Stance | The damage DIFF has done and what we can do about it

An in-depth look at the rape culture that booked an uncomfortable seat at the 2016 Durban International Film Festival.

Words and photographs by Niamh Walsh-Vorster

All organisations, friend groups and festivals have their internal politics, so it was no surprise to learn of some of the inside chaos of the Durban International Film Festival’s, before it started with the resignation of Sarah Dawson as manager.

It was then put in the hands of Peter Machen and the controversy continued as he and the invisible team chose The Journeymen to be the opening documentary — the problem here is that one of the three film makers is a “convicted” sexual assaulter, serving only 65 hours community service. But what happens when such disturbing news is brought to our doorsteps? We give it awards!

The double standards we hold for people viewed artists or with special skills is that somehow they are more deserving of our forgiveness, remember Brock Turner? And the #RUreferencelist?

These cases popped the bubble of cis-heteronormative men who we viewed as heroic, feminist, star pupils and all the other things rapists supposedly cannot be. It is also interesting to note that we are more willing to fight social injustices when they are far away from us *changes Facebook profile to tinted French flag*.

There was an opportunity for learning at DIFF, however, their body of decision makers, saturated in whiteness and parochial capitalism, exploited a young black artist’s position.

They instead created a dangerous space that perpetuated rape culture, and continues to do so by not taking accountability. DIFF and The Journeymen makers were given their moment to defend or explain themselves, but have failed to do so and thus failed survivors. The dismissal of the trauma that his victims/survivors experienced is seen in how DIFF managed the whole issue, and causes threat for secondary trauma, which is a one of the big issues of rape culture, there are no “just get over it” lines for this one.

1. Sipho Mpongo, was found guilty of sexual harassment by UCT of one classmate late last year, but with 20 plus complaints that emerged outside a formal setting. He was charged 65 hours community service and is doing some form of rehabilitation back home in his community. My issue with this is that he is already so openly re-accepted back into society and has his work aired, exhibited and celebrated by people who know this fact about him. Whilst I see value in the work he is trying to do, we cannot be so apathetic. Victims and survivors of assault and harassment are shamed from society and families for coming out on a daily basis. We are always quick to protect and forgive perpetrators, however, we continue to side-line those who are hurt, can we forget the Jacob Zuma rape trial and Makhaya Ntini’s case (oh yes, right, we can). The only person(s) who can offer Mpongo forgiveness and a platform are those Mpongo have hurt, and due to nature of rape culture, society will never know how they feel because their coming out and talking in a public platform is far more dangerous than Mpongo coming out and speaking of his journey.

2. The festival claimed to not support Mpongo and said his presence was to “create dialogue.” This dialogue never really happened. Mpongo was prompted at the opening night by acting director, Peter Machen, and at various other workshops to “testify” to audiences of his rehabilitation. This is not a dialogue that is a monologue, there were no professional facilitators at talks nor was there any form of consultation with professional people who deal with trauma and rape. The sort of white liberalism that ran the festival has exploited Mpongo’s position and have also hurt him in ways as he thinks the work he is doing is good — but they have left out a lot of steps to get to the one where Mpongo’s journey is more important than survivors.

3. The festival made no attempt to get consent from the audience nor any content warnings were given to indicate that Mpongo was going to do such at workshops and the opening. The issue here is that DIFF is allowing for what is meant to be a great film experience for its paying audience, a possibly traumatic and triggering one. People can mentally prepare to watch a film given the synopsis informs them, but to then have a perpetrator in the same room as someone who may be vulnerable is really undermining the magnitude of how serious rape culture is and feeds into secondary re-victimisation and trauma.

4. DIFF also censored complaints by inboxing people directly their views of apparent none support to Mpongo’s background instead of engaging in the public arena.

5. In a country with a horrendous amount of gender based violence and where rape and harassment is the norm, we should almost put a zero tolerance on any form of rape culture that is perpetuated. ‘Liking’ a status, watching a film, viewing their work, giving awards, all just sends a message that there are no real consequences for rape, assault and/or harassment. It certainly does not send the message that we believe/care for the survivors story either. We all want to breathe, but why do some get more space to do so than others?

This is bigger than Mpongo’s story, though. It is the culture that needs to be shut down. The message that has been sent by DIFF’s stance and lack of real engagement is that this issue is of no real importance to them. Defending their stance with “we must separate art from the artist” and showcasing Mpongo as a reformed and rehabilitated man is just another form of rape apologism.

Had the festival cared about rape and sexual violence, they would have looked into the above, they would have showed a film by someone who is not complicit in such an issue, they would donate money to a rape crisis center; they would not have given his film an award. They would and could have done so much better. This article perhaps is to keep this issue alive, to remind ourselves and other festivals that we cannot sweep things under the rug, and lists why we should not support the film and a possible solution to try and address the damage that DIFF has done.


Edited by Youlendree Appasamy

This piece was originally published in Edition 10 of Ja. magazine.