The film fest that wasn’t

2010-11-30 00:00

OBSERVANT readers will have noticed a reference in a recent article to an international film festival in Howick. An international film festival? In Howick?

On Wednesday, November 3, my telephone rang and the voice on the other end of the line started telling me about a film that was showing at the international film festival under way in Howick at the Fern Hill Hotel and would I like to come along and see it?

My first thought was: “Oh no! It’s THAT film festival again.”

The back story: for the previous three years an “International Film Festival” has been held in the midlands at Everglades Hotel in The Dargle. The festival was not put on by the hotel but mounted by Binda Singh who operates via an organisation called Amritsa and, according to the website www.amrit sa.com, he also runs an artist management service, a pay-per-view TV service, and Amritsa Theatre. Singh is also a playwright and his play The Insemenator is due to be staged at The Dylan Thomas Theatre, Swansea Bay, next year.

Amritsa run several festivals around the world with the main one appearing to be the Swansea Bay Film Festival in Wales which claims Catherine Zeta Jones as its patron. People who want their films to be shown send them on DVD to the festival address and along the way get their film registered on the well-known film website IMDB.com via Withoutabox. That a film appears on the website is no indication of its quality, merely that it exists.

The Amritsa website then lists the films that will be showing. These films are not mainstream feature films, neither are they art house films; they tend to be mainly shorts and the majority are not made by professional film-makers. In other words, this festival is not to be compared with the Durban International Film Festival, now in its 31st year, which hosts a variety of international feature films and shorts, presents awards via a jury system, employs a professional publicist and produces a comprehensive programme.

This year Amritsa staged its film festival not at Everglades but at the Fern Hill Hotel.

Back to the telephone conversation. The voice on the line belonged to Tanya Detering and as she told me about her short film CamelThorns I realised her bona fides were convincing (and easily checkable): she was a graduate of the New York Film Academy and had worked as on-set assistant to director Doug Liman (maker of The Bourne Identity and Mr and Mrs Smith) on the up-and-coming Fair Game, starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. Liman was also the executive producer of Detering’s short which had been made to drum up funding for a full-length feature.

On the strength of what Detering had to say I went to the Fern Hill Hotel to meet Detering and her co-producer Nicole Davidow and see their film. The article published on November 8 was the result.

After interviewing Detering and Davidow, I went into the hotel’s function room where couches and chairs had been set up focusing on a large screen. There I met Binda Singh and introduced myself as being from The Witness. He said he had had difficulties with The Witness not publicising his festivals in the past. I pointed out that this was because he never sent us publicity in the first place. The first I had heard of the festival this year, which ran from November 1 to 5, was on its third day.

Attending the viewing of CamelThorns were a couple of adults and some teenagers, apparently gathered up by the film-makers themselves who had gone into Howick to publicise their film. There was no programme available, no indication of when and at what times films would be shown. The small handbills publicising the festival had been produced by the hotel. In fact, the hotel had also been responsible for collecting the films from the Howick Post Office and categorising them. Singh also seems to have expected them to publicise the event. Hotels are not in the film festival business but Fern Hill Hotel had, as they do with any other event held at the hotel, mentioned it in their monthly mail shot and put a posting on the Midlands Meander website.

Another film-maker was also in attendance, a Canadian, Rhonda Zabinsky, who had entered her feature-length documentary Healing on the Edge. She was mightily unimpressed with the festival, which, after attending, she considered a scam, but having enjoyed her first visit to South Africa so much she decided to laugh it off and put it down to experience.

John Poltera, owner of the Fern Hill Hotel, was totally disenchanted by the whole affair. “I don’t believe the festival is bona fide,” he said. “It preys on desperate film-makers who want their work shown. For us it was a dead duck.”

Attempts to contact Singh at the hotel were unsuccessful and he did not respond to messages. Since leaving South Africa he has posted a list of award-winning films from the Howick festival on the Amritsa website. Singh must have been the sole judge of these awards as there was no festival jury. At least two of the winners have direct connections with Singh. John Forgeman, winner of Best European Short Film for Seconds Out, is down to direct Singh’s play, The Insemenator, next year and Dave de Vries, winner of Best Feature Film International for Carmilla Hyde is involved with running Amritsa’s Barossa Film Festival in Australia

The Amritsa website lists around 10 film festivals run under its banner ranging from an International Documentary Film Festival held at Chagrin Falls in Ohio 2010, an International Film Festival of Mind, Body, Spirit and Ecology, an International Gay Film Festival as well as international film festivals, along the lines of that in Howick, in Ireland, Australia, and Swansea in Wales where Singh is based.

Last year’s festival in Swansea Bay was the subject of a documentary by American film-makers Terri DeBono and Steve Rosen, who had entered a film in the festival and travelled from California to Swansea to attend only to find it was little short of organised chaos and it was almost impossible to pin down exactly when their film would be shown. There were no posters, no advertising and no programme.

Their 14-minute film, Looking for an Audience, recording their experience, can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zf6f6cIKvCQ In it Rosen says the organisers “didn’t seem concerned we had travelled 7 000 miles for this one day”. When Singh is confronted with their concerns he makes light of the matter.

The end of the film features the festival gala dinner where frustrated film-makers take to the stage in protest and Brad Glass, an American director, says Singh “has been nothing but rude to us”. Glass said that when Singh was asked about the lack of publicity and audiences Singh said it was the responsibility of the film-makers to bring the audience.

To date it has proved impossible to contact Singh by telephone for comment and e-mails to the Amritsa website and other addresses have gone unanswered. However, according to the website, the next International Film Festival South Africa will take place in November 2011 and “our venue will be the wonderful Howick Falls Hotel, Howick, KZN …”

ATTENDING THE VIEWING OF ‘CAMELTHORNS’ WERE A COUPLE OF ADULTS AND SOME TEENAGERS, APPARENTLY GATHERED UP BY THE FILM-MAKERS THEMSELVES WHO HAD GONE INTO HOWICK TO PUBLICISE THEIR FILM. THERE WAS NO PROGRAMME AVAILABLE, NO INDICATION OF WHEN AND AT WHAT TIMES FILMS WOULD BE SHOWN. THE SMALL HANDBILLS PUBLICISING THE FESTIVAL HAD BEEN PRODUCED BY THE HOTEL. IN FACT, THE HOTEL HAD ALSO BEEN RESPONSIBLE FOR COLLECTING THE FILMS FROM THE HOWICK POST OFFICE AND CATEGORISING THEM. SINGH ALSO SEEMS TO HAVE EXPECTED THEM TO PUBLICISE THE EVENT. HOTELS ARE NOT IN THE FILM FESTIVAL BUSINESS.

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