Migration permeates Euro film fest

Outstanding debut: A scene from I Am Not a Witch, directed by Rungano Nyoni. The award-winning film, set in Zambia, tackles themes of superstition and sexism

Outstanding debut: A scene from I Am Not a Witch, directed by Rungano Nyoni. The award-winning film, set in Zambia, tackles themes of superstition and sexism

At the press screening for the European Film Festival, cocurator Lesedi Moche stated that she was not interested in using the festival as a vehicle to present a staid Europe that was unaffected by patterns of human migration.

The two films presented on the night, Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch and Andrzej Wajda’s Afterimage, seemed to sketch a broad outline of her words as well as the scope of the festival’s programmatic range.

I Am Not a Witch, which picked up the outstanding debut award at this year’s British Academy Film Awards, is set in Zambia and tackles themes of superstition. Polish director Wajda’s swan song tells the story of artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski, a towering figure in Polish art history who was reduced to a pauper by the Stalinist regime.

That two-film sample probably illustrates the idea of what former festival curator Katarina Hedrén described as the “chocolate box” approach: the films range in theme and character but aim to paint a real-time picture of the European zeitgeist, both in terms of filmmaker representation and content.

This year, there are 10 participating European Union member countries, and a film each comes from Austria, Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Denmark and France.

Says Moche: “Having to select films from each country means that you can play around with different themes, but the themes are not so much in content as they are in the directors’ ages and experience. But I would say about 50% deal with immigration as a function of what’s going on in Europe.”

As an entity, the festival moves between cultural agencies every two years. The previous two instalments (inherited from the French Institute) were run by the Goethe-Institut and curated by Hedrén.

“It is good for the festival to move around like that, because different institutions have different institutional cultures,” says Hedrén. “It prevents the festival from being stale.”

She says her approach while at the helm was to aim for a certain level of diversity: “Not only diversity in people but diversity in genre too. We were showing documentaries and children’s movies, movies by queer filmmakers and women filmmakers. We were trying to deal with Europe through as many different angles and aspects as possible.

“I was not interested in films that were glorifying Europe or fell short of that example, but you adapt to the parameters that you are presented with.”

Like Hedrén, Moche has a multicultural background, which she says fed into her sensibilities as a curator. “I wanted films that show the diversity in the characters of Europe … that there are immigrants who have built lives in this place,” she said.

“Their children become of that place. But when do you become a national instead of hyphenated? It’s an important conversation to have, even for oneself, because I was born in Europe to South African parents but I don’t consider myself European — I am South African. But it is always a question of where you are from and the response of that has to always be hyphenated into a thing.

“It’s a conversation that is taking place in the world of [United States President Donald] Trump. I mean, Italy is about to go through its own crisis because they voted in a right-wing government and the president was, like, ‘no’ [to immigrants]. Which then makes democracy a crazy thing, because it was a democratic vote.”

Born in Germany, Moche grew up in Zambia and Canada and has also lived in South Africa. She has worked as a producer in the local film and television industry, including on Behind the Rainbow, a documentary about the ANC, and as director of the Encounters Documentary Film Festival.

With her new role with the European Film Festival, Moche’s biggest headache will probably be to grow the brand and free it of its image as a boutique event that only attracts the already converted.

Wooing audiences outside catchment areas such as Cinema Nouveau screens remain a challenge. The tagline: “The best of European cinema on the African screen” remains something of an obfuscation at this point.

“We’re gonna have high school viewings for one of the films and we have got free screenings in Durban,” she says.

“What the British Council wanted to do was to have short films programmed alongside the feature-length films and for the short films to be South African films, so that there could be more of a conversation and exchange. That’s something he [Thabiso Mohare, arts projects manager at the British Council] wants to do next year because this year the time was just too short to try and get everything together.”

What Moche did get together, though, was a lineup of films that gives you a glimpse of a contemporary Europe that can no longer cocoon itself from the rest of the globe.

The European Film Festival runs from June 22 until July 1 and will screen 10 films in 10 days in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town. The festival will also screen three films in Durban and four as part of the National Arts Festival. Visit eurofilmfest.co.za

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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