/ 22 June 2016

The opening film is the talk of the Durban International Film Festival – for all the wrong reasons

The Opening Film Is The Talk Of The Durban International Film Festival – For All The Wrong Reasons

The opening night of the 37th Durban International Film Festival was an awkward and uncomfortable affair for many reasons.

But, hands down, the most uncomfortable moment was having to watch a young photographer, who was recently found guilty of sexual assault by his university, giving life advice to a group of young boys in the opening film. The photographer, Sipho Mpongo (23), was part of a three-man team who used GoPro cameras to shoot the footage, which was edited into a film, The Journeymen.

Mpongo, a star student at Michaelis, arguably one of South Africa’s most prestigious art schools, had his sexual misconduct exposed by City Press in January this year after the University of Cape Town found him guilty of sexual assault.

In light of the daily attacks on women in South Africa, it is unclear why the film festival chose The Journeymen as the opening-night film. It left a bad taste in the mouth, never mind that the documentary was problematic on many other levels too.

During a question-and-answer session with the three photographers after the film screening, Mpongo awkwardly attempted to address the issue of the sexual assault, claiming he was “disappointed in himself” and had gone through a period of introspection trying to understand why he behaved in such a manner and what it means to be a man in South Africa.

At the press conference the next morning, the festival’s acting director, Peter Machen, once again reaffirmed that he was “very happy to screen the film” and was “glad” that it had opened the festival.

Before The Journeymen was chosen for the prime slot, the festival was already making headlines for the wrong reasons.

In May, Sarah Dawson resigned from her position as festival manager because of a dispute with the head of the centre for creative arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the deputy vice-chancellor for humanities, Professor Cheryl Potgieter.

Dawson had decided against the choice of Shepherds and Butchers, a death-penalty drama set in apartheid South Africa, directed by Oliver Schmitz and produced by Anant Singh’s company, Videovision, to open the festival.

But Singh raised objections to Dawson’s decision and Potgieter overruled her, deciding that Shepherds and Butchers would be the opening film.

At this point, Machen, a previous director of the festival who was living abroad, was brought in as acting director. He was responsible for choosing The Journeymen as the opening-night film, which resulted in Singh withdrawing his film from the festival.

It appears that, although Dawson was aware of the sexual assault finding against Mpongo and had planned to use it as an opportunity to start a rigorous discussion about sexual abuse during the festival, Machen only became aware of the incident days before the festival opened.

This resulted in Mpongo’s awkward one-minute confession on opening night as the only attempt to address the issue.

But The Journeymen itself is a seriously flawed documentary and the opening weekend of the festival was dominated by participants of all kinds expressing surprise and outrage that the film had been chosen to open the festival.

The film is the work of three photographers, Sean Metelerkamp (31), Wikus de Wet (26) and Mpongo who, in 2014, travelled 24 000km around South Africa in a camper van with GoPro cameras strapped to their chests to explore the state of democracy 20 years on.

Each photographer chose a theme: Mpongo explored the born-frees, De Wet land reform and Metelerkamp idiosyncrasies.

The film eschews any narrative structure — instead, the three photographers’ footage provides a sprawling collage of South African life.

The film struck me as being totally oblivious to the very obvious white gaze that it projects, with lazy racial stereotyping ever present. But even more disconcerting is how it gives oxygen to verkrampte white racists, including one who calls Mpongo the k-word, while his white colleagues stand by filming the incident.

De Wet’s exploration of land reform is incredibly myopic in its whiteness.

When asked at a press conference why this part of the film was so focused on white farmers expressing racist opinions about how black people don’t know how to farm land, De Wet replied that it was easier to speak to people who shared the same culture and language as he did.

He did say that attempts to interview various black chiefs about land reform ended up as interviews at which permission for filming was not granted.

Activists who were present on opening night have expressed outrage about this and there is talk that the documentary could run into legal challenges when it is released commercially.

Quizzed about the concerns that have been raised, the executive producer, Dylan Voogt, defended the film, arguing “that is the reality, that is what The Journeymen found”.

Questions have also been raised about whether the filmmakers sought the permission of their subjects to film them, including one clearly mentally ill man in the street and another three subjects who are obviously intoxicated and fighting over money.

If they have not obtained permission from these characters, it could also lead to serious legal problems.