Kiss the independents goodbye

With the International Film Festival opening this Friday, ANDREW WORSDALE takes a look at the past, present and future of SA film festivals

THE International Film Festival which opens this week is the baby of Len Davis, the man who started the Johannesburg Film Festival back in 1977. It played at the beautiful Monte Carlo cinema in Jeppe Street (now a clothes shop) and the Lake cinema in Parkview (now a supermarket).

Television had just come to South Africa, but, unless you felt like watching Hitchcock’s Rebecca for the umpteenth time, the movies it showed were always bad. Videos were boring unless you knew a store that pirated overseas TV and the 1990s art house phenomenon was still a long time coming.

“In those days there was no Rosebank Mall, no Constantia cinema ... so the festivals were a great success,” says Davis. He recalls the release of Peter Weir’s breakthrough Australian art movie Picnic at Hanging Rock, for which he owned the SA rights: “I released it through Ster-Kinekor at what was then the Kine Centre, when Commissioner Street was the Sandton City of today ... It played for four months and Ster-Kinekor were terribly surprised.”

Davis hails from West Hampstead in London. Ruffled and polite to the point of brusqueness, like an unstrung and over-worked agent, he buzzes around nervously behind his trademark specs—- obviously the result of decades of staring at the silver screen. In the Sixties he dabbled in film-making as a production assistant on the cult movie Wild in the Streets (in which a dope-smoking hippie runs for president) and collaborated with David Sherwin, writer of If ... , on a screenplay. In 1976 he came to South Africa and one year later, under the auspices of the Jewish Board of Deputies, began the Johannesburg Film Festival.

Those were the days, and the festival ran successfully into the mid-Eighties. Then everything started bursting at the seams. Local film festival programming changed, notably with the fledgling Weekly Mail Film Festival and the Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg festivals presenting an alternative to the usual Euro-house compilation. The new festivals extended their programming to disadvantaged areas, with development and outreach programmes.

They invited renowned film-makers from around the globe to share their ideas and hold workshops. Over the years the Weekly Mail Festival hosted Paul Schrader, Mira Nair and Clair Denis, while Cape Town invited the likes of Nicholas Roeg and Werner Herzog. In addition, they made strong efforts to screen local films, getting special permission for one-off showings of banned movies. They also included a healthy selection of short and experimental films. These festivals presented themselves as more than just shopping for imported spectacles, they were imaginatively and interactively programmed.

But things change: administrative and funding problems have brought The Mail & Guardian Festival to a grinding halt; James Polley of Cape Town’s festival is said to have put his house on the market to keep things going; the resourceful Ros Sarkin, Durban’s programmer, has decided to retire from the festival business. What’s happening now is that overseas cultural commissions are either holding their own festivals, or corporate sponsorship is enabling people like Davis to carry on. Even the Cannes retrospective is tied into a promotional campaign for a corporate distillery.

With the booming development of the art-house market through the early Nineties and business terms like “the market rationalisation of audience demographics” and “movie-mall-isation”, the major players have firmly positioned themselves to catch the viewers of alternative films.

Davis himself owned and operated the Piccadilly and the Seven Arts in Johannesburg for a number of years in the halcyon days. He ruefully comments on the demise of the independents: “You can’t operate on a single screen anymore. You’ve got to have 10 screens, and then another 10 somewhere else—- a balanced circuit.”

A sign of the times, perhaps, is that in May, Davis took out a free option on Italo Bernicchi’s Seven Arts cinema in Norwood to screen the International Festival. Bernicchi, one of the last independent exhibitors in Gauteng, made plans to spruce the place up and the owner of the building even met Davis to discuss plans for a coffee-shop. But only a month ago, Davis placed a letter under Bernicchi’s door saying he would no longer use the cinema’s services as he needed a facility with two screens.

Bernicchi not only lost the Festival but several other bookings for parties and conferences—- his bread and butter—- which he was forced to cancel to make room for the festival. “All in all,” he says, “I’ve lost about R36 000. Davis himself owned the cinema for eight years, if it was good enough for him then. Why not now?”

Bernicchi is a grand pioneer of independent cinema, having spearheaded the Victory Cinema for years. “In those days I’d say to my partner, `We’ve only got 150 people in tonight so we’d better change the movie on Friday. Nowadays if we get 50 I say we’re doing well.” He’s hanging in there as a labour of love. His voice rasps emotionally as he berates movie-mall culture. “These people say they want to see a movie, but they actually go window-shopping. They’re looking at ties and shirts and perfume displays. No one knows about directors or movies, they go there to be seen ... “

Davis is defensive about the incident: “I understand he’s very upset, but it wasn’t a booking, it was an option.” The reality is probably that the sponsor wanted a more upmarket venue, the kind where people do go to be seen and not just to see movies. It’s a sad state of affairs and it seems the days of independent cinemas like Italo’s are numbered.

Len Davis, on the other hand, has changed with the times but that’s because he’s primarily a businessman who makes money buying and selling movies. He’s been criticised because he is both an independent distributor and a festival programmer. His company, Festival Films, own the rights to the mediocre bomber thriller The Final Cut, currently on circuit, and he recently purchased the new Pamela Anderson picture, Gift Wrapped. Last year his purchase of Luc Besson’s The Professional earned R3,5-million as it straddled both the commercial and art markets. And that’s how he’s managed to survive.

Ster-Kinekor, paradoxically, also operates with two arms that shake each other, taking a healthy slice as distributors and exhibitors of the producer’s pie.

Art-house cinemas now exist in shopping malls, like coffee shops and Mediterranean eateries. It’s all about business these days, not the driven passion for movies—- and Nineties business ethics get in the way of imaginative programming.

Although Djibril Diop Mambety’s brilliant Hyenas, for example, was distributed by Ster-Moribo, the art-film division didn’t even consider playing it at a place like the Rosebank Mall. After all, it’s an African film not a French, German or for that matter, Esperanto one.

A sign of how things have changed is reflected in a recent issue of the US trade mag Variety. An article called Smarties Shun Arties examines the state of foreign film distribution in the US. “Say the words `French filmmaker’ to the average college kid these days and he’s likely to think of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Art-house proprietors complain that their audience is greying, especially for foreign films; and distributors of foreign fare gripe that many young reviewers, like their readers, lack historical knowledge of the masters of European cinema.”

Davis agrees, “There are people out there who’ve never heard of Truffaut. If you’re going to show modern art films you have to give people the chance to know the background. In the old days there was a film society circuit.” But the biggest responsibility to teach and show people the glory days of film and make them cinematically literate, he says, is through television.

Barry Ronge has expressed a desire to show Fellini’s Satyricon and La Dolce Vita on SABC3. But, knowing the corporation, they’ll probably be flighted around 11.30 at night.

While we wait, though, you’d be wise to catch some of the films Davis has on show because it may well be your only opportunity to do so.

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