Film is not part of South Africa’s ongoing cultural conversation. This is evidenced by the fact that of the 48 films that will be screened at this year’s Festival, only four have been released within the past year.If you have been to the film events at the Festival, you will notice the attendance numbers are low – and with good reason. Why should anyone have to brave the late-night Grahamstown cold for a screening of a film that they could just see online when they get back home?
No, really, some of the films on this year’s programme have been posted in full on YouTube and torrent sites. And as illegal as this is, the curators of the film programme must understand that these types of practical questions are what they are fighting against in the battle for share of eyes.
I think the lack of focus on the film programme is a direct result of the fact that there is no Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year Award given in the category this year. Therefore there is no figurehead to champion cinema’s cause. There is no young trailblazer to look forward to and engage with. This might cause the film programme to be seen as an optional extra, and thus there is no urgency to attend.
Only six people have ever received the award for film. By not giving out the prize for film more frequently, the Festival is saying that there is little worthwhile happening in South African cinema, which sends out a signal to possible attendees to avoid film altogether. This is an injustice to a new wave of South African filmmakers, because there is enough young talent making interesting and challenging work to justify a regular awarding of the prize. And it’s the Festival that would gain the most from this.
Since it would be impossible to finance the making of a new feature film by the young artist of the year, why not fund a short film? Then, let them present a retrospective of their work, as they have done in the past with recipients like Jahmil XT Qubeka. South African film programmes can be very nostalgic and this year’s line-up is evidence of that. But even this can be packaged in an interesting way if a young artist gets the award. Create a strand where the award winner for film can share the films that most influenced them. It’s all good and well to have a Pasolini film in the Festival, but if an Akin Omotoso or Claire Angelique is contextualising the film and discussing how it influenced them. Then the experience becomes infinitely richer and more relatable. The nostalgia becomes palatable and does not exist just for its own sake.
The film programme, if it’s determined to grow, needs an increased emphasis on locality. There is value, of course, in the screening of restored South African films, because it reminds us that as a country we have a film language – one that is historically rich, contentious, and stretches beyond the immediacy of the last 15 years. With films like Umbango and Joe Bullet we are getting the rare treat of seeing films that were not – and could not be – appreciated in their time. With that in mind, however, let’s not repeat the past. We should avoid a situation where, 30 years from now, attendees of the Festival have to watch a film from 2015 because it was not appreciated in our time.
Cue specialist writer
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