Adventures in film programming: South Africa

Phoenix Fry is a London-based film programmer and lecturer who recently travelled to South Africa to connect with the people making the SA film exhibition scene happen. This is a summary of his trip, and is both a personal diary and a useful contact list of South Africa’s film exhibition professionals.

For the past couple of years, I’ve run a 12-week course on the theory and practice of film programming. Participants learn how to plan, produce and promote their own events, get to think about the meaning and purpose of programming, organise their own film screening events, and take on a personal research project which develops their expertise in one area of film culture.

Thanks to a grant from the British Council’s Art Connects Us programme, I wanted to ask film exhibitors in South Africa how they are developing their craft through training, professional development and networks. I talked to 6 cinema managers, 5 independent curators, 6 film school lecturers and 2 film school students, 4 filmmakers, 6 festival directors, 4 regional film commissions, a pair of PR pros, and 2 distributors. I also spoke to at least a dozen Uber drivers, who give me an insight into how ‘the man on the street’ experiences South African cinema culture.

Cape Town

I saw this fabulous trashy thriller Cape Town thriller at a Black Filmmakers’ Film Festival screening.

Welcome to South Africa! And my first meeting is with Steven Markovitz and Khanyo Mjamba at Big World Cinema, the production and distribution company behind Rafiki and Winnie. Steven began his career running Flieks Film Club in the early 1990s, before setting up the highly-influential Encounters Documentary Film Festival in 1998.

(South Africa is a big fan of documentaries; over the next three weeks I’ll hear the word ‘dockie’ a lot. Also the word ‘soapie’. South Africans watch a lot of dockies and soapies, apparently.)

Khanyo manages the African Screen Network, a pan-African network of 31 film exhibitors and venues in 25 countries. They act as a distribution initiative “to grow African audiences for quality African films”. I’ve discovered already that, although people in the film exhibition scene know each other, they rarely get a chance to hang out together. At the moment, the African Screen Network is a top-down set-up — but I wonder what exciting things could happen if all of the members could communicate with each other directly.

I take a taxi to the headquarters of the Cape Town Film Mart and Festival, the city’s international film festival which also includes South African productions. Nazeer Ahmed (Festival Manager) and Leon van Der Merwe (Festival Director) are busy preparing for the upcoming festival, and rush us through our meeting. The festival, they say, takes on interns and trains them up to go and work on their own projects.

Bertha Movie House, Khayelitsha

One such project is Bertha Movie House, a community cinema in the Khayelitsha township. I have coffee with the cinema’s wonderfully enthusiastic manager Alta du Plooy. Funded by the Bertha Foundation, the cinema runs free movie screenings to residents and their kids, and offers free bus transport to the venue. Imagine that!

The cinema programme focuses on low budget Xhosa language movies and documentary features that offer ‘granular representation’. I’m going hear a lot of people talking about race and representation on this trip. It’s a big deal in a cultural landscape still vibrating with the energy and fallout from the #RhodesMustFall protests.

Later on I skype Dianne Makings, director of Cape Town International Animation Festival, an industry festival with screenings attached. They erect an inflatable outdoor screen at the golf course, where the industry events are based, and run a 3-day sister screening programme in Khayelitsha.

Dianne’s career started in theatre, but then shifted to PR and events management. She cites Monika Rorvik from Cape Town’s tourism, trade & investment agency as as a key source of support, networking and inspiration.

Cape Town has three major film schools — AFDA, SAE Institute and the University of Cape Town. AFDA has four campuses across South Africa, and one in Botswana. Head of the film school in Cape Town is David Max Brown. As a film producer, he has great insight into the South African film industry, in which he sees the ongoing impact of apartheid-era racial segregation.

At AFDA, film students organise their own Experimental Film Festival on campus in June, followed by their BA/MA graduate film & TV festival, a 12-hour marathon at the Labia Theatre, open to the public in November. The student body elects an organising committee, who arrange everything from tech to partnerships with local bars. It strikes me that this is a perfect training ground for future film programmers and festival organisers. One of this year’s festival organisers, Sam Peleteret, tells me she knows several students who would appreciate dedicated training in film programming and festival management.

SAE Institute runs film production courses across the world, and I spoke to the head of Cape Town’s film department Rene Weston about her thoughts on the South African film scene. She tells me that going to the cinema isn’t very popular with young people, as it is expensive to go. It’s easy to stream content online, so lots of people watch movies at home.

Although SAE is largely a training ground for commercial filmmakers, it has the ‘do your thing’ entrepreneurial attitude needed for grass roots film screening initiatives. Rene gets me to teach a 45 minute class, where I talk students through my career as a film programmer, and exhort them to go set up film clubs, events and festivals. The Q&A reveals lots of interest from students, and it would be great to come back in 2019 to offer some more advice and support.

