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DIFF Wig Free Sex

2015-07-10 12:09

On Thursday night, Sara Blecher – the unassuming woman sitting opposite me with the stylishly cropped fringe, tongue full of engaged questions and the weary eyes of a film maker in postproduction – will become only the second director in 36 years to have a second film open the important Durban International Film Festival (Diff).

In 2011, it was her late-80s black-surfer epic Otelo Burning, set in a time of bloody political rivalry in KwaZulu-Natal. This year, it will be her contemporary family drama Ayanda, set in a time of Nigerian-South African love in Yeoville.

It would be tempting to say that her move from the violent past to the imperfect-but-positive present is an indicator of where South African film is at, except she has another movie showing this year too. It’s called Dis Ek, Anna (It’s Me, Anna), also set in the 80s, but this time dealing with the harsh reality of sexual abuse. People who have seen it liken it to being punched in the gut.

Still, with Ayanda, Blecher has consciously decided to depict life in Africa and not just death.

“I think we need to show that it isn’t all misery,” she says. “If you look at what’s going on in Yeoville, people are actually making it work; they’re inspiring one another. It’s like New York. You get waves of immigrants who come and set up businesses and help one another. We all have to live together.”

She’s not the only one shifting focus with recent projects. Akin Omotoso, famous for his gruelling xenophobia film Man on Ground, is this year presenting a romcom at Diff called Tell Me Sweet Something.

What we’re getting now, it seems, are some gritty, quirky and complex love stories that tell us news from Africa we’re not hearing.

Of course, that doesn’t mean these directors are not going to go back to exploring harsher realities (Blecher’s next film is about slain soccer star Senzo Meyiwa).

It’s possibly just a reprieve, and one that should be read alongside the emergent nihilistic tones of young directors such as Sibs Shongwe-La Mer, who will be showing his debut feature Necktie Youth this year.

But it’s a sea change made particularly clear when you consider that the only other film maker to have his films honoured on two occasions with the opening night at Diff is Darrell Roodt – with Yesterday (2004) and Meisie (2007).

His work was what the world came to regard as the typical South African film – poverty, Aids and rural struggle (depicted in worthy tones by caring whites). It was followed by a wave of often gratuitously violent gangster flicks, a wave we’re still riding.

Blecher’s purpose with Ayanda is very different.

“Apart from a few joints, there are no drugs, no guns, no shoot-outs in this movie.”

I ask her what motivated her to write the script.

“My daughter’s name is Ayanda and, when she was 15, I took her to see [indie US coming-of-age film] Juno. It was such an amazing thing because when we came out of the movie, she was different,” she tells me. “That movie gave her permission to be herself. To be different and to be okay with that ... I wanted to make a movie that gave young South Africans a new role model.”

WATCH: Ayanda trailer

In Ayanda – which I haven’t yet seen – Ayanda, a mechanic played by Fulu Mugovhani, must come to terms with her father’s death so that she can let go and move on with her life.

What’s notable is the titles of Blecher’s films this year – Ayanda and Anna – both women’s names. We have become so accustomed to men’s depictions of women in our cinema that it’s a rare thing for women to tell their own stories.

“We have a real woman here,” says Blecher. “She takes her wig off before sex.”

Here’s the crux of how women are often portrayed in South African film – they have agency, but only if they fulfil men’s fantasies. Ayanda is different.

“It was so funny,” recalls Blecher. “We had a three-hour debate on set about whether she was going to take her wig off or not. All the men on set said, omigod, if she takes the wig off she’s gonna be unsexy. It’s gonna be the most unsexy sex scene imaginable. And all the women on set are saying, how are you gonna have sex with a wig on? You’re gonna wake up with a wig next to you. So Terry [Pheto] was there and Terry was wearing a wig. She pulled off the wig and said to the guys: ‘Am I unsexy?’”

The scene was shot without the wig.

Pheto, by the way, joined Ayanda as a producer after falling in love with the project when she auditioned for a part that was later written out.

So with Ayanda, we have a film written and produced by women about a woman with actual agency. That alone earns it my nod for Durban.

And the power of Pheto should not be underestimated. She has no problem using the red carpet to punt her producer agenda.

After screenings in Cannes and LA, Ayanda has already been invited to more than 20 festivals, and a distribution deal is already on the table.

. Ayanda will be released in cinemas in October

. Dis Ek, Anna will be released in cinemas in September

. Both films will screen at the Durban International Film Festival, which runs from July 16 to 26.

See durbanfilmfest.co.za for the full programme

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January 26 2020