A party at i-shebeen Madiba in Brooklyn, New York, usually features live South African music, the exuberant restaurant owner Mark Henegan and the lively denizens of Fort Greene, one of Brooklyn’s most ethnically mixed neighbourhoods. On May 2 the restaurant was packed with South African filmmakers celebrating the end of Ten Years of Freedom: Films From the New South Africa.
Jane Kennedy had extra cause for celebration because her debut documentary, Cinderella of the Cape Flats, was also screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, along with films by Rudzani Dzuguda, Khulile Nxumalo and Odette Geldenhuys.
Ten Years of Freedom was organised by Sean Jacobs, a South African post-doctoral fellow at New York University’s International Centre for Advanced Studies, and Danny Massey from The Documentary Campaign, a film company dedicated to producing and distributing documentaries that advance the cause of human rights.
Not all of the films were new releases but many were being shown in the United States for the first time. They included shorts, documentaries, features, episodes of Tobias’s Bodies, Tsha Tsha, Yizo Yizo and Takalani Sesame, and some of the Three Amigos HIV/Aids awareness ads.
The 43 films screened seemed to cover every difficult and important issue in South Africa. One episode of YizoYizo almost managed the same feat, addressing bulimia, the corrupting influence of money, drug abuse and Aids in one breathtaking hour.
The festival included several events presented in conjunction with institutions in New York, such as an HIV/Aids event to benefit the Treatment Action Campaign and a daily schools programme presented by The Documentary Campaign.
Even though film after film focused on poverty, Aids, environmental degradation, drug abuse, crime or political machinations old and new, it was possible to feel that something is going right in South Africa.
The raw, beautiful Soldiers of the Rock, directed by an astonishingly young Norman Maake, debates reparations, land ownership and labour without being bogged down in historical fatalism. Riveting close-ups of miners at the rock face give the film the feel of a Salgado photograph. But its dramatic action, its focus on the hardships of hostel life and the sympathetic central character keep it clear of the romantic stasis that sometimes besets Salgado.
Two short films, Teboho Mahlatsi’s Portrait of a Young Man Drowning and Dean Blumberg’s Black Sushi, give two sides of the same South African story: a young man drawn into crime is either swallowed whole or, through sheer determination, finds a way to extricate himself. The latter is the narrative of Black Sushi. In one telling moment in the film the protagonist, Zama, squints into a mirror and pulls at the corner of his eyes to make himself look Japanese. He is caught by the Japanese chef from whom he is trying to learn sushi-making. The wordless glance that passes between the two expresses all of the film’s anxieties about race, prejudice and paternalism.
These anxieties were articulated by some audience members who felt that the film failed to represent Zama as truly liberated, but instead infantilised him and compounded the racist stereotypes it attempted to overturn.
One person, who spoke of being a victim of violent crime three times during a visit to South Africa, was impatient with the film’s idealisation of Zama’s Zulu friends who, in one scene, produce a small arsenal of weapons and try to persuade Zama to join them in what they see as the only way to support their families and to be true to their warrior lineage. Other audience members felt it had succeeded in humanising criminals and giving crime in South Africa a cultural and political context.
Two directorial debuts, Penny Gaines’s Strong Enough, about fisherwomen in Ocean View, Cape Town, and Kennedy’s Cinderella of the Cape Flats, about the spring queen pageant held once a year among garment workers in the Cape, address the difficulties faced by low-income women. For all their universal appeal, the films are about the particularity of hardship.
They also quietly probe the complex politics of racial and sexual identity. Cinderella of the Cape Flats eloquently addresses these themes when the young woman on whom the film centres asserts that being coloured defines her and later, in the poignant closing shot, that she is “Beverly Julius. Plain and simple.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which makes an appearance in several films, expressed and gave rise to a pressing need to tell stories of loss, of culpability, of personal aspirations. It will be a defining element of the unfolding mythos of South Africa for some time to come.
The enthusiastic response of audiences at the screenings attest to a deep interest in South Africa among Americans, or at least New Yorkers who are, admittedly, a breed apart. Maybe at this rather dismal point in American history, the dissatisfied left-of-centre constituency is casting around for signs that democracy is still something worth believing in. South Africa, with all its problems, seems to represent that hope.