Baxter Theatre, owned by University of Cape Town

The film school at University of Cape Town has a more academic focus than AFDA and SAE, and I have a very positive conversation with senior lecturer Liani Maasdorp, swapping stories about the UK and South African film scenes. It strikes us that for all its energy and talent, Cape Town has a shortage of non-mainstream film screening organisers. We make ambitious plans to secure screening spaces, and create support for a new generation of film programmers.

Afterwards, I email Jason Maselle, who co-organises the university’s film society. “Often students arrive at university with a very limited knowledge of the vastness of film’s potential and reach. Our goal is to expand the… film knowledge of our members.” He sees the value in taking this ethos beyond the confines of the campus.

A fruitful place to start would be the Pink Flamingo Rooftop Cinema at Grand Daddy Hotel. During the summer months this rather hipsterish venue runs weekly screenings on Monday nights, seemingly programmed at random by the hotel staff (Lion King 2, anyone?) using MPLC’s umbrella licence. It’s a wonderful space that reminds me of the Rooftop Film Club in Peckham, and manager Helene Magure says they would welcome collaborations with upcoming film programmers.

Similarly, the evergreen independent cinema Labia Theatre (named after the princess, thank you for asking) regularly hosts festivals and one-off screening programmes. Owner Ludi Kraus is rather pessimistic about the future of specialist cinema when I met him. “Nobody wants to watch ‘festival’ films in South Africa — life here is depressing enough. They want to enjoy some escapism, that’s all.” I promptly confirm his theory by watching Crazy Rich Asians in Screen 1 while a dreary French drama unfolded in Screen 2.

The Black Filmmakers Film Festival organise very cool and well-attended screening events in Cape Twin, Durban and Port Elizabeth. In Cape Town, I join them at the Alliance Française on the last Wednesday of the month. A local documentary maker introduces the rushes to her latest dockie, before we all watch locally-made low budget thriller Indispensable Mission­. Its low budget Nollywood-style production, corny dialogue and atrocious acting bring huge peals of laughter from the sophisticated afropolitan crowd — something the filmmakers (in attendance) are not necessarily expecting.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art curator Michaela Limberis talks to me on Skype: she’s doing interesting work here, and predicts that the contemporary focus on screen-based work is likely to create demand for more spaces, equipment and technical know-how for the screening of artist film.

Durban

A massive crossover hit in SA, which took on Leon Schuster’s comedy hegemony. Watched on my laptop.

Mention South Africa and cinema, and everyone will highlight the world-famous Durban International Film Festival. Unfortunately my meeting with festival manager Chipo Zhou is cancelled, but during my time in Durban almost everyone has something to say about the festival. By many accounts the festival has rather lost its way since the departure of its director Peter Rorvik, but there is the potential for a bright film future in Durban.

Durban Film Commission’s senior manager Toni Monty describes to me her work at Durban Film Mart, which takes place during DIFF as a space for African filmmakers to meet and connect with international markets.

She also gives me a brief history of South African cinema and urges me to watch recent hit Keeping Up With the Kandasamys, a comedy set in Durban’s Indian community that arguably has ended the decades-long reign of South Africa’s comic titan Leon Schuster. (I watch KUWTK on my laptop, and am reminded that comedy rarely travels well. I’m probably missing some great laughs. Or maybe it’s just not very good.)

At the regional KZN Film Commission, Chief Operating Officer Jackie Motsepe (who spent time living in London) gives me some pointers on the local film scene. Their office runs monthly screening nights at their 11th floor cinema space.

She is encouraging entrepreneurs to set up community cinemas across the region. The phrase ‘community cinema’ seems to have a particular meaning here in South Africa, tied up with the priorities of post-apartheid cultural policy. In the UK, the word ‘cinema’ conjures up an idea of glamour and escapism (or for you high culture kids, the sexy cultural capital of watching independent or international films). But here in South Africa, ‘community cinema’ acts as an instrument for Black representation (previously suppressed by an apartheid regime which supported only White South African filmmakers, and closed or ran down cinemas in non-White districts), as well as a vehicle for Black entrepreneurialism.

KZN African Film Festival is a case in point. Now running for 15 years, KAFF is the culmination of a ten-month training programme for young creatives in the KwaMashu township. I spoke to its founder Edmund Mhlongo, who was an activist during the apartheid years, and was inspired to set up an arts centre after studying cultural development at Sussex University. He sees the creative arts as a business, not a hobby, and has designed courses that develop technical and entrepreneurial skills. The ‘community based film festival’ is the degree show for filmmaking graduates and, as far as I understand, does not screen films made outside of KwaMashu.

