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DIFF 2011 | The Wrap Up

by Sarah Dawson, Roger Young and Sihle Mthembu / 03.08.2011

Sarah Dawson

Phew. It’s over. I feel full to the brim. It’s been a beautiful, if sometimes bleak, year for the DIFF programme. I squeezed in a final eight films, and a closing party, between Friday and Sunday, which took my tally up to twenty films exactly. Twenty also happens to be the number I set as a mark of a DIFF programme exploited to some moderate degree of adequacy. It’s the number which allows me to not feel too much regret at having missed some of the great films that I know I would have enjoyed. Over twenty means, it was just not possible, under means I could have seen it if I’d tried harder. Because the truth is that there is always just too much, and you always end up missing something that other people can’t stop talking about. Happily, of my twenty, there were very few disappointments, and overall it’s been a pretty darn strong DIFF year, I’d say, with a programme full of divisive choices, strong films that elicit passionate responses, both positive and negative, and shrugs of bewilderment, rather than lack of interest. Some films have inspired angry discussions, others wistful recountings. Some of the films will reach the arthouse cinemas and DVD stores, but many of them won’t be seen by a South African audience ever again. So I am grateful. I have cried over a dying cat. I have laughed at a paedophile’s joke. I’ve shushed silhouetted humans in a dark cinema. I’ve watched a French actor perform an impromptu post-screening breakdance demo. I’ve drunk far too much free wine. And I’ve seen, almost exclusively, some seriously good film.


On Saturday night, this film won Best Feature in the competition category at DIFF. And, although it must be a tough choice for the jury, it was certainly not undeserved. It’s a complex family drama that deals with the irreducibility of conflict between people, who may tread the ground of the same domestic space, have diverse and sometimes irreconcilable needs and desires. In the resolution of a conflict, someone always loses, and in Nader and Simin, not one of the characters is prepared to make this sacrifice for the sake of peace. Since what is at stake is reputation and integrity, its a tooth and nail battle to come out on top. This is complicated when pride is funnelled through other things, like “looking after the welfare of one’s offspring”, or “doing the right thing, which distances the desire to win from the self.

A couple is separating over a disagreement regarding their daughter’s future, and the husband’s fathers alzheimers. When they hire a woman to assist in looking after the invalid old man, their lives and families become entangled. Within this microcosmic space, the film deftly gathers together notions of pride, stubbornness, parental concern, responsibility, guilt, morality and honesty. It deals with moral grey areas, and the exploitation of notions of justice in conflict for personal victory and the disavowal of culpability. The film’s final, true “villain” (the one who intitially sets the in motion the tit-for-tat “setting right of things”) turns out to be the character most unable to accept culpability, and not in a position to be held responsible. This undermines the search for vengeance and desire to set things right, which puts into question the idea of vengeful or even moral justice as it is so often put into use in society. It’s hard to overlook its universally allegorical nature, which has a particularly strong resonance in the region of the Middle East. A really excellent film.

RUBBER (France 2010)

A serial killer car tyre terrorises a desert community. That’s about it. I don’t have a lot to say about this film. It’s half-heartedly self-reflexive, daft and post-modern. It does what its sets out to do, which is to be comically nihilistic. It starts out amusingly, but quickly runs out of gags. In the vein of Schizopolis or I Heart Huckabees, it’s not as interesting or funny as either. It would have been a really great short film.

HOSPITALITE (Japan 2010)

A really odd little Japanese film that feels somewhat amateurish, but is far from lacking in spirit and humour. It’s a domestic comedy of errors – a trickster figure manages to work his way into the family life of a young couple, and they find it increasingly difficult to get rid of him, even though he threatens to unravel everything by revealing their darkest secrets.

It’s a kind of kooky, “No! What next!?” film, with an unexpected ending, and is really just a hoot, from start to finish.


One of my favourites this year. Starring musician Will Oldham as a naïve and well-intentioned reborn christian trying to support and save the clearly damaged Irishman, Sean, who spent time in Afghanistan, but has battled with depression since his teens. It is gentle and lovely and speaks of the need for humans to care and be cared for, the need for mercy and love. We eavesdrop on their simply-worded but profoundly evocative and provocative discussions on what it is to live, and what the best way to go about it is, not arriving at any single, easy answer. But what matters in these interactions of theirs is not the finding of answers, but the finding of a friend who’ll listen. With a soundtrack that consists of only one song, the film ends quietly with a rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand…” that echoes inside the viewer as a humble, vulnerable plea that we all commonly conceal under our shells of identity and protect throughout the slog of daily life. It needs patience, but it moved me on a level no other film this year reached.

