Shakespeare in South Africa? It’s not the case. Despite the title, jealousy is only one part of the award-winning South African film Otelo Burning. Set in 1988, on the eve of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the film deals with many subjects, as acknowledged by the director, Sara Blecher: “What you think when you are watching the film is that you are watching a coming-of-age film. Suddenly it changes and it becomes something totally different.”
The story unfolds as three teenage friends – Otelo, New Year, and Mandla – look for an escape through a time of turmoil in the township of Lamontville. They have to face the grim reality of apartheid South Africa: the events take place in the same months in which violence is increasing between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Zulu Freedom party supporters.
Mandla – already skilled in surfing – will take the others into a world that was previously closed to black people. Soon, everyone recognizes that Otelo is truly gifted on the water, a future surfing star. An older white man, Kurt Struely, approaches the boys, certain of their potential. With practice, Otelo soon outshines his friend, Mandla, who becomes increasingly resentful when Dezi, New Year’s younger sister, falls in love with Otelo.
Driven by jealousy, Mandla betrays his friends and, in exchange for money, he denounces Otelo’s brother, Ntwe, as a suspected informer for the apartheid security police. When Otelo discovers the truth, he faces a choice between fame as a surfer (which also means money) and justice for Ntwe. Eventually, on the day of Nelson Mandela’s release, he will make a key decision for his life.
The historical events of South Africa provide a background for the teenagers’ story, with a common element, the search for freedom. Surfing itself is also a metaphor for freedom: “That’s what people mean when they talk about freedom?” asks Otelo when he sees Mandla riding the waves. Sara Blecher explained: “I don’t think people would put young black kids in 1990 together with surfing.” That’s what makes the film “so striking, so unique, and so local,” she added.
Despite its symbolic meaning, the film does not lack realism. Only the third film ever to be entirely shot in Zulu – a challenge for the English language director – Otelo Burning is loosely based on a story about a real group of swimmers in Lamontville. More importantly, it is “a Lamontville story, told by the people of Lamontville” as Ms. Blecher said. “The film was in development for seven years” and “came out as an extensive workshop process conducted with a group of kids in Lamontville, near Durban,” she told journalists. This process, she added “started in 2004 when the directors and producers managed to bring together a group of ex-gangsters, builders, lifeguards, and swimmers – all residents of the township – who had been witnesses or participants in the story upon which the film is based”.
Two years later, the same group of people took part in acting workshops, in order to learn acting skills. This proved a success, because, as the director recalls “many participants were chosen for lead roles in a local drama series.” Nevertheless, this is not the only way in which they took part in the filmmaking: two of them even persuaded Sara Blecher to add a scene to the film. The deep involvement in the historical events the film refers to was seen by Sihile Xaba – the actor who played Mandla – both as a risk and an opportunity: “In shooting the film my worst fear was that it would open up old wounds,” said the young man in an interview. He was 9 years old when the clashes described in Otelo Burning took place. Thinking about it was sad – how those people died because they believed they did the right thing. I wish young people could appreciate how South Africa has changed,” he also said.
Otelo Burning was in some way a debut not only for some actors, but also for Sara Blecher herself. She had previously directed drama series and documentaries, but this was her first feature film, which has already been screened in film festivals around the world, including Seattle (USA), Busan (South Korea), Dubai, and the London International film Festival. In Africa, the film was chosen for the opening night of the Durban Film Festival and it won two out of 13 nominations at the 2012 African Movie Awards. (D. M.)
After six years at the helm of the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), Martin Mhando moves on. Mhando is a Tanzanian filmmaker. He has directed feature films and documentaries. His Maangamizi has won a number of awards and was selected to represent Tanzania at the Oscar in 2002 for the Best Foreign Film. He is also co-editor of the Journal of African Cinemas and Associate Professor in Media Studies at Murdoch University, Australia.
What are the challenges posed by organizing ZIFF?
There are innumerable challenges, however the biggest is financial. Having to raise a substantial amount of money each year makes a living hell for the Festival Director and the administration team, including the Board of Directors. Sponsors and Donors do not wish to consider funding for at least three years, which would help in managing programming and assuring quality but always insist on single-year funding followed by three months of post festival evaluation and another six months of discussions for the next festival’s funding. Worse still the same donors or sponsors would come and fund you very late and still expect the final product to be of top quality. A festival director’s job criteria includes capacity to beg and to never get angry with donors or sponsors.
The other challenge is government interference. For example, we still have to show all our films to the Zanzibar Censorship Board, while children are able to access pornography at will. We have argued that since this is a festival and not a commercial venture and films are shown only once or twice at most, there is no need to have the films censored.
