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Now in its 11th year, the Tri Continental Film Festival is the largest film festival on the African continent dedicated to films that delve into the challenges facing humanity today. More than 40 powerful documentaries will be on offer to audiences in Joburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, writes Theresa Smith.
WHILE there are several strong films being shown at this year’s Tri Continental Film Festival, some stand out for blurring the lines between reality and fiction in terms of film techniques.
Karaoke Girl and Snake Dance are neither documentary nor fiction while The Ambassador is part documentary, part performance art.
Then there’s The Act of Killing, in which a group of Indonesians develop fictional scenes about their real experiences as death squad leaders in the 1960s.
Festival director Anita Khanna called The Act of Killing an amazing movie: “It’s almost like a psychological exercise. The documentary follows them as they re-enact scenes. With the others the lines are blurred,” she said about the line between fact and fiction. Filmed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Werner Hertzog, The Act of Killing patiently lets the men tell their story to allow the audience a chance to learn about a system of destruction.
The Ambassador follows a more satirical bent, as filmmaker Mads Brugger makes a serious comment on the nature of corruption in a dark bit of gonzo journalism.
“In The Ambassador, he’s always in character throughout the film, in the character of this diplomat who is corrupt. What he doesn’t make clear is whether the other characters in the film are aware of his acting or not. This leads to a certain level of discomfort,” said Khanna.
Brugger will attend the People to People International Documentary Conference that runs from September 16 to 18 in Joburg.
It is an important networking opportunity for documentary filmmakers, with the focus this year on African filmmakers. Apart from a section devoted to censorship and freedom of expression, the ethics of documentary filmmakers will be discussed. With particular reference to Brugger, Khanna noted that the integrity of a documentary filmmaker came into play when the subjects of the film had to trust that the filmmaker would keep faith with their intent, so issues of responsibility came to the fore.
Karaoke Girl is a scripted story about a country girl working at a bar in Bangkok as an escort to support her family, but shot in a documentary style for realism. Snake Dance is neither a work of fiction nor wholly documentary as it looks at the invention of the first weapon of mass destruction.
This 11th Tri Continental Film Festival sees the introduction of an award for the Best Human Rights Film, to encourage a culture of watching human rights-centred films in South Africa. “There’s a lot of South African fiction centred around human rights, but we want audiences to value these documentary films too,” said Khanna.
As has become standard practice for the festival, filmmakers offer their documentaries to community organisations for non-profit screenings and discussions.
“When we talk about a culture of human rights cinema, people in regular communities hugely appreciate these films. In a way, that influences our selection – we have to make sure we’re not just selecting for when people can pay. We have to make sure the films are fully accessible to all South Africans.”
The festival suffers from a general lack of investment in the arts, but Khanna is emboldened by a growing understanding among social justice organisations that are now starting to emphasise the role of films in their work. “They say ‘we can write as many reports we want about human rights abuses and social justice issues, people don’t read them. But make a film and tens of thousands of people watch it and immediately get it’.
“They’re understanding that once you hook into a character, you begin to care.”
Hence this year’s festival slogan of “watch. speak. act!”
The Tri Continental Film Festival runs at the Rosebank Theatre in Joburg from tomorrow to September 22; at Brooklyn Nouveau, Pretoria, and at the V&A Nouveau in Cape Town from September 20 to 29. For programme details see www.tcff.org.za and www.people2peopleco.za