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‘Journeymen’ Opens Durban Festival on Positive, and Crowdpleasing, Note

The 37th Durban Intl. Film Festival (DIFF) kicked off June 16 with a youthful and energetic doc that was warmly received on what’s celebrated across the country as Youth Day.

As South Africa commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, a series of student protests that were an emotional high-water mark of the anti-apartheid struggle, the festival opened with “The Journeymen,” a crowdpleaser by newcomer Sean Metelerkamp, who hit the road for seven months along with fellow photographers Wikus de Wet and Sipho Mpongo to shoot the documentary.

Filmed on three chest-mounted GoPros that chronicled their epic, 15,000-mile road trip across the country in 2014, “The Journeymen” offered a candid snapshot of a nation at a crossroads, with South Africans from a diverse range of backgrounds looking back on two decades of post-apartheid democratic rule.

Introducing the movie, acting festival director Peter Machen said, “It shows us how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go in fulfilling Nelson Mandela’s dream of…an equitable society.”

Machen struck a reflective chord early on, starting his speech by thanking all the “brave souls” whose work over nearly four decades have helped in “bringing this mighty DIFF train into the station.” It was a reminder that South Africa’s oldest film festival has faced its own struggles this year — an old but powerful locomotive solemnly chugging uphill.

For the organizers, the opening-night pageantry offered a chance to get beyond the embarrassing headlines of recent weeks, when a row involving the University of KwaZulu-Natal, whose Center for Creative Arts manages the festival, South African super-producer Anant Singh, whose “Shepherds and Butchers” was slated to bow this year’s proceedings, and fest manager Sarah Dawson put the fest in jeopardy.

When manager Dawson abruptly resigned last month, citing differences with DIFF management over the selection process that tapped “Shepherds” for the opening night, Machen stepped in to seize the reins of a festival whose credibility was at stake.

Addressing a controversy that spilled over into the headlines, Machen noted last night, “We need to have dialogue, not shouting matches.” Echoing the mood, newly appointed director of the Center for Creative Arts, David Maahlamela, channeled his inner Dickens, adding, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Yet for a festival born under the dark cloud of apartheid, when it offered a platform for controversial movies that were frequently banned by the government, DIFF continues to offer a bold voice for works from around the continent. This year’s edition will again have a strong local flavor, with nearly half of the 100 feature-length films screening in 15 venues across the city showcasing the works of African helmers.

For South Africa, the fest will include 10 fiction features and 14 docs. Among the highlights will be director John Barker’s political mockumentary “Wonder Boy for President,” starring South African comic Kagiso Lediga, which will have its world premiere June 17; and “Tess,” a hard-hitting drama about a 20-year-old prostitute in Cape Town whose life is torn apart by drug addiction and sexual violence. The fiction feature debut for Meg Rickards, whose doc “1994: The Bloody Miracle,” won an audience award in Durban in 2014, it has its world premiere June 18.

Alongside the screenings will be a wide-ranging industry program that showcases DIFF’s important role in bolstering filmmaking around the continent. In addition to a series of workshops and panel discussions, the seventh annual Durban FilmMart will offer 19 projects from across Africa a chance to meet with potential financiers, co-producers and distributors. And the ninth edition of Talents Durban, in cooperation with Berlinale Talents, brings together 20 African filmmakers for a series of workshops, master classes, and networking opportunities with industry professionals.

The 37th Durban Intl. Film Festival runs though June 26.

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