Another insidious challenge is the expectations that some people have of how a festival should be. There are those who think all festivals have to look and feel like Cannes or Venice. We laugh at those because clearly they do not understand the cultural base of “festivals” in general. Festivals are a global driving force behind the circulation of ideas and the sense of identity.
How do you asses Zanzibar’s own response to the Festival?
ZIFF also suffers from one specific problem that is typically Zanzibari. We do not have cinemas. There is no single theatre in Zanzibar and therefore we have to show films in hotel rooms and museum halls. Of course we have the magnificent amphitheatre of the Old Fort where 1,500 people congregate each evening to watch films for the 10 festival evenings. However, during the daytime we have to use small venues that do not inhere the cinema experience.
What would you suggest to the new director?
I believe we need to go back to the financing side and note that local sponsorship is often what drives festivals, as the festival provides a platform for the congregation of huge numbers of likeminded people and advertisers can reach these artistically prone audiences with their messages. At ZIFF we are now concentrating on enlarging our local sponsorship base because we recognise that they are the best guarantee of our sustainability. From the days of 100 per cent dependence on foreign donor support ZIFF is now only 25 per cent dependent on foreign funds! However, donors do not seem to like this - because they do not praise us for that but continue to fund other organisations that have not shown our social and commercial acumen!
One key way the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival (T&T) is able to grow and remain a vibrant, cutting-edge entity is through its associations with other film festivals. Some of T&T team attend major festivals such as Toronto, Miami and Cannes, and they are in partnerships with other festivals, such as Femi in Guadeloupe and ZIFF in Zanzibar. Networking serves various functions. Seeing how other, often more established, festivals operate can provide T&T with valuable lessons on how to improve; and other festivals provide precious networking opportunities. Most importantly, by attending other festivals T&T is able to discover great films that would not otherwise be available in loco.
Two members of the T&T team recently returned from such journeys. Co-director Annabelle Alcazar attended the Verona African Film Festival in Italy. The oldest film festival in Europe screening exclusively African and African diaspora content, the Verona festival celebrated its 31st anniversary this year, and had as its theme “Revolution, the Arab spring and the diaspora”. Not only did Annabelle attend the festival as a representative of the T&T, she also had served on the festival’s jury. Also recently taking place was the 5th annual Dominican Republic Global Film Festival, at which T&T founder and Director Bruce Paddington was a guest. The Dominican Festival is one of the fastest-growing in the Caribbean. While in Verona, we asked Annabelle a few questions.
Could you tell us about the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival?
We are in our sixth year and our festival is the largest in English speaking Caribbean. There are more important festivals in Cuba and in the Dominica Republic, but for our linguistic area we are the largest. The festival runs for two weeks, the last of September and the first of October. In the last edition we showed 85 films, between documentaries and features, mainly from the Caribbean, which is our focus. We had films from Jamaica, Barbados, Dominica and other islands; from countries bordering the region, like Venezuela and Colombia; and the diaspora. We are now opening a new area of interest which is the African films.
What is your relation with the Verona Film Festival?
This is the first time one of us has visited the Verona Festival. This happened because one of our directors was in Zanzibar last year to participate at the festival there. Among the jury, there was Fabrizio Colombo, the artistic director of the festival in Verona, who is looking to expand the scope of the festival to include more films from the diaspora. He invited us to participate at the festival in Verona. We hope to start a good relationship with an exchange of films and experiences. Starting next year, there will be films from Trinidad and Tobago here in Verona, and we hope to receive some films from Africa, through the support of the Verona Festival.
You are co-director of the T&T, what does this entail?
T&T has grown so much that it has become a full time job for me. I have to look for films, vision them, and shortlist the candidates to participate at the screening. We also offer workshops and other activities. All this must be organized, prepared and it requires much time and attention.
How did you evaluate your experience in Verona?
I am not knowledgeable on African film on the whole. This is why I attach much importance on this experience, to get a perspective through this festival. We do have contacts with Zanzibar and some link to West Africa. We hope to acquire more experience on north, central and southern Africa through our friends in Verona. So far I have seen very good films, of good quality, high standards, all dealing with very important issues. I enjoyed watching the films so far. I have also appreciated the opportunity to meet young filmmakers. The African film industry is growing and I am pleased to see the results.
The Caribbean film industry is still very small. Our government is encouraging the growth of this industry because our society needs to diversify. So far, we are doing well thanks to natural resources, but these are not to last forever. The government in Trinidad and Tobago is trying to set up other industries which will provide occupation to the population, and the film industry is one of them. We encourage young people to get closer to film making. Here in Verona I have seen some good films shot and produced by young people, I am inspired by them and I hope this will also be possible back at home.
