A funny piece of filmmaking is the unusally named Film Festival Film, if a little darkly so.
In this directorial collaboration between Perivi Katjavivi and Mpumelelo Mcata, protagonist Fanon attends a film festival with the primary aim of pitching a project about Marike de Klerk. Then the film, somewhere between documentary and drama, uses its location as a way of interrogating the state of and the barriers to filmmaking in South Africa.
“We decided to stop complaining and to react because we realised that we had similar ideas [about the barriers in the industry to creation],” says director Mpumelelo Mcata, who also features in the film.
“We had an idea when we were in Durban [at the 2018 Durban International Film Festival] that we were going to make a film about all these frustrations. Then we wrote one paragraph about what it should be like. Everybody understood that paragraph and that feeling because we have been having these conversations.”
The result is a film that walks a tight edge without seeming to do so, capturing the blind spots of the industry without the need for a scripted polemic.
A still from Film Festival Film which exists between documentary and drama. Photo: Old Location Films
Because it is a collaborative process that skilfully weaves in hotel-room interviews, live in-cinema action and in-between film banter, one gets to be a voyeur of a film festival setting while getting schooled in the bureacracy of film.
“If we had an idea only to find that ayisebenzi [it doesn’t work], besingafasisi [we didn’t force the issue] because we didn’t have a budget. We couldn’t tell people to clear the hallway. It’s an improv. That whole film is about us responding to what we could do with what we had where we were.”
With the entire film shot over a weekend, Mcata says their biggest asset besides good working relations was studying the law around filming in public.
“Shooting in a public space is not against the law,” says Mcata. “What is against law is trespassing. So it was about understanding those nuances. Umuntu makhathi ngicela ucime icamera [When somebody says switch off the camera]. They are wrong, they can’t do that by law. We just did a bit of studying about what it would mean to go shoot commando-style in Durban and also pre-empted a lot of things. Like we can’t ask for permission from these people because they might want editorial control. We are not sure how they will want to represent themselves.”
A film that influenced, in some aspects, the stylistic choices of Film Festival Film (such as the hotel-room interviews and its length) is Wim Wenders’ 1982 film Room 66.
“He booked a hotel room for the duration of a film festival and he asked different film directors to come talk about the future of cinema,” says Mcata. “Steven Spielberg, Werner Hertzog would come into the hotel room and do one-take monologues about the future of cinema — and then that’s it.”
While drawing inspiration from Wender’s film, Mcata and his crew’s approach is to draw out the interviews (with the likes of Sara Blecher, Rehad Desai and Vincent Moloi), pointing to some kind of analysis on the nature and the foibles of the global film industry, not to mention the predatory behaviour that permeates the space.
The interviews are staged to play out as if they are voices swirling in Fanon’s head. Played by Lindiwe Matshikiza, Fanon is a somewhat burdened character, practising her pitch pretty much in every waking moment.
“In that space you are constantly trying to impress somebody,” says Mcata, whose directorial debut was the multigenre film on artist Kudzanai Chiurai, Black President. “You hear Fanon, right out the gate, she’s already talking about who is going to like it, who is not going to like it. ‘Women are hot right now,’ she says. ‘How about I angle it like this?’ Obviously the funders, who are not the filmmakers, are influencing the creative process about what films end up being made. So at some point, we have to ask ourselves, who is making the films? Is it the filmmakers or is it accountants and funding institutions and politicians?”
For Matshikiza, the film was a no-brainer in the sense that much of her practice has centered around public performance and work presented outside of neat, conventional formulations.
“I do a lot of improv so I am very comfortable with that performance style,” she says. “Knowing everyone, more or less, in the group that was there and knowing that we were together in that process created a safe creative space to then play out these sometimes daring perfomances. We didn’t know what it would be, but I was prepared through my practice to play the line between reality and fiction and I enjoy that kind of work.”
Fanon’s character also throws up issues about the soft power that actors can and do wield on film sets, at least in the situations where they may appear invisible, which worked to the crew’s advantage on Film Festival Film.
“Films can be created in this way where you do not have to be locked out as a performer from the core creative processes,” Matshikiza says. “Drawing everyone in makes for a deeper, more exciting product. It taught me about the nature of collective work …
“That was the most enjoyable time I have had on a ‘film set’, because we were making decisions collectively and everyone’s input was important and impactful on what the final product could be. It felt non-hierarchical in that sense. As I was improvising, I was therefore a writer. I was creating my own script,” she says.
“And there were no kinds of fusses about make-up and wardrobe and weird, precious power dynamics that appear on film sets, like pretending to treat the actors really well, which is just a way to coddle them so they don’t ask questions about why they are being shunted back and forth.”
And over and above all that, Matshikiza says, there is a release in working with no budget — one that money can’t buy.
Although on the film festival circuit, Film Festival Film is yet to be distributed locally