Music lovers in for treat at Encounters documentary festival

Film and music lovers are in for a treat at this year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival. The 51 films that will be screened are from, among other countries, South Africa, the US, Portugal and the Netherlands.

The festival, which runs from 23 June to 3 July in Johannesburg and Cape Town, will include workshops, masterclasses and debates for up-and-coming filmmakers to connect with industry players and funders.

This year’s line-up will include screenings ranging from critically acclaimed music documentaries to locally produced short films such as A Camera On My Lap, which was shot on a cellphone during lockdown in Gqeberha. It ponders questions concerning representation on the cinematic screen and responds to the challenge of creative practice during a pandemic.

George Bizos Icon, directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Jane Lipman, is about the late lawyer’s journey to becoming a South African human rights and constitutional lawyer during apartheid. Bizos defended heroes such as Steve Biko and Chris Hani. Lipman was given unprecedented access to previously unseen audio and video archive material with his family and at the Rivonia Trial. 

The festival will also show a bold selection of international films such as The Conductor, by US director Bernadette Wegenstein. It tracks the success of internationally renowned conductor Marin Alsop, who knew from an early age that she wanted to conduct and was fortunate to be mentored by the great Leonard Bernstein. 

The film traces her trajectory through life, in which she reflects on her career in a male-dominated profession. The Conductor is presented in association with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.

The 24th edition of Encounters will be headlined and remembered for the screening of three blockbuster music documentaries including the Oscar-winning Summer of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the hip-hop group The Roots and the music director for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

The opening night of the festival will see the premiere of Music Is My Life, a story about the late South African music icon, Joseph Shabalala, including his rise to international fame with his group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in the wake of their contributions to Paul Simon’s successful Graceland album. 

Another compelling documentary to watch is Cesaria Evora, which is about the legendary Cape Verdean singer-songwriter. She was nicknamed the “Barefoot Diva” for performing without shoes, even at the Carnegie Hall in New York, as a show of solidarity with the poor in her country.

Summer of Soul

Summer of Soul is a powerful documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which became known as Black Woodstock. The festivals, which were held from 1967 to 1974, celebrated African American history, culture and Black Pride. The film won Best Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards as well as at the Baftas in Britain.

The festival became known as Black Woodstock because it took place in the same year as the Woodstock Festival but, unlike the latter, it was pretty much erased from memory and history.

“Summer of Soul won Best Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards as well as at the Baftas.”

In the documentary, Thompson uses largely unseen original live music footage of artists such as BB King, the Staple Singers, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Hugh Masekela, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Ray Baretto, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone to tell a powerful and transporting story. 

Cesaria Evora

Directed by Ana Sofia Fonseca, the film offers rare footage and recordings of Evora’s music. Following Evora from her island childhood in Cape Verde to grand performances in front of thousands of fans around the world, Fonseca, who lives in Lisbon, has a home a couple of houses away from the Barefoot Diva’s house and travelled between the two countries. 

After Evora died in 2011, Fonseca felt compelled to tell the singer’s story. Already shown at the SXSW Film Festival, the documentary is an intimate look into the Barefoot Diva’s artistry and the people she loved. 

The film will be screened at The Labia in Cape Town on 26 June at 8.30pm and in Johannesburg on 1 July at 8.30pm at the Bioscope theatre.

Music Is My Life

The documentary about Joseph Shabalala covers the full breadth of the musician’s life, from his early years in rural South Africa to the height of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s global success and his death in 2020 at the age of 79.

The film also chronicles the complex history of isicathamiya in terms of both the political and musical forces that helped form it. 

Locating Shabalala’s music at the heart of the South African experience, the film is an engaging tribute to one of the country’s most distinct musical idioms and the man with the beautifully resonant voice who made isicathamiya famous.

“We were with him up until he left us on 11 February 2020.”

Carolyn Carew, lead producer of the film, said she worked closely with Shabalala’s family to tell his story. “We were with him up until he left us on 11 February 2020.

“To be in his presence was to be left in awe of his deep commitment to his craft, informed by his sense of purpose, love of music, nature, spirituality and culture. It has been inspiring to read and listen to his memoirs, and to see how he dedicated his unique and powerful voice to bringing Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s music to the world,” she said.

Shabalala’s wife, Thoko Shabalala, says it was always his dream to tell his life story in film. “I have this feeling in my heart that I can’t explain. It’s a feeling of joy and happiness. My husband’s dream has come true.” 

The director of the film, Mpumi Supa Mbele, said Shabalala was a relentless recorder and left behind an extensive archive of writing and voice recordings, which the film makes full use of.

“I am honoured and very glad that people will get to see this side of uBaba. He was very connected to nature, a true son of the soil,” says Mbele.

Longtime friend Christopher Ballantine, a professor of music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who spent a lot of time with Shabalala and had access to his hand-written private notebooks, says music was more than a form of entertainment for the singer.

“He would say that music breaks down boundaries, so he would be thrilled because he believed that music brings people together; so the film is a fitting tribute to a great icon.

“He would be chuckling in his own delightful manner because that is what he lived for,” says Ballantine.

Music is My Life should inspire other filmmakers, writers and researchers to tell the stories of other great South African heroes, he adds.

“There are so many greats who died, such as Hugh Masekela, Chris McGregor, Gideon Nxumalo and Moses Molelekwa. It is important to tell these stories because they are in danger of disappearing from the memory of society and the people.”

Films will be screened in Cape Town at the Labia Theatre in Gardens, Bertha House in Mowbray and Bertha Movie House in Khayelitsha. In Johannesburg they will be shown at The Bioscope Independent Cinema in Milpark and CineCentre Killarney.For further information visit https://www.encounters.co.za/

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