/ 13 October 2008

Shooting stars in the Karoo

Travelling to Cape Town via Bloemfontein invokes the kind of geographical trigonometry that would make any Karoo town seem more remote than it is.

Tucked into a stony valley halfway between Bloemfontein and Cape Town, Victoria West has the air of a frontier town removed from global, or even national, currents.

Come here during the Apollo Film Festival and you will be left with a rather different impression. The full programme of the 2008 Apollo Film Festival reflects Victoria West’s urgent desire to show how tapped-in it is to South Africa’s cultural preoccupations.

If you want a crash course on the status of the national identity struggle in any given year, you would be well advised to wedge yourself into a seat in the Apollo Theatre and take in the entire festival programme.

An administrative wrangle almost resulted in the festival not taking place this year, illuminating Victoria­ West’s teething problems as the town recalibrates to evolving national power structures. The film festival is run by the Apollo Development Association (ADA), a local community-development organisation with administrative support from Cape Town-based Encounters International Documentary Festival.

Pastor Henry T Vass, chairperson of the ADA, may be a man of the cloth but he is vigilant about the autonomy of his community.

Vass’s frustration spilled on to the stage at the awards ceremony when he lashed out at the festival’s principal funder, the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF): ”Funding was directed to Encounters by the NFVF and the ADA was forced into a contractual relationship with Encounters. Encounters was effectively contracted by the NFVF to manage the festival exclusively.”

The NFVF’s Terrence Khumalo disagreed.

”This is disappointing as throughout we liaised with the ADA and at no stage imposed ourselves. Encounters was brought in to assist, but this was agreed upon,” Khumalo said. ”The NFVF has a mandate to expose South African film to all corners of the country. We wanted to be assured of quality so brought in Encounters.”

Khumalo said the festival has the potential to be a major event on the national cultural calendar, but only if it draws in all sectors of a still-divided local community. He pointed out that the festival does not capture black adult audiences, one of its objectives.

Commenting on outside involvement, Victoria West-born festival director Reginald Khanzi said: ”We would prefer not to have prescriptions from the funder and would like independence with no terms and conditions. However, Encounters are here to offer support and capacitate individuals.”

The battle raging quietly in Victoria West was a microcosm of the tussle for power between South Africa’s far-flung rural locales and globalised metropoles. Aptly enough, this and every other species of power and identity struggle in the South African ecosystem were represented on the Apollo’s silver screen.

A number of films highlighted the younger generation’s urge to redefine a sense of self. Feature film Bakgat, an irreverent teen comedy directed by Henk Pretorius, rugby-tackles the mores of verkrampte Afrikaner parents with a rebellious charm only recently introduced to South Africa’s screens, in the process earning a special mention from the festival jury.

Stylish new feature Umalusi (Mlanda Sikwebu) follows spoiled East London playboy Malusi as he hides out in Mdantsane township after a raunchy coke binge is interrupted by the death of a friend. It is in the grim surrounds of the ”loxion” that Malusi reconciles the young black elite with forgotten roots in poverty and the numbing violence that attends it.

Films consciously examining national identity were often set in South Africa’s past. As Meg Rickards, director of cross-racial love story Land of Thirst, said: ”The historical setting allows us to look at issues in contemporary society that are still raw, but at a remove which makes them more palatable, without any immediate guilt attached.”

Similarly, Junaid Ahmed’s feature-length documentary More than Just a Game investigates South Africa’s past to advocate unity in the present. The film revolves around the Makana Football Association, Robben Island’s league. Ahmed said: ”Thousands of prisoners found solace and unity from soccer, which united all political persuasions.”

Ahmed sees a lesson for contemporary South Africa. ”After 14 years of democracy our society is fragmenting, going back to different camps and a narrow African nationalism.”

Some films engaged with novel approaches to what it means to be South African. Michael Rix’s brilliant claymation feature Tengers evokes a dark, litter-strewn Jo’burg, yet the raucous visual style and a humour by turns cheeky and self-deprecating bathes the city in a glimmer of hope. It’s a fresh take on crime that is void of guilt or accusation.

Tengers‘s naughty twin Jerusalema was an audience favourite. The film, in following the rags-to-riches tale of the Hoodlum of Hillbrow, observes that capitalists are just criminals with good lawyers, so tapping into the Zeitgeist.

Producer Tendeka Matatu said to the festival audience: ”We wanted to listen to what audiences want. The film holds up a mirror to society and says South Africa, take a look at yourself.”

‘SA film industry is maturing’
Stylistic innovation seemed to be the key to sweeping up the awards. Confessions of a Gambler, directed by Rayda Jacobs and Amanda Lane, emerged as winner of the best feature award at the Apollo Film Festival 2008.

With its gutsy representation of a Muslim woman who is part maverick, part devotee, the film is groundbreaking in sweeping aside the cliché of a life behind the veil. The clean-cut imagery, unsentimental narration and a refreshingly cool treatment are unusual in a South African work.

Speaking on behalf of the Apollo Film Festival jury, Bridget Pickering identified the overarching criterion: ‘The jury looked for signs that the South African film industry is maturing and we have found some encouraging signs. Our filmmakers are beginning to interrogate socio-political themes and landscapes through credible characters and powerful stories.”

Steeped in the moral ambivalence that characterises just such a mature filmmaking style was 50 Years? Of Love!, Karin Slater’s elegantly crafted investigation into sexual fidelity and the longevity of love and desire. Slater courageously explores the ambivalence she feels as she contemplates settling down with her decidedly marriage-phobic lover.

Exposing the tumult of her own relationship, Slater adds to the genre of personal testimonial films, rare in a local documentary scene dominated by observational and issue-driven essay films. Slater brings out the humour and drama of lifelong commitment through the frank testimony of four couples who have been together for more than 50 years — and one cheerful old patriarch and his 11 wives.

Pushing the bounds of experimentation was the winner in the category of best short, The Shadow Boy, directed by Justine Puren. This is an animated story about the precariousness of childhood. The win was no mean feat considering the high standard of artistic innovation evident in the shorts at the festival.

The abstract, swirling imagery and autumnal monochrome of The Shadow Boy evokes existence as both beautiful dream and nightmare as it brings even the inanimate in the Jo’burg cityscape to life — even the air itself.

Zinaid Meeran was a guest of the Apollo Film Festival