#Awkward opening night at Durban film fest

Peter Machen, acting director of the Durban International Film Festival, and emcee Hlubi Mboya.
Peter Machen, acting director of the Durban International Film Festival, and emcee Hlubi Mboya.

It was always going to be a bit of a difficult night, given the drama around the announcement of the important opening film at the 37th Durban International Film Festival (Diff).

And there were plenty of awkward moments at The Playhouse theatre complex – but also plenty of big laughs at the screening of the local documentary The Journeymen, in which three young photographers travel the country recording the terrifying idiosyncrasies of our democracy 22 years on.

The drama in question involved the resignation of festival manager Sarah Dawson and other staff members over what they regarded as interference in the selection process when festival owners the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for the Creative Arts overruled the selectors and chose Anant Singh-produced, apartheid-era film Shepherds and Butchers to open the festival when he queried why he had not received the honour.

But then Singh withdrew his film, unhappy with the time slot when the new manager, Peter Machen, instead chose The Journeymen to open the festival.

And then there was another twist when one of the stars of The Journeymen, Sipho Mpongo, was revealed – by City Press – to have been found guilty of sexual assault of a fellow student at the University of Cape Town.

The decision to initially choose Shepherds and Butchers was made by deputy vice-chancellor and head of humanities Professor Cheryl Potgieter.

Potgieter usually makes a speech at Diff’s opening, but not this year. Instead, it was announced that there was a new administrator of the Centre for the Creative Arts, Professor Donal McCracken, and – after three rudderless years – a new director, David wa Maahlamela.

Maahlamela opened his speech in isiZulu and spoke, he said, largely off the cuff.

He quoted a line from Charles Dickens – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” – which he attributed to “some writer”.

Maahlamela made several references to the opening-night saga, but not directly, leaving some audience members confused. “This festival is bigger than individual egos,” he said, attempting to put the issues to rest.

In his speech, Machen acknowledged that Dawson and former colleague Jack Chiang had programmed this year’s festival.

After the screening of the robust and often outrageous documentary came another difficult moment.

Mpongo took the microphone and spoke awkwardly about the university’s sexual assault ruling against him, which he at one stage referred to as “a bit of an encounter”.

He spoke about his vulnerability and how he had taken time off to examine his actions, rehabilitate and start a blog on “what it means to be a man in South Africa today”.

His statement received applause, though many in the audience who had not followed the story were left perplexed.

The afterparty at the theatre restored guests’ humour, as wine washed down lashings of meat and chicken.

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