Films with a DIFFerence

‘My first response [to the xenophobic violence] was a complete sense of depression, of being overwhelmed by what I was seeing and reading about. That activated me to get a camera and to be part of this so as to effect some sort of change,” says filmmaker Andy Spitz about her role in a new project called Filmmakers Against Racism (FAR).

Spitz’s documentary, Angels on our Shoulders, is part of a 10-film package by local filmmakers in response to the violent xenophobic outbreaks across the country earlier this year. The films—some of which were shot during the violence—will be screened at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), which starts next week.

Spitz’s Angels focuses on the resilience of displaced children and the teachers from Germiston who set up a temporary school in an unused double-decker bus at the Rand Airport shelter for refugees, but others examine the consequences and roots of the violence.

Director Danny Turken focuses on the socio-economic history of the epicentre of the violence, Alexandra, in Affectionately Known as Alex. In Richard Green’s Asikhulume—Let’s Talk former exiled musician Ndiko Xaba and maskanda legend Madala Kunene discuss xenophobia from a deeply personal perspective before a gig for displaced foreigners in Bottlebrush, Chatsworth, a hotspot in KwaZulu-Natal.

Adze Ugah’s Burning Man: Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave attempts to “draw out the human being” behind the horrific image that made front pages across the globe: Nhamuave, afire, moving desperately towards his death.

Ugah, a Nigerian filmmaker based in South Africa, travelled to Nhamuave’s village in rural Mozambique, as well as to Ramaphosa township—the scene of the horror—during shooting.

In Ramaphosa township, Ugah says he was greeted with warmth “by neighbours eager to talk about Nhamuave, share their stories and show the crew around.

“In Mozambique it was truly sad speaking to his family and his three children—the only physical documentation they had were two photographs of him. I hope I achieved my aim of showing this family man and the simple things he liked—like supporting Kaiser Chiefs. Also, why he moved here: to do what any father would do, to provide for his children the best he could.”

FAR, a collaborative project between several local documentary film production houses, is supported by the South African Screen Federation (Sasfed) and the Independent Producers Organisation (IPO): “A filmmaker colleague in Mozambique sent us a letter asking what we were doing about the violence. And we were so overwhelmed by the letter that we discussed it and made an open call for filmmakers,” says the IPO’s Desiree Markgraaf.

“As filmmakers we saw our role as not only that of documenting what was going on, but also to get people talking about what triggered this violence,” says Markgraaf.

Markgraaf says FAR has reached an agreement with the SABC to screen the films “either later this month or next” and a portion of whatever money comes out of the deal will go towards “making more films which will ask more questions about what triggered this bloodshed”.

For the filmmakers—many of whom are still final editing before the film festival deadline—one of the main challenges was to decide on when to stop shooting, as many of their stories continue into issues of integration and the government setting deadlines for closing down refugee camps.

Green says he is grappling with his original intention of making a “non-confrontational film” after displaced refugees were beaten by security guards hired by the eThekwini Municipality outside City Hall last week.

“I’m rethinking the structure of the film within the context of what’s going on: government washing their hands of these people—sometimes violently—a few weeks after they were saying they would protect them,” says Green.

Spitz hopes the common-place sight of “children and families loving, talking and caring for one another” will not only encourage debate, but get people—including those involved in the violence—to interrogate the consequences of their actions, especially on the young.

The Filmmakers Against Racism film package to be screened at various venues during the DIFF includes Two Camps, Three Refugees; Affectionately Known as Alex; Asikhulume—Let’s Talk; Between the Mountains and the Sea; Burning Man: Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave; Angels on our Shoulders; Sechaba Morojele; Tino La Musica; Two Brothers and Xoliswa’s Story—Women and their Vulnerability

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi


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