INXEBA: THE WOUND won international acclaim but created huge controversy at home in South Africa.

Durban Gay & Lesbian Film Festival is run by Jason Fiddler, who came to festival programming as an LGBT community activist and cinephile, and launched the festival during the revival of Durban Pride and the decline of the nationwide Out of Africa LGBT film festival.

The annual festival screens around twenty fiction features and documentaries, plus thirty or so shorts, attracting small audiences ( 30 people per screening, tops). Jason is a good person to talk about sponsorship; last year’s festival was supported by Amazing Thailand.

Meanwhile, the youth-focussed Interpret Durban is a highly-successful multimedia festival that includes film screenings. However it’s difficult to know if it is still going, as their online presence is rather haphazard.

Durban University of Technology has a film school, where I talk to lecturer Cary Burnett about the South African film scene. She describes an industry split into microbudget movies that go straight to cable TV, and ‘cinema’ movies, and it’s not difficult to notice an ethnic dimension to this situation. Cary mentions Kasi Movie Nights, a mobile cinema initiative that “brings locally produced feature films and docce’s to townships, rural areas and ‘places of need’”. (A new spelling for ‘dockies’!)

I’m intrigued by her mention of Afrikaans pop star movies.

Her own students, however, are not organising their own film events. Nor are they showing up to the film screenings that Cary is organising, or going to the cinema. How strange and alarming that a new generation of filmmakers are not watching movies on the big screen. I feel like intervening: students should be organising their own screening events; this builds a passion for cinema and trains you to manage projects and understand audiences.

Johannesburg

I watched Joburg gangster classic JERUSALEMA at the movie night at a backpacker’s hostel in Durban.

It makes sense to start with Johannesburg’s indie cinema Bioscope Cinema, where I have a flat white with manager Russell Grant.

Russell studied professional dramatic arts at WITS Uni, then spent a year at Saatchi & Saatchi, during which he and his friend Daryl talked about setting up a cinema. In 2010 there was a real buzz in Jozi: the World Cup was going on, and the Maboneng district was being developed as a centre for cool young things.

The cinema focuses on screening African cinema, as well as international films, venue hires and screenings organised by cultural institutes. They also get approached by filmmakers who want to screen their own films. Their latest venture is Late Night Arcade, where he’s taking over a nearby rooftop and filling it with arcades and VR games. Russell would welcome collaborations with venues and programmers in the UK.

Now let’s meet Ashraf Johaardian, executive producer of the National Arts Festival, which he describes as South Africa’s equivalent of the Edinburgh Festival.

The festival’s film programme mixes partner content (eg, National Theatre Live, European Film Festival) with a selection curated by the festival’s film curator. For 2019 he’s keen to spotlight the post-digital, post-internet film scene. The purpose of a festival, he says, is to create a different kind of cinema experience.

Ashraf is confident that the independent cinema scene will grow and find its place, but there’s a real dearth of curators (for film and other artforms) in SA, and a lack of understanding of audiences. It’s something that needs work.

Later in the week I meet up with the 2018 festival’s film curator Dylan Valley, a filmmaker and lecturer in filmmaking at WITS University, and a graduate of the film school at University of Cape Town. As well as being a working filmmaker, he used to organise weekly film screenings for the Documentary Filmmakers’ Association in Cape Town, screening local filmmakers’ stuff, as well as the odd international documentary.

He’s now doing a PhD on web series such as Chicken Connoisseur, looking at how the internet offers new forms of storytelling. This sounds really fun, so I urge him to puts together a screening programme. The Bioscope would love it — and maybe somewhere in the UK too.

His colleague Pervaiz Khan organises regular screenings of South African films for students, as well as occasional themed programmes (eg, Tarkovsky). WITS is building a new cinema space to enhance the teaching of film — and this is also a potential resource for upcoming film programmers.

Indigenous Film Distribution have a super strong business attitude. I meet boss Helen Kuun and development manager Thandeka Zwana. They may be the distributors of award-winning festival hits Inxeba: The Wound and Five Fingers for Marseille, but they’re also behind money-making genre movies like Snow Queen 2 and Broken Promises 4 Ever.

In a breathtaking hour, they charge though a history of South African cinema, an evaluation of cinema chain Ster Kinekor’s attempts to launch mobile and township cinemas, and a call for the UK and SA to set up a co-development treaty.

They consider it a mistake to expect township residents to watch low budget local films in a low budget environment. Cinema is aspirational: these young people want to see Tyler Perry and Marvel movies, and don’t want an experience that they perceive as second-best to urban cinemas.

