Several resignations and a dramatic standoff over the opening-night film have made one of Africa’s most important film festivals the talk of the industry, reports Charl Blignaut
‘I am not able to comment, but I have left my position at the film festival,” Sarah Dawson, manager of the prestigious Durban International Film Festival (Diff) said this week.
Several insiders who do not wish to be named for fear of jeopardising their projects or jobs have, however, told City Press of the drama that played out at the Diff offices at the Centre for Creative Arts (CCA) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZ-N) this week.
The university runs Diff as well as three other yearly festivals – for books, poetry and dance.
Dawson resigned, they say, over the selection of the important opening night film at Diff next month, but it also runs deeper than that.
In five years, the festival has had five bosses and complaints of interference from the university have been raised before – not to mention state interference when the 2013 opening film, Of Good Report, was effectively banned when the Film and Publication Board refused to classify it. The ruling was later overturned.
Insiders say that Dawson, after much debate with the selection panel, decided against an opening-night screening for the big-budget Shepherds and Butchers, a death-penalty drama set in the apartheid era.
The film, directed by award-winning South African Oliver Schmitz, plays out in 1987. It is told through the eyes of a teenage prison guard who must stand trial after he snaps and commits murder after witnessing too many executions.
It premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year to mixed reviews, but scooped the third place of the Panorama Audience Award for Fiction Films.
City Press has reliably learnt that Dawson communicated with producer Anant Singh’s company, Videovision, that the film was to have a special gala screening – but not on opening night. One of her concerns, they say, was the violence in the film.
But Singh was not happy with the decision and objected. Contacted by City Press, he said: “I engaged with Ms Dawson to raise my concerns, as I felt it wrong that whilst she commended the film, she was playing the role of censor.”
Sources say he copied the head of the CCA, UKZ-N Deputy Vice-Chancellor Humanities, Professor Cheryl Potgieter, into the mail – though he denies addressing the mail to her.
Potgieter allegedly replied with an apology, and overruled Dawson, saying that Shepherds and Butchers would in fact be the opening film this year.
Colleagues say Dawson resigned because of what she saw as interference.
All she would tell City Press was: “I feel that it is important to ensure that Diff remains a festival in which the opportunity for new cinematic voices to find a platform exists.” Sources doubted that Potgieter had seen the film she had selected, but Potgieter did not reply to questions about this.
Instead, the university’s executive director of corporate relations, Lesiba Seshoka, said: “The film was chosen because it seeks to educate; is a relevant reflection on South African history; and deals with the socially relevant and contested issue of the death penalty and its effects and consequences.
“The film is also a commemoration of the thousands of people who were victims of the death penalty instituted by the apartheid government. It is a proudly South African film.
“In addition, the Film and Publications Board has officially classified the film with a rating of 16V, making it suitable for viewers over the age of 16. In this light, it is unclear why Ms Sarah Dawson found the film to be inappropriate or unsuitable for the opening night of the film festival.”
But that was just the start of the drama. Jack Chiang, key programmer at Diff for 10 years, resigned on Facebook on Thursday night, apparently in solidarity with Dawson.
Contacted by City Press, Chiang said: “There is interference against the festival and a lack of support from UKZ-N, who is supposed to be the backbone of independent thinking, to protect the integrity of artistic curatorship of the festival.”
Even more worrying, say insiders, is the situation with Tiny Mungwe, manager of Centre for Creative Arts programmes and of the industry programme at Diff. Mungwe was behind the hugely successful “decolonisation” of the CCA’s Time of the Writer book festival this year. “I cannot comment because I have a CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) action against the university,” she said when City Press contacted her this week.
UKZ-N would not be drawn on the action.
Pedro Pimenta, acclaimed festival manager and film maker from Mozambique, held Dawson’s position at last year’s festival. This week, he expressed support for Dawson and Chiang.
“Fundamentally, I was invited to leave when my position was advertised, without my knowledge,” he told City Press.
“I was contracted by the KZN Film Commission to drive transformation of Diff and create a new, autonomous structure outside UKZ-N. I very quickly realised there was resistance to new ideas and transformation. The resistance was awful ... there was permanent interference about everything,” he said.
“What’s happening to Sarah and Jack is just a continuation of this attitude. You are dealing with people who know very little about film. In 10 months I never met Potgieter despite requesting numerous meetings.”
There are concerns that one of Africa’s greatest festivals – now in its 37th year – is losing its standing.
“African film festivals today need to be autonomous entities who play a crucial role in the industry, in developing film-making and audiences, because of their independence,” said Pimento.
The university confirmed that Peter Machen, who has managed the festival before, will replace Dawson.