2011 Zanzibar International Film Festival’s top winner was The Rugged Priest. The film received the Golden Dhow and won the Verona Award, the prize the African Film Festival of Verona awards at the Zanzibar’s event. It also won in eight categories of the Kalasha awards. The film premiered in Europe during the African Film Festival of Verona, last November. Southworld met the film Director.
“I am Bob Nyanja, and I am a film director. I live in Nairobi, where I have been working as a director for the last 12 years. I came to Verona with the film The Rugged priest, which was released earlier in 2011. The film is about a former American marine who became a Catholic priest. He lives in Africa for a long time, about 25 years. Suddenly he sees things that he does not like: people who are kicked out of their land, where they lived a lifetime, houses torched, women raped. He is not happy and realizes these people have been attacked by their neighbours. The reason behind the attacks is the incitement by politicians who want to get rid of those who came from other ethnic background; people who came in peace, bought the land and lived there for many generations. Politicians claim that these people must be sent away, what they really want is to retain power and influence in their constituency. The priest then starts telling politicians that they are wrong, but also tries to make people elsewhere aware of the situation. The politician gets angry and takes vengeance against this priest. This is the story.
Why did you shoot this film?
I wanted to tell a story. In Africa films still have a role for education. But they are also a form of entertainment. I wanted to give a chance to the public to see a story that is true and speak of heroism. This is a story about one such hero who lived amongst the Kenyans, but has never been really appreciated and recognized. This is why I worked for this film.
What difficulties did you find?
The first challenge, like for every other independent producer, was to find the money to do the film. So raising the finance has been a really challenge. I begged, borrowed, stole (he laughs) to make sure we did the film. The second challenge was that we had a big dream for this film, but we were not able to do all we had in mind. We had to cut corners and trim the story for the amount of money we had: a big challenge especially for me as writer and director of the film.
How did politicians react?
They did not try to stop me, also because I made sure that the full picture was not known in advance. When we released the film they were unhappy. This story is inspired by real life events. I should have said that earlier. Some of the characters copycat real life people. This is true also for the main politician featured in the film. These are people whose friends are still in power, or they are still in power themselves, in senior places of government. Of course, they were not happy we exposed them, what they did was to claim that this film is embarrassing Kenya, that we should not wash our dirt in public. But after a while, when the word got out to journalists, they stopped because they realized that pushing the issue was only making it more complicated.
How did people received the movie?
The people were happy and there was a lot of excitement in Nairobi and the other places where we showed the film. Many said it was about time such film was done, for it was reminding Kenyans of the crimes and murders, that have happened over the years and have never being resolved. So people were happy that someone was bold enough to tell the story.
Did you interview many people to prepare this movie?
We did a lot of research. Interviewed people who knew the characters of the story. Most of the material came from documents we found.
The very first Festival of African Cinema in Italy took place in Verona in 1981. Today, 31 years later, it is still going strong. It has also become one of the beacons of African cinema in Europe. The Festival has shown great vitality, going from the militant films of the 1980s to modern production, more open to explore issues and themes beyond culture and ‘Africanity’. The latest edition took place in November and proposed many short films and documentaries that sanction this departure from themes bases solely on Africa.
The XXXI African Film Festival of Verona was dedicated to ‘Revolutions, African springs and diaspora’. The festival offered a great variety of films, but also cultural activities, discussion groups and allowed the public to meet film directors and actors. The official jury – composed by film critic Giancarlo Beltrame, film director and poet Cleophas Adrien Dioma, and film producer Annabelle Alcazar, who also the Art Director of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival– chose the Kenyan production Togetherness Supreme of Natahan Collet. “The film, they said, proposes a strong story. It focuses on Kenya, but it reflects issues that are continent wide. The film takes us into le life and emotions of Kibera’s slum dwellers as they are in real life. The film is well edited, the cast excellent and the story well told”.
Best documentary was Ithemba. “A movie that, without hiding the tough side of disability – the jury said - broadcast with rhythm and music the joy of life and, as the title says, hope. Life is stronger than any handicap. The Jury wishes that the prize may be shared with the young people appearing in the movie”. The Festival proposed also sections on documentaries and specific themes. Notable the section dedicated to documentaries with an impressive group of production. The Festival was founded by the magazine Nigrizia, and the editorial board of the magazine assigns its own prize. This year, the Nigrizia prize went to 18 Jours, a documentary made up by 18 independent short films, each to celebrate one of the day of the Egyptian Revolution. 18 Jours is a real chronicle of what happened, and of the people’s commitment for change. The documentary is more than the sum of its parts. In no scene one has the impression of viewing a simple paste up of material from different sources. This is a plus for the directors who worked together to produce it.
