This year’s Durban International Film Festival opens with a Durban-filmed story, which is set in Lamontville in 1989.

Directed by Sara Blecher, Otelo Burning was shot in Durban last year over a four-week period from July to August and is set to have its world premiere on July 21.

An excited Blecher has just returned from New York, where she took part in an independent film producers’ lab during which she learned about the distribution and marketing process in America.

She’s in Joburg for a short time and then it’s off to Spain for the Tarifa African Film Festival, where she will screen her documentary Surfing Soweto, which documents the lives of train surfers.

Her first fiction feature, Otelo Burning also contains an element of surfing.

Lance Gewer – director of photography on Tsotsi – was responsible for the cinematography and the screenplay comes out of a workshop held in Lamontville, a Durban township, six years ago.

“Lamontville is one of the only townships along the KwaZulu coastline that’s always had a swimming pool. It’s survived through gangsterism and political violence. The community, and one lifeguard in particular, fought to keep it open. He was quite visionary; he realised it gave people a future.

“The film is about how people are learning to swim in the pool, and to surf, and they’re starting to make it in the first world. Then they turn on each other.

“It’s a story about what happens when you get freedom,” said Blecher.

The film features a mix of unknown actors and well-known names like Kenneth Nkosi and Thomas Gumede. It also features Sihle Xaba, one of the actors Blecher worked with on the TV series Bay of Plenty.

The Lamontville workshops six years ago led to the funding of that TV series, but according to Blecher, the dream was always to make the film.

She is was quick to point out, though, “they’re linked, but they’re not the same story”.

The filmmakers took a real story about people who learned to surf and superimposed the basics of Shakespeare’s Othello onto it.

“It’s ultimately a story of betrayal, greed and jealousy,” said Blecher.

“Over the course of my working life, I’ve worked a lot in Durban. Durban’s been incredibly good to me,” said Blecher about her decision to premiere her first feature film at this year’s Durban International Film Festival.

Festival director Peter Rorvik is just as happy with the film’s Durban roots: “It is a story set against the backdrop of a public swimming pool in Lamontville township and how kids that learn to swim there move on to become lifeguards and surfers.

“In so doing, they bring their own contexts into the shaping of new cultures, and this reflects a real process that has taken place in Durban.

“This film also celebrates the growing interest in Durban as a film-making destination. ”

Produced by Kevin Fleischer, the film will be distributed locally in September.

Other films which will screen at this year’s festival include Oliver Hermanus’s Skoonheid, which will be released in theatres nationally in August; Paula van der Oest’s historical drama about poet Ingrid Jonker, Black Butterflies; and the Oscar-winning documentary, Inside Job.

In addition to the more than 200 screenings of films from around the world – in venues throughout Durban – the film festival will present its second Durban FilmMart. This joint project of the Durban Film Office and the Durban International Film Festival is a co-production market which incorporates a producer’s forum and a finance forum.

Experts in fields within the film industry present workshops and master classes, and potential projects from African countries are pitched to financiers, sales agents, co-producers and funding agents.

Toni Monty of the Durban Film Office said 126 qualifying projects had been submitted this year, which is a significant increase from last year’s 76 qualifying projects.

She pointed out that the establishment of the market last year was the first time that an official partnership had been formed between the city of Durban and the festival.

“We are very pleased with the warm response from African film-makers and the international industry. It is heartwarming to note how the market has grown already since 2010,” said Monty.

Her team has been hard at work over the past year building relationships which will improve access for African filmmakers to global markets.

This year, 10 feature films and 10 documentary film projects will get the chance to pitch their ideas to the Hubert Bals Fund, which presents a monetary award to the most promising film project and three of the documentary projects will be invited to the Rotterdam Producers Lab as part of Durban International Film Festival’s partnership with Cinemart and the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

The partnership with the Rotterdam festival also means more master classes, seminars and workshops focusing on documentary filmmaking.

“Unlike Europe, where access to this level of expertise is a tube ride away, the opportunity is rarely presented in Africa,” Monty said.

lThe Durban International Film Festival’s 32nd edition takes place from July 21 to 31. Check out www.cca.ukzn.ac.za.