Music of Life

Documentary filmmaking is a barometer of society: it can open a window on to a world otherwise closed to us. There are no actors or sets — life is the location and real people are the protagonists of a drama that already exists.

The fourth edition of Encounters, the South African International Documentary Festival, features 46 movies, selected from some 300, and a good number are from this continent and this country.
The result is a colourful tapestry of lives and narratives that becomes an essential archive of thought-provoking material. Covering a broad range of ethnic groups and cultures, the films at the festival are a testament to how much there is to learn about each other. A small sampling gives a sense of the variety on offer.

Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony, directed by Lee Hirsch, is one of many movies using music, song and dance to tell African stories. It is built around the celebration of music during the struggle for freedom in South Africa, tracking changes in the lyrics, rhythms and melodies of liberation songs and how they reflected black resistance to apartheid. From jaunty 1950s ditties (“Watch out Verwoed, the black man will get you”) to toyi-toying, song was a form of protest — a symbol of anger, sorrow and unity. Never lagging in its pace, Amandla! is a gentle, masterful exploration that interlaces key stock footage and interviews with South African music greats such as Hugh Masakela, Dolly Rathebe and Miriam Makeba.

In Eddie Edwards’s The Black, a Cape river is a metaphor for a natural resource that should unite people — but has divided them. Conveying how the city’s musical traditions both reinforce the separation of culture and bring people together, it documents the destruction of District Six, the meaning behind the “Coon Carnival”; and music queen and exhibitionist Brenda Fassie and a white punk band are both interviewed.

Kwaito is the focus of Get Down: The Kwaito Story, directed by Ernie Vosloo. His movie charts the meteoric rise of this home-grown music form and celebrity culture. And the music keeps pumping in Xolani T Qubeka’s Reporting Live from the Concrete Jungle, a gritty montage of struggling artists, poets and musicians in a chaotic metropolis. The editing is inspired and the drum’n'bass, reggae and rap soundtrack is inspiring. A poetic voice narrates the video, so one has to listen closely to catch every word of this sumptuous visual and oral feast. As disparate as these various stories are, music is an integral part of their lives and cultures.

Music is a useful frame for looking at life; other documentaries face social issues more directly. Very Fast Guys, (directed by Catherine Muller) and Very Fast Girls (directed by Bearthur Baker) is a pair of movies that record a year in the life of a gang of Orange Farm hijackers. These videos manage to retain their neutrality while chronicling the desperate lives of these young criminals. They can imagine no other future for themselves: teen pregnancy, drug abuse, violence and corruption lead to lost dreams and wasted opportunities. It’s a valuable and compelling record of a specific social milieu.

Also focusing on a particular group within a specific milieu, Tracey Collis’s Girlhood is a devastating portrait of Kashiefa and her friends, who aimlessly roam the streets of the Cape Flats. Mandrax, crime, guns and rape are rife. Bleak realities come to life with innovative techniques. On the other hand, the women in Strong Enough (directed by Penny Gaines), also living in the Cape Flats, take control of their livelihood by going to sea. Becoming fisherwomen, they brave the various dangers of the ocean — and the views of their community — to put food on their families’ tables.

And then, even against deprived backgrounds, there is love. My Son The Bride (directed by Mpumi Njinge) charms with its tale of coloured Hompi and black Charles, gay men who desperately want to get married. Both have to deal with the mixed reactions of their families. In Simon & I (directed by Bev Ditsie and Nicky Newman), Ditsie, brave lesbian and former co-chairperson of the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand, has created a truthful and unsentimental paean to her friend, Simon Nkoli, champion of gay rights in South Africa, who died of Aids-related diseases. This personal story parallels beautifully the tireless passion of those struggling for their rights, eventually leading to South Africa becoming the world’s first country to mention sexual orientation in its Constitution. Both films examine homo-sexuality in South African culture and expose the challenges of the double discrimination of being black and gay.

HIV/Aids also comes to the fore in A Red Ribbon Around My House (directed by Portia Rankoane), in which a mother and a daughter differ on how to deal with the syndrome. Flamboyant Pinky suffers not only from HIV, but cancer as well. Disclosing her status to all and sundry, she’s an educator, speaking her mind about the disease. Ntombi would rather she just kept quiet and take the secret to her grave. Touching and honest, it examines the stigmas still surrounding this terrible scourge.

Women’s issues are also a large and important part of a festival in which the richness and variety of the films on offer is staggering. In Voices Across the Fence, directed by Andy Spitz, a Mozambican refugee learns that her husband has taken a new wife and deserted her. Her pain is so palpable, it wrenches the gut. Highly imaginative, the video is directed with a purity that offers a unique view of the awful repercussions of war and poverty. The abandoned woman sings her message of heartbreak and loss into a video camera that will be sent across the border to her kin in remote villages ... And so the music of life returns.

The details:

Encounters will be screened at Cinema Nouveau at the V & A Waterfront from July 21 to 29 and at Rosebank Mall from August 2 to 7. Shows cost R18. For more details contact Cinema Nouveau and Computicket, or visit the festival’s website:

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