The 35th Durban film fest kicked off July 17 with the crime drama “Hard to Get,” pictured above, a steamy, Bonnie-and-Clyde-style romance set on the mean streets of Johannesburg that marked an auspicious debut for first-time helmer Zee Ntuli.

Ntuli, who’s earned buzz with a number of critically acclaimed shorts, called the night “nerve-wracking, but incredible.” Co-producer Junaid Ahmed confessed to opening-night jitters, admitting before the screening, “It’s absolute torture standing on the red carpet, sucking your stomach in for the cameras.”

That the night went off without a hitch was a relief for organizers after a controversial start to the 2013 festival, when helmer Jamil X.T. Qubeka’s “Of Good Report” was banned by censors, and auds were greeted with a blank screen on the opening night.

Ntuli’s pic was instead well-received by a partisan crowd who came out in numbers for a film that drew support from both the National Film and Video Foundation and the local KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission.

The mood throughout the night was both celebratory and elegiac, a reminder of DIFF’s long history as both a showcase for South African film and a voice of protest. A.B. Moosa, CEO of the Avalon Group, which was one of the festival’s co-founders — and whose Suncoast Cinema is this year’s main venue — recalled the sacrifices made by “all of us who stood against the system” and looked back to DIFF’s early days “at a time in the history of the country when other cinemas were for whites only.”

If the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid gave the proceedings an air of reflection, so, too, did the memory of Nelson Mandela, whose death last December made this the first edition of the festival to take place without the spiritual guidance of the man they called Madiba.

Fest director Peter Machen, marking his second year at DIFF’s helm, recalled the optimism at the end of the apartheid era, when South Africa witnessed an “explosion of selfhood … as if suddenly the walls had come down.”

Twenty years later — and 35 years after the festival’s birth — he continues to see DIFF as a critical voice for change in a young nation that’s still struggling to find its democratic footing.

“Film is an agent of change,” he said. “It is both an expression of freedom and an enabler of it.”