The reel meaning of freedom

2011-07-29 13:30

Taken in all at one go, the 32nd Durban International Film Festival (Diff) amounts to a pleasant flood of probing, moving and entertaining picture stories . . . and some tepid ones too – all vying to be seen.

This year’s instalment featured 150 films from 70 countries.

These included 83 feature films, 44 short films and 48 documentaries. From South African filmmakers alone, the festival showcased 11 feature films, 23 documentaries and 24 short films.

After a few days spent attempting to make sense of this sea of images, I discovered a poignant narrative taking shape in the undertow: the films that attached themselves well to corridor chatters were mostly those that grappled with the meaning of personal freedom for everyday people.

These are stories that weave a parallel narrative in the shadows of grand, national-liberation legends.

These are also films that amplify the voices of children learning to find their dreams, or those that struggle to give voice to seemingly insignificant or banal moments of relief in the lives of ordinary people.

The film that opened this year’s festival, Otelo Burning (directed by Sara Blecher), is a story of a group of four boys and a girl coming of age at a time of great national change.

The film juxtaposes their teenage leap into maturity and self-discovery with the social electricity at the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

This quest for personal existential freedoms is manifested in Otelo’s relationship with his tyrannical father and the material poverty of his surroundings.

But he also finds freedom in the surf, which has to be won on one level by breaking with cultural myths of snakes that lurk in the ocean and the local stream in Durban’s Lamontville township.

Another noteworthy film is a 60-minute documentary titled Mama Africa, which looks at the tumultuous life of Miriam Makeba.

Directed by Mika Kaurismaki of Finland, the doccie flirts with the lofty task of reminding us that the singing colossus known as Mama Africa was shaped from a young girl’s simple dream to sing.

It also highlights the meaning that her humanity found expression in her longing to be allowed to come home to her mother country.

Then there is the stunning picture about the charged life, loves and death of South African poet Ingrid Jonker, played by Dutch actress Carice Van Houten. It’s called Black Butterflies and is directed by Paula van der Oest.

Jonker was the daughter of a right-wing National Party MP during apartheid. Her father was the man responsible for censorship, the number one antithesis to anyone interested in finding their voice against the tyrannies of a repressive state.

Her relationship with her father, and her need and longing to be loved and find stability created the setting for a dire life journey, which ended in a cathartic suicide.

In a collaborative project between Kenyan and South African filmmakers comes The First Grader, directed by British-based Justin Chadwick.

It’s the tale of 84-year-old Maruge, a former Mau-Mau warrior struggling to free himself, first from the trauma of losing his wife and child to murderous British soldiers, and second to free himself from illiteracy.

The film that garnered a strong response from everyone who saw it was Skoonheid by writer-director Oliver Hemanus. It was this year’s Queer Palm Award winner at Cannes and Diff hosted its first African screening.

The movie explores the life of a closeted homosexual in a restrictively conservative Bloemfontein Afrikaner community.

Perhaps the question this film and the others asked is whether there is any personal freedom for those plagued by marital and social responsibilities, racism and the pursuit of “taboo” obsessions.

Beyond the creative treats on show for film lovers, Diff also provides a space for strategic industry exchanges that fuel the following year of filmmaking.

Included was the second Durban Film Mart, which saw creatives and producers pitching their ideas to potential funders.

The SA National Film and Video Foundation, and the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation from the UK were among the companies making presentations to filmmakers who want to access funding.

At one event, Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile pledged that “filmmakers can count on the South African government’s support, we are fully behind the film and video industry and we will invest a lot of resources too”.

What remains to be seen during the next year of creative output is whether he comes through on this generous, if unspecific, promise.

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