Fresh from the annual Durban FilmMart, Charl Blignaut would like to go to the future. The films being pitched by the next generation are far more interesting than those currently on screen and new Pan-African conversations are under way.
There’s a sudden flurry of tension on the panel in a room in the Elangeni Hotel on the Durban seashore. We’re listening to a fascinating report from a day-long think-tank about decolonising African film. It’s a deeply structural issue – about creating new networks, new funds, relying less on the European and Hollywood mainstream. But also about practice, being better collaborators, being users of more democratic technologies, putting women’s and queer voices forward across the continent.
Someone has just praised experimental film maker Jenna Bass as an example of someone creating a new model for our film. Bass will happily hand her entire cast an iPhone and they will all shoot their collaborative film. But veteran documentary film maker Rehad Desai takes umbrage. Bass does not have enough weight, her budgets are too low for her to be a good example. The Miners Shot Down creator is testy.
His input is not particularly relevant here; what’s relevant is how the room turns on Desai, led by young writer and multidisciplinary artist Puleng Lange-Stewart, who sits next to him. The divide between the generations is on fleek and it’s spurring new conversations and new film pitches.
It’s a divide that yawns across the 40th annual Durban International Film Festival that runs concurrently with the Durban FilmMart, where the Engage panel conversation is taking place. I have found myself at the market because the local films at the festival have defeated me. The two big opening numbers, Knuckle City and Back of the Moon, are both drenched in gangsters and toxic masculinity, replete with violence and rape. Back of the Moon is particularly old school, shot in studio and feeling like a musical in search of songs as it romanticises Sophiatown.
The next two films I see at the festival – Love Runs Out and Letters of Hope – are not ready for an audience, are full of technical issues, though the latter – from young talent Vusi Africa Sindane – offers a compelling template for retelling apartheid stories that impact on the ordinary youth today.
Compared with somewhere such as Nigeria, South African film makers seem obsessed with creating the “great South African film”. It will take a decade to make and then lo-and-behold it will feel like a film that is 10 years old.
Plus, as a young critic from Lagos says over my WhatsApp after asking about the films so far: “Well, no one does trauma quite like you guys.”
But over at the FilmMart, the panel is demanding new language and new approaches, with moderator Themba Bhebhe trying his best to control the emotions in the room.
Outside at the pool, Bhebhe and his Engage co-organiser, the tireless South African film organiser Tiny Mungwe, make the point that we are tired of the same old panel conversations “that end and get lost in the ether”. They want their Engage sessions to offer meaningful change and their think tanks – which will next be hosted by the Carthage Film Festival in Tunis, Tunisia, and then hopefully by the African International Film Festival in Lagos, Nigeria – to line up the industry’s stakeholders alongside its creatives to try to make new business and not just new language.
Bhebhe, with a career in international film sales, is in charge of diversity and inclusion at the massive European Film Market that runs alongside the Berlin International Film Festival.
“I’m of the mind that inclusion and diversity are not just important for the wellbeing of our societies, but are even more important in terms of business models,” he says.
Look at Hollywood, where black film is suddenly all the rage. It’s unlocked a whole new corner of the market with a new audience and the energy is spreading internationally.
“Engage is going to be practitioner-driven to create a space for people to imagine what new futures are there for African cinema,” says Mungwe.
“We wanted to make a space where we could secure resources and put those in front of people’s noses before they speak,” says Bhebhe.
“We also try to include people outside the cinema sector who can help with finance and setting up funds and business models,” says Mungwe.
“We know we’re not going to destroy capitalism. We’re looking to create alternative systems, using technology and such,” says Bhebhe.
At the Maharani Hotel the next morning, the internationally acclaimed queer Xhosa performance and tapestry artist Athi-Patra Ruga makes my breakfast turn cold. I’m gripped by the film he’s pitching to me, The Lunar Songbook – Iinyanga Zonyaka, a “tragical musical” with rural Xhosa rituals, a display of the “hedonism in utopian Azania”, a searing lesbian love story and visually dense maze of imagery that tackles the great textbook scandal.
As sumptuous as it is political, and decolonised at every step – to mark time, Western months are replaced by farming seasons for example – this is the kind of South African film we haven’t seen before.
And Ruga is just one of six young future film stars partaking in Realness, an African screenwriters’ residency that includes such arresting new talent as Hajooj Kuka from the Sudan. Another South African in the Realness programme is Fanyana Hlabangane, who is telling a kind of ancestral ghost story where “the lives of estranged brothers Tito and Kgabane are thrown into disarray by the inexplicable arrival of their dead mother in the flesh”. Then there’s Cape Town-based Kenyan storyteller Silas Miami, who is telling a story of queer identity and display involving Miles, who we meet at his grandmother’s funeral.
The real future film action is happening among the 20 projects chosen to pitch at the documentary and fiction film finance forums at the FilmMart. The projects are rehearsed, prepped and pitched to the industry – representatives from leading broadcasters (including BBC and Al Jazeera) and top festivals from around the world.
Head of the documentary pitches Don Edkins is pleased with how the pitches are attracting investors.
“A quick analysis shows that in the past six years about 55% of the projects pitched have been made into films or are in production,” he says.
He runs me through the films and you’d have to be blind not to see the proliferation of women’s voices and queer stories.
A hard rock band flaring up in Zimbabwe; the story of activist Dulcie September; a rumination on African women and sex; life in a Jewish old age home in Cape Town; investigations into the “missing middle class”; the tale of a woman truck driver; and an exposé about a high profile rape case.
And over at the fiction pitches it’s just as lit. There’s a coming-of-age comedy about a bisexual teen in the township; an intense character study of a Pan Africanist Congress activist; a historical reversioning of the missionary tale; and the winner of several prizes at this year’s market, a film called The Bursary. Pitched by young KwaZulu-Natal film maker Nomawonga Khumalo, it tells the story of Khethiwe, who wins a “maiden bursary” for virgins but must face a difficult decision after she is sexually assaulted.
Compared with the fare over at the festival, I’m left wondering if we can’t just fast-forward a few years.