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​Joburg Film Festival tackles controversy head on

The Joburg Film Festival packs some of the diaspora’s most controversial and coveted films into its 60 screenings.

The closing night screening of Nate Parker’s Birth of A Nation will, perhaps for the first time, allow many South African audiences to make up their minds about the beleaguered Parker’s handling of the biography of Nat Turner, one of the most influential and charismatic figures in African-American history.

Parker, who plays the lead in this self-directed biopic, has faced the wrath of everyone from black feminists to film critics, who have either supported calls to boycott his movie, slammed its merits or baulked at Parker’s handling of the fiasco surrounding his acquittal on rape charges 17 years ago.

The story resurfaced in the media during the publicity run for his film. On the back of a boycott, Parker’s film tanked at the American box office, doing a first weekend of $10-million.

Among the South African films, Rehad Desai’s documentary The Giant Is Falling is a look at the ANC’s decline as a political force in the Zuma years. Desai’s film moves rather quickly, taking in everything from the killing of 34 miners at Marikana to state capture and #FeesMustFall. It also zeroes in on the effect of the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema as a political player, carving a timeline from his expulsion from the ANC to his party’s role as kingmaker in the aftermath of this year’s local government elections.

Desai’s knack for poignant footage and editing that lingers beyond the comfort zone drives this film, which acts as a scorecard for the ANC since Nelson Mandela’s death.

Speaking about the festival’s priorities, the media liaison officer, Percy Mabandu, said: “Curatorially, we have tried to come up with a product that speaks to the diversity of what it means to be an African with a global outlook. Serious thought has been given to showcasing the best of the continent.

“Johannesburg is a leading African city in terms of commerce and industry. If you take film seriously as the driver of economic transformation, you can’t not have a film festival in Africa’s leading economy,” he said.

Among the festival’s 60 films are a restored version of Ousmane Sembène’s classic Black Girl, a 50-year-old film that established Sembène as the father of African film.

Mali Blues is a documentary that centres on singer Fatoumata Diawara, as she writes and rehearses for a festival performance in Mali, and on the country as the fabled birth place of the blues and jazz.

The festival’s opening night film is Mandela’s Gun, which chronicles the ascendancy of Mandela’s “black pimpernel” persona. It’s directed by John Irvin and the producers are Irvin, Jeremy Nathan, Moroba Nkawe and Claire Evan.

Regarding the spread of films at 20 venues, Mabandu said this inaugural festival was a process of discovery in which its organisers would meet the challenges head on. He highlighted the return of venues such as Eyethu in Mofolo and Kings in Alexandra as cinemas.

The festival runs from October 28 to November 5. For more information visit

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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