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DIFF 2011 | Opening Night | Beach Bonfires and Burning Tyres

by Roger Young and Sarah Dawson / 22.07.2011

Sarah Dawson

Even as a faithful Durbanite, I’d be the first to admit that not a hell of a lot goes on in the city besides people bumming about near the ocean and / or getting high. Sometimes people go to Pick ‘n Pay too, but that basically covers it. And if you’re someone like me, that’s totally okay, most of the time.

But then, in July, this amazing film festival happens and its like Durban suddenly gets to pretend that its a buzzing cosmopolitan hub of culture because the city is descended upon by hundreds of the who’s who of the local and international film industry. The Durban International Film Festival is the longest-running and biggest film festival in Southern Africa. Those who are involved in creating films in this country know that it’s one of, if not the, the most important event on the SA film calendar, and the place where very many local and international productions premiere. But amazingly, this knowledge remains a well-kept secret, and not many of those not on the inside of the industry have any idea that this culture-explosion is happening on the East Coast every year.

Certainly, the festival has a programme of events invaluable to those involved in the production of film, like panels, talks and workshops, ranging from presentations by various funders and festivals etc (including Sundance, Rotterdam, Berlin and many more), and boozy, schmoozy parties to facilitate networking. It also succeeds at fostering a sense of a cohesive local industry, since for eleven days people with an interest in film in South Africa get a chance to mingle on the exclusive basis of cinema, creating a sense that, yes, the film industry is actually happening, and that it is more than the sum of a number of disparate projects, productions, companies and other operations going on separately around the country. The filmmart offers a place for funders looking to fund can meet filmmakers with a project that needs money. The Talent Campus brings 50 young African filmmakers to Durban to meet and learn.

This is all grand if you’re involved in film making, but the truly fabulous bit about the festival is its astonishing screening lineup, the scale and character of which far outstrips any other film event in the country. There are literally hundreds of screenings across many venues in the city, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. Many of these are either the first time, or the only time, these films will be seen in this country. And the programme does not forsake quality for quantity. It is the cream of local and international cinema, and is a welcome relief from the trash that screens at mainstream theatres.

This year the programme contains both the 2010 and 2011 Cannes Palm d’Or winners, Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall his Past Lives, and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. The Cannes Queer Palm winner of 2011, Skoonheid, by young South African Oliver Hermanus will also see its national premier. But this is just a tiny drop in the enormous ocean that is the lineup this year, and before I get boring and gushy, rather go check out the programme here to see what you’re missing out on (besides the beautiful winter weather) in Durban at this time of year.

Every year the festival starts with a ceremonial bang, including a whole bunch of speeches, a carefully chosen opening film, and a fancy party with lots of free food and drink. Last night was no different. Followed by beach-side, bonfire-lit festivities (though not lacking in canapes and sauvignon blanc), this year’s opening film was Otelo Burning, and this will be the first review of Mahala’s daily coverage as many of this year’s films as our writers can possibly shove into their eyeballs in 11 days.

Off we go!

Roger Young

Otelo Burning. (SA 2011. Dir Sara Blecher. Cast:Thomas Gumede, JaftaMamabolo Tshepang Mohlomi)

Otelo is a great choice as an opening film. It’s beautifully shot, the performances are restrained and real, the surf footage is incredible, the period reconstructions are believable without being too pointed, it’s dramatic without being too angsty, the story is compelling; in short, it checks all the right boxes. Otelo, though, does not grab entirely. It’s a coming of age story set against the Inkatha / ANC clashes in Lamontville, a Durban township, in the late ‘80s. Three boys, desperate to escape the grind of poverty and repression, turn to surfing, as they begin to enter the white world of professional surfing, fractures appear in the relationship between the Otelo and his friend Mandla. And herein lies the problem with Otelo Burning. The fractures merely appear. The character of Mandla is never set up terribly convincingly, he is introduced in a “we weren’t quite sure where Mandla came from” fashion and his motivations are never as keenly felt as Otelo’s (who’s inner life is narrated by his best friend New Year). As a result the dénouement of Otelo Burning lands quite dully. The film attempts to be a by the numbers betrayal tragedy but many of its key dramatic moments suffer from problems of character. It’s not that the events that happen are unexpected, it’s that they are expected and unfold without being totally believable. Coupled with this, the score and editing don’t always fully reinforce the film’s big moments. Its present day ending also feels tacked on and preachy. Otelo Burning is a period coming of age drama set for a commercial release and it follows all the protocols of the genre’s requirements and then some. Blecher cannot be commended enough for her handling of her cast, who deliver deeply touching performances, Lance Gewer’s cinematography is truly the most accomplished I’ve seen at DIFF in recent years, his use of shadow is deeply affecting, carrying the emotion of some of the films key moments, and the production design is almost flawless. In the end, however, Otelo Burning sets out to be atragedy and its tragic elements don’t always fully satisfy.


Day One: Schedule

Roger Young: RETRIBUTION. South Africa 2010, BLACK BUTTERFLIES. Germany, Netherlands, South Africa 2011, SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS
Canada 2010.

Sarah Dawson: THE GIANTS (Belgium 2011), ELITE SQUAD 2 – THE ENEMY WITHIN (Brazil 2010), ELENA (Russia 2011)

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