/ 19 July 2001

Reality gets reel life

The Encounters film festival elevates the filming of actuality to a fine art, writes Neil Sonnekus.

The best thing to have come out of the South African film industry in the past few years is without a doubt its documentaries. This is partially because a few technicians and directors who used to produce some pretty awful anti-apartheid news movies have now matured into fully rounded filmmakers.

Former news cameraman Craig Matthews, co-director of Ochre and Water, and Lindy Wilson, director of The Guguletu Seven, instantly spring to mind as makers of world-class material.

The opening-up of our society has allowed a new generation of filmmakers to emerge. People like Robert de Mezieres, who co-directed Shooting Bokkie, and Luiz de Barros, who made Metamorphosis, are also in a class of their own.

It is to their advantage that documentary filmmakers don’t have to deal with feature film producers. And as Nodi Murphy, co-director of the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival (Encounters III), says: “Documentaries are so much cheaper to make.

“We don’t make features, love, because in my opinion we’re still trying to make like America. Take the Australian film Strictly Ballroom. It probably has 100 Australian jokes in it that we don’t even get, and then 50 jokes for the rest of the world.

“We have Leon Schuster who only makes jokes for a section of our society and maybe the Germans. We must first like ourselves before we can make features of any substance.”

The opening of South African society has also meant a certain pragmatic receptivity towards the needs of the rest of the world’s markets. One reality is that a broader spectrum of people cares more for that unique selling proposition we have, our wildlife and its conservation, than our politics. Yet at least two local films have managed to keep a balance between that and exploring new global issues in unique combinations.

The Great Dance and Ochre and Water deal with how the original inhabitants of South Africa and northern Namibia, the San and Himba, are being threatened by modern development.

The former has won numerous international prizes and it’s worth noting that both films were generated by a foreign producer, Dutch dynamo Ellen Windemuth.

Encounters shares a loose association with a similar festival in Nyon, Switzerland. Part of that association is to bring out foreign directors and producers to share their skills in the laboratory section of the festival. This has led to commissions by e.tv, which has now become a full media partner of the festival. This year there will be 44 films, of which about a third are local, and two audience prizes.

Asked what criteria are used in the selection process, Murphy says: “We have no particular theme in mind. We look at other festivals. We solicited 150 tapes, another 150 were just sent to us.

“As we look, so themes begin to manifest themselves. Apart from its subject matter, Maximum Penalty, about the Danish communist leader Arne Munch-Petersen who disappeared into the Soviet camps, was selected because of its use of graphics in its editing style.

One Day in September, which is about the 1972 Olympics and the havoc the Palestinian Black September caused, was important because it was about media.

“The only underlying theme to this year’s festival is that the films are made by people who are serious documentary makers. They are not journalist or editors or producers, but filmmakers.”

Judging by its material alone, Encounters III should be another roaring success.