For Helen and Thandeka, cinema needs to be treated as a business, and consequently, community cinemas need to be screening new, international films. “Because that’s what people actually want. Don’t force films or screens on people who don’t want them. Accept the reality of what people actually want, and don’t go around with the mentality that because you think you are ‘doing good’ you deserve funding, or that your film deserves to be seen.”

They cite iStarring as a potential success story. This mobile cinema franchise seems very much an Instagram-friendly ‘craft beer and beanbags’ experience. It’s part of The People’s Fund, a hipsterish crowdfunding model that supports Black entrepreneurship (they also have done honey and launderettes).

This seems like the right recipe for affluent city centres, but would it work in suburban South Africa and rural townships?

I’d hoped to ask the team behind Cape Town-based Sunshine Cinema, a mobile cinema network that tours rural areas, running ‘facilitated screenings’ of films with a social justice edge. Alas, they were madly busy launching a two-month tour across South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Township drama THINA SOBALI at the Bioscope Cinema had promise, but lost energy in the second half.

Johannesburg’s First Wednesday Film Club is considered South Africa’s best attended regular screening event, and a reputable launching platform for new films. I’m annoyed I‘ve just missed their latest event, but excited to meet Katarina Hedren, a Swedish-Ethiopian film programmer and writer who’s lived in SA since 2005. She’s a project coordinator at Goethe Institute, and co-curates First Wednesdays with filmmaker Akin Omotoso.

She started as a fan of film, and got into programming through Cinemafrica film festival in Sweden, then the SA Tri-Continental FF, the People to People International Documentary Conference and Durban Film Mart, as well as writing film synopses for Stockholm Film Festival. She writes on film for Africa is a Country and comes across as a seriously good programmer.

Finally, let’s meet Professor Keyan Tomaselli at Johannesburg University’s film school. Considered to be the founder of Cultural Studies in SA, Keyan previously worked at the University of KZN. Cue a fascinating, passionately-argued account of Durban Film Festival, which began as a space to screen politically sensitive movies during the apartheid era.

Cinema, he says “provides a window into the rest of the world, and offers different ways of living, different ways of constructing reality.”

This is something to remember.

The end of the road

In three weeks I’ve experienced three cities, watched seven movies, bought one Bioscope t-shirt, and had almost thirty meetings.

This seems like a lot of meetings, but I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface: every time I meet someone, they recommend another handful of people to talk to. As a result I've not had time to talk to Schnit Short Film Festival, Joburg Film Festival, the cinema at Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education, SA Indie Film Festival, Pulp Cinema at Stellenbosch Uni, Bokeh Fashion Film Fest, the National Film & Video Foundation, and several dozen other really interesting people and organisations. I hope this means I’ll have to come back.

I’ve learned that South Africa is different from the UK. Although its international film production industry is going strong, South Africa is still reeling from apartheid. And despite being a country with one eye on the West, it’s physically very far away from the European and North American centres of cinema culture. It’s also a big country with lots of empty spaces: cities (and therefore the city life that supports cinema) are the exception, not the rule.

But I’ve also learned our two countries have a lot in common. Like my colleagues back in London, the people I met in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg were at their most passionate when they were talking about films. Great films, fun films, difficult films, and films that might change the world.

And like Britons, the people I met in South Africa were magnificent gossips and complainers. I loved it. Because after a good refreshing moan, you can get on with making things better.

Personally, I’d like to get all of these people into a room together. Currently there’s no network of film exhibitors in South Africa — and that means people are working everything out on their own. In the UK, the BFI Film Audience Network is a network of eight regional hubs which bring together film exhibitors from major cinemas to tiny film clubs. This means that not only can people share energy, ideas, resources, contacts and equipment for their own work, they can also band together to create big national projects.

I would begin with a mini conference, or an unconference. Just some people talking together, drinking coffee and wine, and getting to know about each other. Durban Film Festival, would you like to host this? Or maybe Bioscope? I bet this would cost very little to organise.

I would also like the next generation of film programmers to be given a leg-up. This is a country that’s full of great (and often underused) screening spaces, and great talent. And this is a time when digital technology makes it incredibly easy to source and screen great cinema.

So we, the current generation of film pros, should gather together and help South Africa’s young cinephiles to become great curators of cinema.

Film schools — put programming on to your curricula now!

Festivals — don’t just run filmmaking workshops. Run sessions on how to do event management and audience development, how to deal with projectors and audio, and how to write vivacious marketing copy that will bring dozens and hundreds of paying customers to watch these extraordinary movies.


Thanks

A big thank you to the British Council’s Art Connects Us and Film teams in South Africa and the United Kingdom — not only for funding my trip, but also for linking me to a great bunch of people. Many thanks also to Keith Shiri for connecting me to so many connectors, and Suzy Gillett for telling me to go for it.