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‘It’s Us,’ ‘Me and You,’ ‘Khumba’ Spark Buzz at Durban

Distribution, exhibition pending issues for Africa

Inevitably, the ban slapped on opening night film “Of Good Report” by the South African Film and Publication Board over-shadowed the 34th Durban Festival’s get-go.

But, as South Africa’s industry mobilizes opposition to what it slams as censorship, other events point up both recent achievements and residual road-bumps confronting movie production in South Africa and Africa at large.

One of South Africa’s biggest movie challenges remains distribution and exhibition, said Durban Festival manager Peter Machen, reviewing the fest’s frantic early stretches.

Over Durban’s first four days, Andrew Mudge’s “The Forgotten Kingdom,” about a man who finds his place in the world in his village of youth, Nick Reding’s Kenya-set “It’s Us,” a pro-peace movement movie combining theater and on-location fiction, and seven-part docu omnibus “African Metropolis,” exec-produced by Steven Markovitz, feature among African movies which have played to full houses in Durban.

Going forward, South African 3D animated feature “Khumba,” Triggerfish Animation Studios’ follow-up to “Adventures in Zambezia,” looks set to be one of the event movies at this year’s confab; Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” is also sparking buzz.

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Movies which sell out at the Durban Festival cut three ways these days, said Machen: International titles with big names, whether cast or directors, such as, in 2013, Bernardo Bertolucci’s teen-angst drama “Me and You”; cult items: Sebastian Hoffman’s “Halley” and Eduardo Villanueva’s “Penumbra,” both from Mexico, and Sundance player “Interior.Leather Bar”; and breakout local titles.

Some South African movies now see robust theatrical play abroad. Machen cites the case of “Adventures in Zambezia 3D,” which grossed $24.9 million worldwide through June, with France, where Metropolitan releases Aug. 14, Spain, most of Latin America and China yet to open.

Results make “Zambezia” the highest-grossing South African films since 1985’s “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”

The big question for many other African movies at Durban, is, however, what happens after their upbeat Durban Fest play.

“One of the great challenges for African cinema is we just don’t have many cinema theaters,” Machen told Variety Monday.

Those that do exist, moreover, trend towards screening mainstream Hollywood blockbusters: Durban’s Ekhaya Multi Arts Center is one of its only hardtops not built in a shopping center.

This poses challenges. Machen cited the case of Reding’s “It’s Me.” “This is the kind of movie where the audience correlates close to its characters,” he said.

“We have to have films like this seen not just at a festival but over a continent, to screen films like this at schools in Durban’s KwaZulu-Natal province, to make people more accepting and understanding of how violence always has an impact.”

Machen is sanguine, however, about two factors.

In emerging countries, “audiences around the world have in the past expected their films to be inferior. But the quality of South African films has improved greatly over recent years. So, in the last year or two, that perception is changing. It used to be difficult to get people to attend locally produced films at the Durban Festival. Now, they can be among the most sought-out titles.”

Also, cinema theater digitalization facilitates a trend towards smaller, even mobile theaters, Machen argued.

“There’s a lot of embryonic moves towards small cinemas in the townships, small cultural centers.”

Exhibition in Africa will come under analysis at a Durban Festival African Focus panel on Tuesday, where John Eschenburg will talk about his ReaGile project to bring cinema to South Africa townships and Federico Oliveiri will present Kenya’s Slum Film Festival.

Distribution, exhibition of South African films remains challenging, but, Machen predicted, in the mid-term, “there will be more people watching films in South Africa.”

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