COUNTER-CULTURE: Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners chronicles the life of young college professor Angela Davis.
COUNTER-CULTURE: Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners chronicles the life of young college professor Angela Davis.
ELECTRIC: A scene from Jahmil Qubeka's A Small Town Called Descent.
ELECTRIC: A scene from Jahmil Qubeka's A Small Town Called Descent.

AFTER a few days of warm weather the Western Cape’s rain and cold conditions arrived in Grahamstown over the weekend. Now is a great time for cinephiles at the National Arts Festival to seek shelter by checking out this year’s vast, though-provoking film programme.

Dystopias, black consciousness, the re-emergence of serious Afrikaans cinema, a special focus on Italy as well as the celebration of both young and legendary film directors, it’s all happening at the Olive Schreiner Hall inside the 1820 Settlers National Monument.

“The film selection this year offers a strong focus on dystopian themes,” says Trevor Steele Taylor, curator of the Film Programme. It is his 16th year at the helm after putting together his first programme for the festival in 1999.

“We are also showing films that looks at the horror of the present while confirming their belief in the future. We pay tribute to non-compliance and to people like Angela Davis, Amiri Baraka, JG Ballard and Wilhelm Reich.

“We look at alternative strategies for combating entrenched mindsets through films such as The East and Fuck for Forest,” Taylor said.

Celebrating the work of JG Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition features a selection of films based on, or inspired by, the British author’s bleak world view. True to the section’s blurb, a strong element of “shopping malls, parking garages, high-rise apartment blocks, arterial highways and dangerous off-ramps” runs right through all the titles selected.

Among the films featured are Crash, David Cronenberg’s no-holds-barred 1996 adaption of Ballard's book by the same name, Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard’s timeless 1965 black-and-white French science fiction film noir, as well as The Crashed Cars Show, a 1971 documentary in which Ballard himself speaks about his obsession with cars and car crashes.

Dedicated to African-American poet, author and activist Amiri Baraka (who died in January), the festival film programme’s Blaxploitation section features a collection of films and documentaries about the exploitation of indigenous populations, the poor, the planet and the exploitation of conciseness.

“Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka, was one of the leading intellectuals and activists of the Black Consciousness movement in the US during the 1960s.

“The movement resulted in an uprising of music, poetry, literature and just plain activism – all aimed at confronting white American perceptions of ‘negros’ full on. Similar to John Coltrane and Archie Shepp’s jazz, Melvin van Peebles’ film-making as well as Angela Davis’s activism, Baraka’s writing and performances help lay he foundation for progress,” Taylor said.

Titles screened as part of Blaxploitation include Shola Lynch’s Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners, a documentary about the life of this prominent counter-culture activist, Dutchman, a 1967 adaption of Baraka’s play by the same name about a racial encounter on a New York subway, as well as Aryan Kaganof’s An Inconsolable Memory, a film that reconstructs the history of South Africa’s first opera company, Eoan, which had its premiere in 1933 in District Six.

The recipient of this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Film, Jahmil XT Qubeka, also receives a special focus this year. Several films from his career are being shown.

Among them are his electrifying debut, A Small Town Called Descent, telling a melancholy South African tale of poverty, violence, xenophobia and reconciliation, and Qubeka’s former Film and Publication Board-banned African noir feature Of Good Report.

Those interested in this young director’s formative years should also not miss Mark Lebanon’s Slam Bang, in which Qubeka can be seen acting (he plays the “ever-so-nasty” Daddy-O), as well as 20/20, a documentary with Lindiwe Matshikiza looking at the impact of the festival on South African artists.

“I have an immense regard for Jahmil. He is amazingly literate in terms of film language. A Small Town Called Descent was probably the most auspicious debut by a young director in this country to be ignored by his peers,” Taylor said.

“Of Good Report was equally impressive. Like an early Polanski movie, it is written and performed with intelligence. One must actually thank the censor board for throwing such an ignominious spotlight on it.”

Another, more established director whose work is also being placed in the spotlight this year is the legendary Darrell James Roodt. A former Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner, it is now a great time to see why he remains such an influential figure on our film-making landscape.

Whether its the empathetic Little One, telling the emotional tale of a woman who rescues a raped and beaten young girl, or Faith’s Corner, featuring a beautiful score by Philip Glass and starring Leleti Khumalo as a homeless woman determined to provide for her children, it is clear that Roodt remains emotionally invested in South Africa.

“Darrell is the ultimate industry stalwart. He will try his hand at anything, and he will be the first to admit that it doesn’t always work. But mostly it does.

“His prolific output includes political films, a musical, dark noir, horror, Afrikaans and even a safari gone wrong.

“While we did have a talk scheduled between him and Cedric Sundstrom, another industry legend in own right, Darrell unfortunately won’t be able to make it to the festival any more. Predictably, because he’s working on another movie.”

Apart from keeping their eyes glued to the screen, film fundies interested in learning more about the local film industry should also look out for the National Film and Video Foundation’s workshop series, aimed at young and emerging film-makers.

“Taking place in the Atherstone Room in the 1820 monument, various discussions around the industry-related topics – such as scriptwriting, producing, acting and directing – are facilitated by established professionals.”

• For the full festival film programme, as well as film and video workshop dates and times, see and, or follow @artsfestival on Twitter.