The Film Festival presents a prize at the Zanzibar Film Festival. Earlier this year, the prize was assigned to The rugged priest, a Kenyan production. The film was also shown in Verona, premiere view in Europe, and received a warm welcome from the public. The rugged priest is the story of Father Anthony Kaiser, a missionary who worked among the Maasai in southern Kenya and who was killed for his commitment to human rights on August 23, 2000. Bob Nyanja, the film director, conducted a lively debate after the projection. He explained that the many technical shortcoming of the film were due to the little money, the short time available for shooting, shooting with only one camera and with non-professional actors. Put in other words, it is a miracle that the film was shot at all. Nyanja’s problems are typical of the African film industry. At the same time, The rugged priest and Togetherness Supreme are the example of a film industry, the Kenyan one, that wants to find a space in the African panorama.
At the end of June, Zanzibar welcomed once again its own film festival, the ZIFF. The 14th edition of the festival, themed Season of Visions, presented a vast selection of films, documentaries, short stories, cartoons and experimental movies. The large participation of emerging film makers underlines how the ZIFF has become an important rendezvous for African directors and producers who want to showcase their work in Africa. The presence of many inter-active workshops allows young African artists a place where to meet and share. This edition of the festival focused on documentaries. Among the experts called to give talks and workshops, the best has been Nick Bloomfield, a well known master of investigative journalism. His Biggie and Tupac has been received enthusiastically by the public, which show how documentaries can be engaging and educative at the same time. Bloomfield gave a series of workshop on creative documentary. Paul Miller, a producer, and Donall McCusker, co-producer of The Hurt Locker, introduced participants to the process of transformation that takes creative ideas and transforms them into films. They also spoke about the challenges of filming in remote locations. Danny Scheschter, with many prizes won for his more than 50 productions, offered a series of forums on cinema and tourism.
In 2010 ZIFF introduced the Bongo Forum Film, a day dedicated to Swahili production. The Bongo Forum allows local film makers to meet colleagues from the international scene. The result of the initiative has been an increase in local production. Maisha Lab conducted a master class on script writing. Other workshops focused on HD filming, journalism reporting, and the respect of the environment. The literally forum tackled the issues of albinism in Africa.
The 71 films presented at Zanzibar may be classified within three themes: those dealing with politics and leadership, those focused on women and relationships, and films about human marginalization. The Rugged Priest by Bob Nyanja (Kenya, 2010) is based on the life of Fr Anthony Kaiser, a missionary who spent his life on the side of the poorest and against the corrupt political class of Kenya. The film tells how Fr Kaiser endeavoured to find truth and justice on behalf of the people he represented. His martyrdom did nothing else than raising more prophets and martyrs ready to follow the same ideals of truth and justice. The film won the Golden Dhow, and it was also selected for the Verona Award, the prize assigned by the Verona Africa Film Festival at Zanzibar. The Silver Dhow went to Togetherness Supreme (Kenya, 2010) by Nathan Collett. This documentary explores the post election violence erupted in Kenya in 2007. The director was able to explore the drama of ethnic tensions and express the popular will for peace and coexistence, expressed by the relationship between Kamau and Othieno, the two main actors representing people from different ethnic background.
Womenís issues remain an important theme in Africaís films. A good Catholic girl (Uganda, 2011) by Matt Bish relates the love between a Catholic boy and a young Muslim girl born within a culture of intolerance. The arranged marriage forced upon the girl does not follow the logic of love, and will end tragically. The film asks for tolerance and respect of differences. In A country for my daughter (South Africa, 2011), Lucile Blankenberg presents the revelations of women who suffered rape. Rape is a widespread social issue in South Africa, and it involves people of all classes, races and status. The justice system is slow to pursue the perpetrators.
The jury selected also a number of films highlighting stories of outstanding men and women. Famboul Tok (USA, 2011) by Sara Terry talks about the challenges of reconciliation and of rebuilding a society in Sierra Leone after years of conflicts. The amnesty has freed many people, but did not prevent their sense of guilt to resurface. The traditional rite to confess publicly oneís deeds before a bonfire becomes a redemptive experience where to feel forgiveness. An elder says 'there is no bad forest where to throw away a bad child', summing up the need to face guilt and work for reintegration within society. An approach far from the lengthy, expensive and impersonal experience of international tribunals.
Forgotten gold (South Africa, 2010) by Makela Pululu is a story of love which gives meaning to life. It is the story of Ndaye Mulamba, a Congolese football player forgotten by his own country after contributing to the success of the national team at the 1974 Cup of Africa. After a short break in the spotlight, Maleba ended up in South Africa where he did all kind of menial jobs to survive. It is in South Africa that Mulamba finds once again love and appreciation, showing that home is where one's heart is. Once again, Zanzibar showcased a cinema centred on the human being, on their lives and dignity.