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Popcorn and Chewing Gum

by Sarah Dawson / 23.07.2010

It may be impossible for the rest of South Africa to imagine that anything of any significance ever happens in Durban, and that’d probably be a reasonable assumption, given that nothing actually ever does. Except at the end of July. No, I’m not talking about that poncy horserace that’s an excuse for every socially aspirant jock in the country to migrate to the city to drink him/herself silly under a big tent. I’m talking about something far more impressive, but a little less widely spoken about – the Durban International Film Festival.

It’s entirely within the realm of the possible that at some point you may have met a Durbanite away from the Indian Ocean and discovered, somewhat surprisingly, that they’re something of an unexpected film buff. And DIFF is almost certainly the party responsible.

The festival is in its 31st year, and its outrightly astounding that by now the SA culturati aren’t tearing each other’s hair out at the airline ticket desks to get here. It’s the second biggest festival in Africa, the biggest in the country, and even so, it’s not the scale of it that makes it awesome. It’s not even the parties. It’s the sheer brilliance of the programming.

Many of these films you’ll never see anywhere else in the country ever again. They come from far and wide, carefully selected by the people at the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu Natal. Some are hot off the A-grade festival circuit, some are quiet masterpieces from far-flung places. It’s hard to sum up the diversity and scale of what will be taking place around Durban for the next ten days.

This festival will see the brand new films of big name directors like Moodysson, Haneke, Resnais, Todd Solondz, Claire Denis, Harmony Korine, Pippilotti Rist etc. It will see tons of filmmakers from around the world arriving in our seaside town. It will see workshops and panels by the bigwigs from the industry discussing funding opportunities, distribution platforms and a range of other things. It will see the 40 budding African filmmakers participate Durban Talent Campus, part of the Berlin Talent Campus framework, creating collaborations for the future.

I’m trying really hard not to let this sound too much like a press release. But truly, it is every bit as amazing as I’m making it out to be. I sat down with the programme this week to plan my festival viewing, I was (as I am every year) completely overwhelmed. It is totally impossible to see and do everything you want to. I had circled about 54 films I wanted to see in the 10 days, meaning I had to make some pretty painful choices about what to leave out, knowing many of them will be lost to my viewing enjoyment forever. I’m still sitting with about thirty on my list, ie average of three films per day. I hope my brain doesn’t explode.

There will be about 80 feature films, around 30 feature documentaries, stacks of brilliant short film, the Wavescapes Surf Film Festival (which is free and takes place on the beach in our beautiful warm Durban winter weather). There will be an Ingmar Bergman retrospective, including brand new prints of his brilliant work best appreciated projected on a theatre screen. There are focus areas on Swedish film (old and new), Africa in Motion (showcasing nine world premieres of South African feature films), African Realities (including documentraies about the broad and rich experience of people on our continent), Eco Lens (featuring films about the environment) and one or two others. All this taking place in numerous venues all around the city.

The amazing thing is, almost every single one of the films is exceptional in some way. This is definitely no lame-ass collection of bargain bin films in between the big names on the marquee. In fact, more often than not, the lesser known films have impressed DIFF audiences more than those on the programme you would likely find reviewed in Variety.

I had a peek at the Grahamstown Festival’s film programme for this year. It’s no lie to say that a large chunk of the film programme was seen by Durbanites exactly one year ago. Even von Trier’s Antichrist made its way to DIFF a year before it found cinemas in SA. You may pick up some of these films in DVD nouveau a couple of months from now, but you won’t see them on the big screen, you won’t meet the filmmakers, you won’t get to deliver your audience vote.

So, for the next ten days, we’ll be delivering you a blow-by-blow account of the festival. Just so you know what you’re missing.

Click here to download the 2010 festival programme.

*All images © Sarah Dawson

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