TALES OF THE NIGHT (France 2011)

I was surprised to find that the film was in 3D! The first 3D film DIFF has ever screened. And it was really delightful. In an old cinema, three characters tell a series of folk stories from around the world. It is sweet and funny and aesthetically unusual. Sometimes the angle on the stories are very slightly inappropriate in a postcolonial world, but naively and benignly so. The animation is done in a shadow-puppetry, silhouetted style, and the 3D works effectively to separate out the two dimensional planes for a really theatrical experience. The colours are vivid and neon at times, and muted and gentle at others. It was quite visually hypnotic. The theatre was full of kids who seemed to really enjoy it, despite the subtitles. I’m glad I stumbled across this little film.

CIRCUMSTANCE (Iran, Lebanon, US 2011)

You can tell that there’s American money in this film. Aesthetically and narratively. But though it may exploit certain cliches, it nevertheless deals with
But there is a sense that it is an Iranian story being told to non-Iranians, rather than a story made for audiences in its country of origin. Or perhaps its made for a youth audience in Iran that identifies with a globalised American aesthetic. It’s hard to say, and I don’t want to get caught in an Orietalist trap by saying that it’s not “Iranian enough”. The question should rather be, is it a good film, and does it achieve what it sets out to do, and I would answer yes on both counts.

It succesfully navigates that dialectic between the micro and the macro. Two girls struggle with the limitations of their circumstances in a still fairly conservative muslim state. They lust for the freedom and pop culture of the west. In their isolation and shared longing for sexual liberation, their affections turn towards each other. It gets quite steamy in moments. Although it’s not explicit in anyway, it certainly inhabits with authenticity the nervous, tender sexiness of the teenage girls’ discovery of their own sexuality, and their navigation of the taboos around their own desires.

The problem is that they are being watched over by their religious zealot, recovering addict dickhead of a brother, who uses this to manipulate the situation to his own conservative, chauvinist ends.

Roger Young

We gave up writing on Friday, there were too many movies to try and catch, and the writing was eating into the watching. Our DIFF guides were battered, dog-eared, the individual systems of colour coding long since dissolved into angry markings and unintelligible notes. Between Friday and Sunday I watched seven films, and in a mad bid to find something great that no one else had seen I ventured out to Cinema Nouveau in Gateway and experienced three films with Bon Jovi blasting through the walls from The Barnyard. Next year I’ll plan my viewings here around the Barnyard schedule; watching a tender scene between two people pondering whether to separate or rekindle their love while “You Give Love A Bad Name” blasts through the walls is not optimum. I leant my lesson hard this year, you need to research, and you need to plan your DIFF, often bad transport planning on my part meant I missed things I will never have a chance to see again.My films of the fest were Elena and Skoonheid, which both won in their categories, Best South African and Special Mention for Skoonheid and Best Director and Best Actress for Elena. None of us saw The First Grader, which won the audience award. Best Feature went to Nader and Simin, A Separation,and Sarah discusses it below. The award ceremony was bigger this year, mostly because it was moved from being a dinner function to an actual ceremony in a cinema before the closing film. This format comes with a whole host of new problems for DIFF so let’s just be kind and say they had some teething problems. We can only hope that the awards event improves at the same rate the rest of DIFF does every year. Over the last weekend I watched seven films (including Rubber which Sarah deals with), here are my thoughts.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, Tamara Drewe, Snow Flower and The Secret Fan.

I’m grouping these all together because they’re all that kind of film that really annoy me, the “art house film”. None of them are really art house but because they have one element that makes them respectable they become fodder for Cinema Nouvea patrons. Midnight in Paris has Woody Allen, Tamara Drewe the English country setting and Snow Fan is in Chinese with subtitles. All three of the films are fairly mainstream in construction and execution. Midnight is a comedy about Owen Wilson wanting to live in the past and having a bitchy wife. Tamara Drewe is a comedy about a rich ugly duckling journalist and the hot working class guy set at an English countryside writers retreat. Snow Fan is like a time travel version of Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants for Chinese underwear models staring Hugh Jackman. You see, by this stage of DIFF the chances are you’ve seen some films that have seriously impressed you and the standard art house fare won’t do anymore.

