The 30th edition of the Durban Film Festival, running July 22-Aug. 2, will unspool 137 films to some 20,000 people across the coastal South African city.
Founded in 1979 by Ros and Teddy Sarkin, the Durban fest has grown from a groundbreaking, unsegregated event that screened many banned films during apartheid to become the oldest and largest festival in South Africa’s young democracy.
The first edition showed just seven films at one venue, the Avalon, the first black-owned cinema in South Africa, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary during the festival. “When the seventh print comes in, I always say, ‘Now we have enough for a festival,’ ” says Avalon manager Nashen Moodley.
Ros Sarkin, who went on to become the African National Congress’ first city councilor, recalls that during the early years, the festival had a number of run-ins with the authorities. “The police came one day and they wanted to break the projector, but my husband Teddy said if they did that, it would be front-page news, so they went away.”
When Teddy passed away just over 10 years ago, Ros handed the festival over to the Center for Creative Arts, which oversaw its rapid growth.
This year’s festival had its challenges. The South African Broadcasting Co. (SABC), one of the festival’s major funders last year, pulled out completely due to the pubcaster’s current financial crisis. “It was a big blow,” Moodley admits. “This has been a very difficult year for us financially, which is a pity because we wanted to make a big splash for the anniversary. We’ll still do so, but with fewer resources.”
The program has shrunk from 95 features last year to 61, a tiny percentage of the roughly 1,500 projects the programmers considered.
“Tightening our program has not been a bad thing, though,” says Moodley, who is also the director of the AsiaAfrica section at the Dubai Film Festival. “The selection is more refined and more manageable for our audience.”
Appropriately, the 30th festival will open with a film set in Durban, using a Durban creative team and cast. “My Secret Sky” (Izulu Lami), Madoda Ncayiyana’s feature film debut, follows two children who journey to the city from their rural homestead after their mother’s death.
The event has played a key role in positioning South African films internationally through its partnerships with other festivals. Fest director Peter Rorvik says Durban staff have curated South African selections at festivals in Greece, Iran, Mauritius, Mexico and Reunion, among others.
However, Moodley believes it is the festival’s international flavor that makes it unique. “We are one of the few truly international festivals in Africa. We do focus on South African and African cinema, but the selection is truly international.”
For example, this year’s festival closes with Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works” and includes special selections on France, India and the Palestinian territories. Durban will also host the world premiere of “After Words,” by Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh.
This year’s festival also offers 42 documentaries and more than 70 short films.
When: July 23-Aug. 2
Where: Durban, South Africa