Durban Fest Boasts Strong Femme Presence

Of 24 features in competish, seven are helmed by women

The 34th Durban Intl. Film Festival begins Thursday with one or two notable differences from past events.

First, this year’s burgeoning program features more than 300 screenings across nine venues — a big jump over last year’s edition, with just over 250 screenings. The 33rd edition also saw 16 feature films from the host country, but this year’s tally stands at 12.

Of the 24 features in competition, seven are directed by women. (That tally includes Melanie Shatzky, who co-directed “Francine” with Brian M. Cassidy.)

South African director Sara Blecher, whose feature film “Otelo Burning” opened the 2011 Durban Film Festival, finds it sad that most stories about women are still being told by men.

“I don’t think this is an issue that is unique to South Africa or Africa,” she said. “But I do also think we’re on the curve of improving and increasing the number of women making feature films here. In other parts of the world like the U.S., it feels like it’s less and less women in film.”

Blecher is again in Durban, where her 51-minute documentary “2 Men and a Wedding” will be making its world premiere. The documentary looks at the story of two Malawian gay lovers, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, whose engagement ceremony in Blantyre at the end of 2009 saw them being arrested and sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment. Blecher unpacks the implications of being gay in the continent, and the two men’s fight for their human rights and dignity.

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Another upcoming project of hers, called “Andani and the Mechanic,” was selected as one of 18 projects to be part of the FilmMart — an event that offers filmmakers, financiers and film experts the chance to network and explore new ventures — where she hopes to get further funding for it.

Another veteran in the South African industry, Roberta Durrant, the creative producer and director at Penguin Films, said features are much more difficult to break into because of the money at stake. Her views suggest that funders are reluctant to back a female director, whereas directing a documentary was “very much a one-man band situation.”

Durrant added: “You get a lot of women working in television, but not necessarily directing and also not in areas like camerawork. You’ll get them in production, wardrobe and make-up, but not in technical areas.”

Asked why women are given fewer opportunities to engage mainstream audiences, Durrant said: “I don’t have an answer, other than we have a history or level of a patriarchal society and it crosses any demographic in our society. So perhaps it’s this deep ingrained psyche that women are in the support role.”

Meanwhile, the festival had been due to open with young director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s “Of Good Report,” which was set to make its world premiere before the government refused to grant it permission to screen. It tells of a small-town high school teacher Parker Sithole, who takes a liking to his 16-year-old pupil Nolitha. What follows is a dangerous and obsessive affair that ultimately becomes violent. Jury member Blecher had issued a warning: “It’s not for the fainthearted. It’s dark, so be prepared.”

There are many other films that are worth watching out for. That list includes Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria,” for which Paulina Garcia won the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival; Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi’s “Closed Curtain,” which won the Silver Bear for script in Berlin; and Pia Marais’ thriller “Layla Fourie,” which was a competition contender for the Golden Bear in Berlin.

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