IN A BETTER WORLD (Denmark, Sweden 2010)

In A Better World won this years foreign language Oscar and you can see why, it’s like Babel but in Danish and with stuff that happens in Africa. All festival weary cynicism and hoighty-toighty-ness aside, it’s actually a pretty good film, not the greatest at DIFF but certainly better than a lot of others of its ilk. The story revolves around two boys, one a Swede living in a small Danish town, the other a Dane returning to the same town after his mother’s death. The Swedish boy, Elias, is bullied at school, the Dane, Christian, needs to prevent this happening to himself and he attacks the bully, cementing the friendship between the two and establishing a sense of moral superiority in himself. Elias’s father Anton, a doctor, does aid work in some unnamed African refugee camp and is a pacifist. When Anton turns the other cheek during a random altercation with a mechanic in front of the boys Christian is disgusted and manipulates Elias into helping him take the law into their own hands. But Anton is also dealing with another power play between the refugee camp occupants and a violent warlord, where his pacifism is also seriously affecting the people around him. As much as In A Better World starts of as a brutally European examination of pacifism, manipulation, and complicity it often feels blunted, especially with it’s ribbon neat ending.

SHI (POETRY) (South Korea 2011)

About two hours into Shi I was drained on so many levels, I wanted to just crawl into a little cave and sleep forever. It’s a stiflingly long, beautifully performed, understated masterpiece. A grandmother, Mija, is at odds with her live in grandson, her daughter is away in another province and he treats her like a servant. A girl at his school commits suicide. The grandmother discovers that she is the early stage of Alzheimer’s. As the story slowly moves toward unveiling the involvement of her grandson in the girl’s suicide the grandmother takes up a poetry class and tries to write just one poem. It’s an incredibly bleak film, Jeong-hie Yun’s performance as Mija is astonishing, a cog turning slowly against the societal regard for saving face. It’s a lengthy film and loaded with bleakness, at the end I felt gutted by humanity.


I have very little to say about The Turin Horse, once again, I’m almost in total agreement with Sarah’s take last week. I saw it five days ago and it’s still haunting my dreams. There is something about its slow grind to darkness that reminded me (emotionally, not thematically) of Haneke’s White Ribbon. All the warings about how difficult a film it is are superfluous; it’s neither difficult nor overly long. There were however two sticking points for me. Firstly because it was so lovingly shot in lavish black and white, it tended to beautify the squalor of the protagonists, I am not sure if this was intentional but it made me doubt the veracity of the outcome. Secondly there was one badly executed effect detail in an extremely static and lengthyshot, in such a nuanced and considered environment it jarred considerably. Despite these two things The Turin Horse still lingers, its visual brooding and absolute nihilism stalking my thoughts.

Sihle Mthembu

DEAR MANDELA (Winner Best South African Documentary)

There are no credible statistics about the number of slums in South Africa, and as the government tries to implement the Slums Act, they face an opposition of different kind. Directed by DaraKell and Christopher Nizza Dear Mandela is a masterclass in ambitious documentary making. The film follows Mnikelo, Mazwi and Zama as they try and oppose the government imposed eviction plan. Dear Mandela has a series of well planned sequences and between the social statistics we learn about the lives of the three characters. They offer a kind of uncensored honesty that comes with youth. As the trio-take their case to the highest court in the country they rely on the kindness of their community and lawyers who are willing to take up their case pro-bono.

Kell and Nizza have in this film successfully merged a blend of each of the individual characters without compromising the social background in which the film finds its roots. This perhaps comes as a result of the work Kell did as an editor for Jesus Camp. The film uses largely handheld camera work and the resulting footage makes the viewer feel as if they are a fourth character in the film. With portraits of Mandela as backdrop, the film expresses the social upheaval and disillusionment that is now becoming commonplace amongst South Africans.

Zama is perhaps the most dynamic of the three characters and through her story as an AIDS the directors have drawn us closer to the plight of many AIDS orphans who are now homeless as a result of the plan. The film climaxes as the case is heard at the constitutional court in what by all accounts can best be described as a David vs Goliath encounter. The result is enthralling and is delivered in an unexpected way. Dear Mandela if you live in the most divided society in the world is one of those films that will never leave you, the only question I wonder is did they clear the name rights with the Nelson Mandela foundation?

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