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Durban: Encounters Topper Els Talks African Documentaries

The African documentary space has been energized in recent years, thanks to a fresh batch of young talent and growing investment from foreign partners. Encounters, the continent’s oldest and biggest doc film festival, wrapped its 18th edition in early June. Variety sat down with fest director Darryl Els in Durban to talk about the importance of bringing new voices and visions to the documentary landscape.

Variety: Do you think it’s fair to say that there’s been a real growth and maturation in the documentary space across Africa in recent years? How has Encounters evolved, in terms of both the size and scope of its programming?

Els: I think there’s certainly more interest in African documentary filmmaking, and more opportunities that exist for filmmakers. It’s really important that Encounters – as the longest-running and largest doc fest on the continent – continues to be seen as the festival platform where African doc filmmakers want to premiere their films — something I really want to foster. In this regard we’re always looking to create more opportunities. For example, this year we had a new pitching forum for short online docs with the Guardian and Bertha Foundation.

Variety: You can go back to Jean Rouch or Alain Resnais to see the ways that the foreign gaze – or lens – has been trained on Africa as a subject. With more home-grown documentaries emerging from around the continent, do you see a pronounced difference in the way stories are being told, and in the kinds of stories being told?

Els: In some cases you can see how familiarity with context, or a personal approach to filmmaking, can bring much more nuanced and deeper perspectives to African stories. Two excellent and recent examples of this are Rama Thiaw’s “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised” and Nadine Cloete’s film “Action Kommandante,” which was a huge hit at Encounters this year. I think we need to encourage this type of filmmaking and ensure that these films meet audiences.

Variety: Capacity is a huge problem for filmmakers across Africa. Al Jazeera, The Guardian, and The New York Times’ OpDocs are among the foreign media brands who have begun investing in local documentaries. Do you think these types of initiatives can be transformative, or – in a perfect world – would they serve as more of a catalyst for home-grown investment and capacity-building?

Els: These initiatives, especially the Guardian Documentaries and NYT OpDocs, are important in that they can create international visibility for filmmakers that produce work for those platforms—this has an undoubtedly positive effect. They also help to change the perception of short documentary-filmmaking, which is too often dismissed as inferior to features, and is an area where I think there should really be more local investment.

Variety: Public broadcasters are a vital source of funding for documentaries, but in South Africa, the SABC has been reeling for close to a decade. Do you think the South African doc space can continue to grow without a healthy SABC? Are private broadcasters doing enough to support the industry?

Els: We all know that a public broadcaster’s role is fundamental to a healthy industry, both in terms of supporting filmmakers and festivals alike. I think the local doc industry has still grown despite the SABC’s absence, but of course we do need them back in the frame. Hopefully their presence at DIFF this year is a good sign that this might be happening.

Variety: You’ve recently taken over Encounters. For the festival, and for the documentary space, what would you like to see more of in the next few years—both in terms of what’s on the screen, and what’s being done at a structural level to support it?

Els: I would like to see a bit more risk-taking and experimentation in doc filmmaking, both in terms of narrative and form. With the growth in VR and short online docs, there are so many ways of getting stories out there. We recently launched Virtual Encounters, a dedicated new media festival platform, and I’m very keen to grow this aspect of the festival to eventually include a lab or residency of some kind.


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