans to celebrate. True to form, he started speaking about a film he intended to watch and potentially recommend for next year’s festival. The man is insatiable, and after all these years his love of cinema has not faltered one iota.
“I was probably about 50 when I realised I wouldn’t be able to see every film that was ever made. I still don’t want to accept it. That’s what I’ll have on my gravestone – I wasn’t finished.” DM
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