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Durban: Fest Opener ‘Journeymen’ Explores Authentic South Africa

Three young photographers and 15,000 miles of open road. It’s a straightforward premise that yields unexpected results for the makers of “The Journeymen,” the South African documentary selected to open the 37th Durban Intl. Film Festival.

Two years ago, photographers Wikus de Wet, Sipho Mpongo, and Sean Metelerkamp hit the road to chronicle South African life on the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid — what Metelerkamp, who also directed the pic, describes as “three guys from different cultural and racial backgrounds, united simply by a duty to set out and discover truly authentic South African stories.”

With the help of a Kickstarter campaign and a host of generous donations — including GoPro cameras and the van that logs thousands of dusty miles onscreen – the trio embarked on an exhaustive journey across the “rainbow nation.” They chose a pivotal time in the country’s history, as the so-called “born free” generation prepared to vote for the first time, and South Africans reflected on the life and legacy of their first black president, Nelson Mandela, who died in December 2014.

But what was meant to be a photo project evolved as the trio pored over 12 terabytes’ worth of material from their epic, cross-country trip. After seven months of shooting, GoPros strapped to their chests, they realized that their day-to-day interactions with a diverse range of South Africans offered a startlingly candid snapshot of a nation at a crossroads.

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It was, says Metelerkamp, footage that “needed to be seen by South Africans.”

With distribution and exhibition woes plaguing the South African film biz, though, bringing that footage to local audiences would be a challenge, says executive producer Dylan Voogt, forcing the film’s producers to think outside the box.

“The goal is to disrupt the traditional cinema model – one that only serves urban centers in the country – and take the film to the people on a national roadshow,” says Voogt. Along with a book and a traveling exhibition of the group’s photography, there are plans for “The Journeymen” to screen “in town halls, schools and villages,” he says.

It’s a campaign that works hand in hand with the movie’s guerrilla filmmaking style, according to producer Jolynn Minnaar, who along with the filmmakers wants to “start pushing the boundaries of the traditional documentary form.”

In a country whose movie industry is still experiencing growing pains, Minnaar says “access, funding and transformation remain a huge handbrake on independent filmmaking and authentic, creative storytelling.”

Addressing those challenges, she says, is necessary “to sustain a healthy, vibrant home for filmmaking” that provides “logistical, financial and training support for young, emerging filmmakers.”

In a country that’s celebrated for its diversity, such support is a vital stepping stone toward bringing more new voices to the screen.

For Metelerkamp, who’s making his feature debut, he hopes “The Journeymen” will spark “a spirit of possibility” in the next generation of South African helmers.

“The goal is to create a sustainable model whereby a new set of storytellers can venture out into the country every few years,” he says. “We are merely the portal this time around, and we look forward to what is to come in the future.”

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