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Durban Festival: South African Films on the Rise

South African film has come a long way in the past 10 to 15 years, says Durban Film Festival director Peter Machen, and the 35th edition of the fest, which unspools July 17-27, aims to prove it.

African filmmakers, says Machen, are mixing U.S. genres with local idioms, while also imposing a regional identity on European film language. The fest topper contends that Durban’s opening night film, “Hard to Get,” a love story by rising local director Zee Ntuli, set in the gritty underworld of Johannesburg, will show local audiences further evidence that home-grown movies can be just as engaging as Hollywood films.

Ntuli himself promises a fresh perspective. “You are going to see a raw, truthful film with it’s own unique voice,” he says of the pic, produced by Helena Spring and Junaid Ahmed, who are handling a slate of films from previously marginalized black filmmakers. “Hard to Get” also received funding from South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation and the Dept. of Trade and Industry.

With South Africa celebrating 20 years of democracy this year, the fest has a natural theme — though not all of the films are paeans to the new government. In fact, Rehad Desai’s documentary “Miners Shot Down,” chronicles the 2012 strike staged by low-paid workers in one of South Africa’s biggest platinum mines against the mine’s corporate owner, the African National Congress-led government and the miners’ own union, in which a police crackdown produced tragic results.

Other highlights from the sidebar include Khalo Matabane’s doc “Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me”; and cinematographer Annalet Steenkamp’s directorial debut, “I, Afrikaner,” an intimate family saga filmed over a nine-year period (she received funding from the Intl. Documentary Fund for Amsterdam as well as from the NFVF).

The whole of Africa is also getting a spotlight, with films such as Narimane Mari’s narrative “Bloody Beans,” an Algerian-French co-production that debuted in Turin, and presents an allegory of Algeria’s struggle for independence as seen through the eyes of a group of children; and Cannes hit “Timbuktu,” Abderrahmane Sissako’s drama that recounts the region’s occupation by militant Islamic rebels in 2012. The pic is making its African premiere at Durban.

Since its inception, the festival has done much to draw attention to African film, and in the past few years has added industry-oriented programs such as Talents Durban (formerly Talent Campus Durban), which brings together 40 filmmakers from 10 different countries in Africa and is presented with the Berlin Festival’s Berlinale Talents; and the Durban FilmMart, a finance/co-production market.

Machen says that while South African filmmaking has been growing in both volume and thematic scope, there are still issues with exhibition and distribution. “We really struggle to get our audience to watch local film,” he says. “I look forward to a time when our strong products will fill the cinemas and stay there for months.”

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