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DIFF Diary: Day 8 – Where are the Fathers

by Roger Young / 30.07.2010

As you may have noticed by yesterdays post, it’s got to that exhausted point of the DIFF. I just don’t know how many more films I can actually see. I get sleep but it’s not restful, images are double exposed and seeping into my dreams. Only two days to go to the closing party.

SURFING SOWETO: Dir: Sara Blecher (South Africa)
Surfing Soweto explores a world of young men without fathers. Living in Soweto, surrounded by crime and death, Bitchnigga, Lefa and Mzembe train surf, taunting death by cable as a way to feel alive. They climb up on top of moving trains and bust WWF and hip hop moves, ducking cables that come at them at high speed carrying the high voltage electricity that has roasted some of their friends alive. Simply told but never simplistic, Surfing Soweto uses candid interviews with the protagonists shot over five years, mixed in with footage, shot by the surfers themselves, of train surfing and of them wandering the streets and going to parties, tracking down relatives and languishing in drug dens in Hillbrow. We hear how their fathers are gone, wasted away, dead in the armed struggle or in prison, these boys seek normalcy as a kind of aspiration, the desire to be a hairdresser, a tour guide, to just to have a house and a proper family.

Bitchnigga was the first to climb on a train all those years ago and when he reflects on how this inspired others to do the same, you feel the weight of responsibility for all the deaths that have followed, a friend cut in half by the cable, someone falls off a moving train, electrocutions, a season of funerals during the metro train security guard strike. Blecher’s documentary is emotionally jarring and a sad indictment of a society that doesn’t provide role models or opportunities for it’s young men to come to some kind of balance. While stylistically some of the elements can feel slightly forced, the emotional questioning by its protagonists and the space given to them to express themselves makes Surfing Soweto an honest and non-judgmental portrait of three people just trying to make sense of world stripped by the past of clear paths.

LIFE, ABOVE ALL: Dir: Oliver Schmitz (South Africa)
In Life, Above All, each frame aches with sadness, it’s a mesmerizing and brutal examination of the many levels of denial and superstitions inherent in tradition and religion that allow people to be selfish and turn their backs on people with AIDS.

Chanda, a young girl in a small community has to organize the burial of her infant sister because her mother is too weak to do so herself, her stepfather has stolen the burial money and is drinking and whoring. The neighbors pretend to be sympathetic but behind her back are fearful and judgmental. Chanda’s friend Esther is made to sleep in a shed by her aunt and uncle because her parents died of the disease, with no one to care for her, the pre-adolescent turns to prostituting herself to passing truck drivers. What could have been a preachy and overbearing film is instead made emotionally riveting by the inevitability of the outcome as Chanda struggles to find help for her mother and her friend, battling against the stigma imposed by the community and her family.

Never patronizing or politicizing, Life, Above All never stoops to villianize the people that Chanda has to fight against but rather portrays them as people with their own demons to bear. It echo’s the sentiments of the neighbors by not even mentioning the disease until it becomes too plainly obvious, and even then most try to deny it.

The strength of Life, Above All is in the performances of it’s two leads, Khomotso Manyaka and Keaobaka Makanyane, who bring the necessary restraint and yearning that makes the film the powerful examination it is. Believable and rooted, it is a South African film that is deeply important film on many levels. And while it not a perfect film, it is so very close for the difference to be negligible. The absolute best South African set film of the festival.

Roger recommends for Friday July 30th
MY HUNTER’S HEART (South Africa)- Suncoast – 18:30
Wild Strawberries (Sweden) – Sneddon – 18:00
Winter’s Bone (USA) – Musgrave – 20:00
White Material (France/Cameroon) – Nouveau – 20: 30

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