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Durban Film Festival Showcases Best of African Cinema

The Durban Intl. Film Festival returns to South Africa’s sun-spangled coast June 16-26, with a broad slate of programming from across the continent offering what is arguably the world’s premier showcase for African cinema.

The 37th edition will again boast strong local roots, with nearly half of the 100 feature-length films screening in 15 venues across the city showcasing the works of African filmmakers. The host nation, too, will have a strong presence, with 10 fiction features and 14 docs slated to screen, including a number of world premieres.

Acting festival director Peter Machen says this year’s program “really tackles the kind of intersectional issues that are coming out of South Africa, and the world, at the moment. “It’s a really eclectic program, and I hope that it captures the zeitgeist.”

Among the South African highlights will be arthouse helmer Oliver Hermanus’ “The Endless River,” a brutal portrait of small-town violence which premiered in Venice last year; South African comic Kagiso Lediga’s star turn in director John Barker’s political mockumentary “Wonder Boy for President”; and “Tess,” a searing drama about a street-savvy Cape Town prostitute, which marks the fiction feature debut for Meg Rickards, whose doc “1994: The Bloody Miracle,” won an audience award in Durban in 2014.

Key selections from around the continent include “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised,” a hard-hitting doc about rap music and political resistance in Senegal, which scooped the international critics’ Fipresci prize for helmer Rama Thiaw when it premiered in Berlin; “Naked Reality,” the latest from Cameroonian provocateur Jean-Pierre Bekolo; and “Nawara,” Egyptian filmmaker Hala Khalil’s biting social commentary about the aftermath of her country’s 2011 revolution.

Alongside the festival is an industry program that looks to boost capacity inside the continent while building bridges with the global film community. In addition to a series of workshops and panel discussions, the seventh annual Durban FilmMart will offer 19 projects from across Africa a chance to meet with potential financiers, co-producers and distributors. And the ninth edition of Talents Durban, in cooperation with Berlinale Talents, brings together 20 African filmmakers for a series of workshops, master classes, and networking opportunities with industry professionals.

This year’s edition unfolds against a stormy backdrop in Durban, where local bizzers will hope to drive off the clouds that have gathered around the festival in recent weeks.

Last month fest manager Sarah Dawson abruptly resigned after a row with DIFF management over the selection process for the opening film, threatening to throw the festival into turmoil.

Dawson alleged interference by South African super-producer Anant Singh and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, whose Center for Creative Arts manages DIFF, when Singh’s “Shepherds and Butchers” was selected to bow the festival without consultation from its advisory panel.

Singh and university officials insisted the apartheid-era drama, directed by South African helmer Oliver Schmitz and starring British thesp Steve Coogan, was selected purely on merit. After organizers bowed to public pressure and replaced “Shepherds” with local doc “The Journeymen” on opening night, Singh pulled his pic from the festival.

Machen expressed his regret over the way the spat spilled over into the press, but he’s been heartened by the “support and concern from people around the world,” adding, “I think the worst is behind us.”

The uncertainty has bruised the reputation of a fest that’s been a vital part of the country’s cultural landscape since the apartheid era, when provocative and politically charged movies – many facing censorship from the apartheid government – were able to find a rare platform to reach South African audiences.

Durban has been no stranger to controversy in recent years, with 2013 opener “Of Good Report” getting banned by the South Africa Film and Publication Board on the eve of its premiere, prompting the filmmakers to take to the stage on opening night in protest.

Throughout the ups and downs, though, DIFF has soldiered on, according to Toni Monty, head of the Durban Film Office. “It’s like a marriage, really,” she says, while stressing how vital it is that the festival and its partners have stuck together “through the good times and the bad times.

“It’s a very important platform for Durban. It’s a very important platform for the country. And it’s a very important platform for the continent,” she says.

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