Film festival's man of Steele
How the arts festival's film curator Trevor Steele Taylor makes meaning of the pressing issues of the day, while showing us new versions of ourselves.
Trevor Steele Taylor has been curating the film programme for the National Arts Festival since 1994. But that's not the whole story of South Africa's consummate film connoisseur who lives out his obsession ... for a living.
Steele Taylor has spent the best part of four decades tweaking programmes and hunting obscurities to give us endlessly new versions of ourselves through the film medium. His path stretches back to the late 1970s, to the early days of Cape Town's independent Labia Theatre, and to the Cape Town Film Festival where he worked on programmes with the late, legendary James Polley.
Lengthy stints at the Durban International Film Festival and the Weekly Mail Film Festival (1988 to 1994) meant that by the time he took up position at the National Arts Festival, Steele Taylor had played a role in curating every important film festival in our Deep South.
By reputation he has a penchant for the macabre, the historical and bizarre. But there is method in his offbeat ways. His talent lies in curating a National Arts Festival movie programme that is varied—a collision of genres, periods and geographies that, juxtaposed, make meaning of some pressing issues of the day.
When viewed against dialogues about freedom of speech and action, this year's focus on the historical figure of the Marquis de Sade does not seem too absurd. He admits that the treatment of De Sade by filmmakers has meant that more has been made of the original libertine than "whipping girls and boys".
"The section on De Sade deals very specifically with his theories of liberation," Steele Taylor said over a coffee in Melville prior to his departure for Grahamstown in order to get festival film reels rolling.
"Sade has a very interesting connection with South Africa which would, probably, even have surprised him." He refers to veteran British director Peter Brook's 1968 film version of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, the play that opened Johannesburg's Market Theatre in 1975.
"It's a dialogue really between Sade with his liberation theories and Marat with his Socialist viewpoint," Steele Taylor says. "It opened the Market Theatre causing an immense uproar in this town."
Yet Steele Taylor tells the story of another groundbreaking production of Marat/Sade that played some role in fomenting change at a time when European scripts of such complexity and obscurity may not have resonated with an audience more attuned to the simplicity of anti-apartheid protest rhetoric.
"Some years before that Market Theatre production, a British student theatre group came out to South Africa on an outreach programme, going to the townships, to Soweto. And what they choose to show in Soweto was Marat/Sade.
"With them came two student filmmakers from the London Film School. A woman called Antonia Caccia and a fellow called Simon Louvish, who is now an elderly gentleman, who writes books about Laurel and Hardy and Sergei Eisenstein.
"He caused quite a stir by making a pro-Palestinian film and he is Jewish. Anyway, these two came out to supposedly document the outreach programme, but in fact they had had meetings with the PAC in London.
"And while they shot the programme they shot other things, and that turned into a film titled the End of Dialogue which is a very important anti-apartheid film. It was shown on the BBC, caused uproar in Britain and was powerful towards the implementation of sanctions on South Africa.
“So De Sade has had an influence on South African history.”
The De Sade section of the film festival programme also contains Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's 1931 work titled The Golden Age, loosely based on De Sade's pornographic works. The festival programme tells us that at the time of its original showing, “It was deemed so shocking that the Fascist League of Patriots took to attacking French cinemas”.
This year's programme of local delights includes a small section titled The Bioscope—Matinee Screenings, hearkening back to the country's "golden age" of filmmaking under apartheid. The section hopes to "recreate the cinema experience of the bioscope matinee in 1960s South Africa". In a novel twist the organisers—Steele Taylor with the National Film, Television and Sound Archive, Trevor Moses and Cedric Sundstrom—are serving popcorn and soft drinks in an interval.
Two titles here pay tribute to the late Ken Gampu, an actor who portrayed soft-hearted, he-men living out personal dilemmas. Jamie Uys's Dingaka (1964) and American actor-director Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey (1966) make up this section along with Andrew Worsdale's cultish look at white alternative youth reaction to apartheid in Shot Down (1987).
"Gampu was probably South Africa's first powerful black actor; but he was marginalised in his billing and you'll notice his name is way down on the bottom of his movie posters," Steele Taylor says, gesturing at a stark, tribal image on the original Dingaka poster. Beneath the intense countenance of a so-called witchdoctor—the villain of the film—one reads the names of the secondary leads: Ken Baker, Juliet Prowse (a onetime wife of Frank Sinatra) and Siegfried Mynhardt. Indeed, Gampu's name is smallest, and last.
However, with Wilde's Naked Prey, Steele Taylor says, they have the opportunity to show a film by a onetime director "with a great concern for social issues".
"The film is based on an American-Indian process of sending the enemy running, giving him a certain amount of time to reach a certain point. If they catch him he's in for it, but if they don't then he can be free. It's called the 'run of the arrow'.
“It's a tribal thriller. So Wilde plays this white hunter who upsets a black tribe. Gampu is the tribal leader and they send him on the run of the arrow. Wilde directed it, acted in, and co-directed it. He co-produced it with Sven Persson who had trained and filmed with Ingmar Bergman.
“Sven was very interested in wildlife. He orchestrated a lot of wildlife shoots [in South Africa] with rhino and lion.”
A special event, to commemorate the efforts and interests of Wilde and Persson, will involve Sundstrom, Moses, Steele Taylor and the film's original associate producer Pat Persson.
Making links, and forging links is the business of film curating. There are almost 40 films at this festival including recent local titles that have already played in commercial cinemas nationally. Eastern Cape audiences, however, may have missed some, and so the festival provides an opportunity to catch up on titles like Akin Omotoso's Man on Ground (2011), Andrew Wessels's Blitz Patrolie (2013) and Barry Berk's Sleeper's Wake (2012).
“What is heartening is that there are a lot of different strands of South African cinema. Some are awful, which is fine, it would there in any industry,” Steele Taylor says about filmmaking in the country now.
“There are these weird comedies that won't travel anywhere. There is some dark and erotic material such as Sleeper's Wake and Taste of Rain and then there is some politically sassed material.
"It's good to see filmmakers with their own style who are not referencing American plot structures."
Trevor Steele Taylor's Top Ten films to see at the National Arts Festival
- Marat/Sade, directed by Peter Brooke, 1968
- The Magus, directed by Guy Green, 1968
- Bail Out: The Age of Greed, directed by Uwe Boll, 2013
- Underground: The Julian Assange Story, directed by Robert Connolly, 2012
- Sound of My Voice, directed by Zal Batmanglij, 2012
- Sleeper's Wake, directed by Barry Berk, 2012
- A Taste of Rain, directed by Richard Pakleppa, 2012
- The Naked Prey, directed by Cornel Wilde, 1966
- Shot Down, directed by Andrew Worsdale, 1987
- The War Around Us, directed by Abdallah Omeish, 2012