Surf’s up at the 36th Durban International Film Festival as a festival-in-a-festival rolls in. It’s appropriate that the 10th Wavescape Surf Festival, featuring fictions and documentaries about surf and beach culture, takes place in this city.
From aeons ago, I recall the allure attached to the words “Gunston 500”. Then there was Shaun Tomson, South Africa’s 1977 world surfing champion. And that surf flick that was so much more: Big Wednesday, often billed as the greatest film ever made about surfing.
It attained that mythical status because it was about far more than the elusive wave that came only when its pursuers, a group of high school friends in a small seaside town, had grown into disappointed, disaffected and exhausted adults.
Wavescape, say the Durban festival organisers, “celebrates a decade of films and events around ocean sustainability and beach culture”.
I don’t know how sustainable surfing in the Arctic really is (for the surfers, let alone anything else), but the stills from the film Arctic Swell, set in and off Alaska, beggar belief.
A wet-suited surfer carrying a white surfboard plays ebony and ivory against the landscape and his black-and-whiteness against snow and snow-capped coastal peaks. It’s a crazy sight.
The Cultural Revolution
On the Wavescape programme are three shorts that promise poetry and pounding surf: the Irish film Sea Fever, set to John Masefield’s poem; Edges of Sanity narrated by the always cool Charles Dance; and the intriguing Chasing Rumours, which swaps the unique hurly-burly of a Newcastle United football match at St James’s Park for the Tyne River where, as the old Lindisfarne song assures us, “the fog on the Tyne is all mine”.
The film Coming Home
On the world cinema section of the Durban festival, the forbidding environment of Inner Mongolia features in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film version of Wolf Totem, based on the Chinese bestseller by Jiang Rong. Winner of the Man Asia literary prize, Rong’s novelised memoir is based on years he spent rusticated in the People’s Republic of China (Inner Mongolia is part of the PRC, as opposed to Mongolia – “Outer Mongolia” to Chinese cartographers’ imaginings).
Scion of a well-off, educated family dubbed bourgeois and therefore enemies of the people during the Cultural Revolution, Rong was sent away for a stint that would change his life, his conception of Chinese character and bestseller lists in China.
Rong’s thesis in Wolf Totem is that Chinese are too often like sheep: obedient, flocking together and timid. They should, instead, be more like the wolves he observed and grew to love in Inner Mongolia: brave, capable both of individual and collective action, and full of initiative and invention. It was a revolutionary and controversial idea, but did it sell books.
Drama, romance and vampire westerns
Another work inspired by and set during the Cultural Revolution is Coming Home, directed by a filmmaker who has become something of a Chinese classic himself – director Zhang Yimou.
This drama-romance is adapted from a novel by Geling Yan and continues the vein of regret that Zhang has mined when considering the Cultural Revolution. If you’ve not seen a film by the master, you might have seen his handiwork at the Beijing Olympics, for which he conceived and directed the opening and closing ceremonies.
Others to watch out for include Roger Allers’s animation of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, with the voices of Liam Neeson, Salma Hayek Pinault, Frank Langella and Alfred Molina among others; and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which audaciously self-styles itself as “the first Iranian vampire western”.