In a small town …

If there is one criticism that can be leveled at the Apollo Film Festival, “A showcase of South African Independent Film”, then it’s that it suffers from over-earnestness. And I include my own entry in that equation.

The Apollo was built as an art deco theatre in Victoria West in the 1920s, converted to a talkies cinema after World War II, bricked up in the Seventies and rediscovered in the 1990s by David Robbins, a journalist and the author of the travelogue The 29th Parallel.

Today it is the only operating art deco cinema in the country and employs about 25 youngsters from the local community as managers, projectionists and ushers.

The town is flat and dry with well-preserved Victorian architecture and is next to a dried-up river in which plastic bags, caught on the sharp thorns of squat trees, wave in the wind. If you look up you see the name of the town in white-painted stones on a high hill where a neon cross glows in the keen Karoo night.

There is a natural history museum, another dedicated to Sixties local rugby icon Mannetjies Roux and a hotel with a pink car from the same era seemingly bursting through the bar’s wall. The municipality is about R5-million in the red.

At the beginning of the week some local Afrikaners were complaining about Robbins, implying that he was aloof and only interested in helping blacks. However, none of them was prepared to put their name to that statement, nor would they appreciate the irony that the blacks Robbins’s Apollo Development Association employs all speak as their first language, of course, Afrikaans.

Some educated Afrikaners from Stellenbosch, though, made the point that they wanted to hear what the filmmakers had to say about their work. Not one had been invited, even though a young Zimbabwean who had recently discovered film had been bused there from Johannesburg, put up in a fancy B&B and fêted as a developing talent by the association.

Another Afrikaans angle to the festival was that the four major films of Jans Rautenbach were featured. Die Kandidaat, Katrina, Jannie Totsiens and Papa Lap, which appeared in a burst of energy between 1968 and 1971, were as amazing as their creator is in person. Like any works of art, the reason why they serve as records of their time is because they were making prophecies — in their time —that shook the foundations of the then establishment.

The competition itself consisted of six categories and not all the films were independent by any stretch of the imagination, but from the technically impressive student finalists to the adjudicators’ special award, it was all predominantly serious with a capital S.

Strangely, the Africa category was the only one that made a concession to lightness in a delightful four-minute Mozambican work. Yet the one remaining and necessarily earnest image that remains is from Imiti Ikula, the story of a young Lusaka street girl, Memory, insisting on her humanity against verbal and sexual rape on a regular basis.

Of the handful of truly independent films, including mine, I would have chosen the following two. Firstly, there is a Hi-8 bit of anarchy that cost its maker exactly R600. Leaps Ahead embodies that obsession to make a film at all costs, which was the subject of discussion for the week. The story is simply about a choreographer trying to put together an avant-garde dance with four highly strung, backstabbing white dancers.

Directed by Bulgarian-raised but locally resident Stanimir Stoykov, it is funny in the sense that early Pedro Almadovar is funny, it is still placed in an African context and, perhaps most importantly, it also had the kids laughing.

The best and most popular film, according to myself and some townsfolk who were trickling in towards the end of the week, was by an Australian, Eddie Edwards, who has lived here for 10 years. Asked whether he’d studied film in Oz he dryly replied that he’d actually been a physiotherapist.

His documentary about The Black river, the first official racial barrier in this country, features the kinds of music played around that river today. They might be different — punk, jazz, kwaito, rock — just like people still socialise separately, but the music can unite those who choose (and now have that right) to do so.

The jury felt that this association of water and music was too loose, but then Edwards wasn’t trying to make a factual documentary. He was trying — and succeeding — to make a perceptive, poetic fact about where we come from and where we’re going.

And so statuettes were awarded to winners who were not there to collect them. The festival will only get better, but it doesn’t seem like our intelligentsia are quite ready for laughter, hope or “foreigners” yet.

The winners were: Best Feature Film, (not awarded); Best Student Film, Triomfeer by Anakesh Ramani; Best African Film, The Ball by Orlando Mesquita; Best Documentary, Judgement Day by Kevin Harris; Best Short Film, Portrait of a Young Man Drowning by Teboho Mahlatsi; and the Adjudicators’ Award went to Raia by Zulfah Otto-Salies.

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