DURBAN–When Ros and Teddy Sarkin raised the curtain on the first Durban Intl. Film Festival 40 years ago, the odds were long that their scrappy fest would survive its inaugural edition.
The apartheid government and its draconian censorship board had a stranglehold on the films that reached South African theaters, banning the sorts of subversive movies the Sarkins hoped to screen. Cinemas across the country were forced to segregate audiences. For the festival’s first edition, just seven films unspooled at Durban’s historic, independent Avalon Cinema, whose mixed-race audience had no way of knowing if the police would bust down the door at any moment.
Four decades on, South Africa has grown into a vibrant democracy and the economic engine of the continent, and the Durban film fest – whose 40th edition runs from July 18-28 – is no longer a window onto the world for South Africans living under the shadow of apartheid. The country’s longest-running festival is an essential showcase for foreign audiences looking to sample the latest cinematic trends and discover new voices from the host nation and the rest of the continent.
Lliane Loots, acting director of the Center for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which manages the festival, said in her opening remarks Thursday night that this year’s anniversary was “a triumph for every single filmmaker who’s shown work on this platform, every new film project that is birthed in our space, and every single audience member who made the time to watch and listen to these stories.”
The festival opened with “Knuckle City,” Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s gritty drama about an aging boxer who struggles to land the big prize fight that can save his family. Set in Mdantsane – a township known as the boxing Mecca of South Africa – Qubeka’s fourth feature is an exploration of toxic masculinity and the fragile ties holding together a broken family. Loots described it as “a film that looks at boxing as a real and a metaphoric journey, of a very contemporary South African caught between gangsterism and poverty.”
The festival’s opening night this year fell on Nelson Mandela Intl. Day, which commemorates the birthday of the anti-apartheid revolutionary and South Africa’s first black president. In her opening address, acting mayor Fawzia Peer reminded the audience that it was in Durban that Mandela cast his vote in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, after 27 years in prison.
The former president’s memory loomed large throughout the night. A political activist during the apartheid era, Loots shared the story of an encounter with a poster of Mandela at a London bookshop in the 1980s—the first time she had laid eyes on the imprisoned revolutionary, whose image was banned by the apartheid government. The experience moved her to tears.
“I was and am reminded of the power of images to provoke our deepest yearning for a different world, an equitable world, a world of justice and a world of belonging,” she said. Invoking the festival’s evolution parallel to a South African history “beset by politics of racism, of exclusion, of censorship, and of silencing of critical voices,” she added: “DIFF’s 40th is a reminder to me, and I hope to you, of the power of film and of all our critical arts to constantly be the memory and the conscience of our nation.”
This year’s edition of the Durban fest will screen more than 200 feature, short and documentary films from around the globe, with its Oscar-qualifying main competition complemented by popular sidebars like the Wavescape Surf Film Festival, which will showcase 19 films focused on surf culture and the ocean. Other festival highlights will include the second edition of the Isiphethu Hub, an initiative offering free workshops geared toward entry-level and emerging filmmakers; the 12th annual Talents Durban, in partnership with Berlinale Talents; and a one-day documentary conference, Durban Does Docs, as part of the festival’s industry program, the Durban FilmMart (DFM), which runs July 19-22.
For its 10th edition, the DFM will host a full program of master classes, workshops, seminars, and lively discussions debating the hot-button issues of the day for African filmmakers. A new initiative, the Locations Africa Expo and Conference, will reignite efforts to position Africa as a key filming destination for international and local film productions.
The DFM’s Finance Forum, meanwhile, will offer 20 fiction and documentary features an opportunity to pitch to a room full of industry experts. The leading co-production market for works-in-progress from across the continent, the Finance Forum has become a launching pad for recent African breakout films like Un Certain Regard selection “Rafiki,” by Kenya’s Wanuri Kahiu, and “The Wound,” the Oscar-shortlisted LGBT drama by South Africa’s John Trengove.
Such groundbreaking films speak to a wider effort by DIFF and the DFM to foster and promote African voices at a time when the global appetite for a more diverse and inclusive cinema is on the rise. “DIFF has over the years been a space that seeks to showcase stories by marginalized voices,” festival manager Chipo Zhou said before the opening night. “I like to think of DIFF as the international representative of South Africa on the global stage, and as such as a country we’re looking to break down the margins created in Berlin [with the creation of Africa’s colonial borders in 1885] that separated us as a people and defined who we are as people of color, globally.”
Bringing down borders and boosting representation will be a hot topic in Durban this year, with the launch of Engage @ DFM, a series of think tanks and in-depth discussions concerning diversity and de-colonial approaches to and models for filmmaking. Gender parity will also be on the agenda, as DIFF on Thursday morning became the first African festival to sign the 50/50 by 2020 pledge for female inclusivity in the film industry.
“I have a specific goal to leave a legacy of the inclusion of female-led productions in the industry, and so the development and coverage of exceptional female talent is at the core of my mandate,” said Zhou. Forty percent of the films selected for this year’s festival are female-led, and both DIFF and the DFM are run by women. “We are a part of a global renaissance within the gender movement, and I’d like the generations to come to see DIFF take a lead role in this undertaking.”