THIRTY-FIVE years ago, a brave, intelligent, eccentric woman with multi-coloured hair, big clothing and an enigmatic personality decided to do something unheard of in apartheid South Africa. Ros Sarkin decided to start a film festival, in Durban, of all places.
Now, considering the strangle-hold of the police state, which included security police who would gleefully arrest a black man just because a white woman had looked at him with suggestive eyes, and a censorship board who had banned albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Sarkin’s decision was considered almost illogical.
Yet through the then University of Natal in Durban, she managed to put together festival after festival in the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre year after year. Somehow, under the banner of a film festival and because it was on a university campus, she was able to get away with “murder” under the draconian censorship laws of the 1980s.
From the age of 15, I spent July taking in as many films as possible. For 10 days, every day, I would arrive at the empty campus and walk down the steep hill to the Sneddon. All day and night my goth friends and I would hang out consuming films, discussing films and revelling in a tiny, temporary pocket of absolute creative freedom.
Then, only bohemian types and intellectuals even dared to attend the Durban Film Festival. We would see Ros Sarkin chatting to various people, but we never approached her because she cut such an imposing figure.
She would sometimes look up from her conversation and smile briefly at us and we would return her smile shyly.
To this day I do not think she realised the impact her decision to start this film festival had on many young people.
One of my first memories of a South African film was Andrew Worsdale’s Shot Down. It was about the war in Angola and South West Africa and depicted just how brutal and terrifying a time the young SADF soldiers were enduring. Meanwhile, back at the SABC and the Union Buildings, the soldiers were seen as dashing heroes, bravely smiting bloodthirsty black communist terrorist non-believers with nothing but God and the National Party on their side.
Worsdale did an excellent job portraying the isolation and desperation of war. To this day, it remains one of my favourite films.
Sarkin also started the tradition of having a cool rock ‘n’ roll story or two in each festival. My first experience was Sid and Nancy, which starred Gary Oldman in his first major role. He played the skinny young rebel with emotion and authenticity and it was clearly the beginning of a brilliant career.
The Durban International Film Festival was also the first time I encountered the great British directors Alex Cox and Ken Russell.
Russell’s film Gothic was based on the night that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was born.
It has Gabriel Byrne playing a decadent Lord Byron – an actor who also went on to achieve great things.
It was also the first time South African audiences got to see Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s work. His Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is one of the most eccentric films of the past 40 years.
The festival was fearless in its choice of films back then, even showing Fellini and some of his weird, dwarf sex-inspired movies.
In 1986, they had booked the controversial The Decline of the American Empire, which is based on discussion by a female group of friends who are gymming while their male counterparts are in the kitchen preparing the meal for when they return. Both groups are discussing sex. The theory behind the film is that when a society starts performing sexual acts for personal gain only, it is the beginning of the decline of that society.
The film is set in French Canada and the groups discuss sex with no holds barred.
It was part of the Films That Made Me section, which this year was chosen by director Khalo Matabane.
Watching it again this year, it was astonishing to think that the festival organisers were able to get away with such risqué cinema. After all, the Nats had declared a state of emergency in that year and we were officially a police state.
What was amusing was to see just how body-conscious women were in the 80s. The lithe, fit body was very much part of the powerful businesswoman of that decade.
With the aid of people like Trevor Steele Taylor, Peter Rorvik and now Peter Machen at the helm, the festival has grown with the changing liberating times and has spread its wings all over the city of Durban. It is the biggest, longest-running film festival in Africa, and possibly the most important.
It has a film mart which attracts producers from all over the world. There are workshops, discussions and world premieres. It has become an important vehicle in developing the South African film industry.
It still remains cutting-edge and fearless. Last year, Of Good Report, directed by Jahmil Qubeka, was supposed to open the festival.
However, the film was not screened on opening night because our new censorship board, bless their souls, had decided it was unfit for public consumption. What was rather disturbing was that not even during the height of apartheid did something that dramatic happen at the festival. Gulp.
Fast-forward to the opening film for the 35th Durban International Film Festival. Hard to Get is a violent Tarantinoesque film set in Jozi. It stars two young actors with a bright future ahead of them – Pallance Dladla and Thishiwe Ziqubu. Their characters embark on a destructive path with an interesting ending.
What is so striking about the film is Ziqubu’s role. She has none of those nurturing feminine traits directors associate with females. She is treacherous, sexually manipulative and uncompromising.
But it is her physicality that sets her apart from previous South African female roles. She gets smacked about by three different male characters yet she is wily enough to fight back and beat them physically and still end up smiling on the other side. Never before have we seen a South African female character with this much grace, violence and sexuality – and an amoral character that verges on being a sociopath.
In this way the film veers away from South African clichés.
It should lead the South African film industry into an era which attracts the cyberkids of today away from their tablets and smartphones and into the cinema. Hopefully, they will discover the joys of sitting in a dark, plush room with a huge screen and larger-than-life characters coming at ya.
The cinema is one of the greatest inventions and it is a way for us not only to discover the joys and sadness of life, but also to learn about and express who we are as a cultural species.
And that is what I believe was Ros Sarkin’s ultimate vision when, 35 years ago, she decided to venture forth into the little-known territory of a thing called the Durban International Film Festival.