Bell Pottinger documentary to screen during online Encounters Festival

Influence features interviews of numerous South African figures, among them DA MP Phumzile van Damme. Photo: Supplied

Influence features interviews of numerous South African figures, among them DA MP Phumzile van Damme. Photo: Supplied

Published Aug 18, 2020


Scheduled to run from Thursday to August 30, the event having been moved to an online setting due to the Covid-19 crisis. This is a first for the 21-year-old festival which plays host to the premieres of local and international documentaries and introduces emerging film-makers to audiences.

“We had to first accept we couldn’t do a festival as we traditionally had before,” said festival director Mandisa Zitha.

“We had to do a lot of thinking around how we could create engagement. It’s easy to put something online to be streamed, but a festival is an interaction between film-makers, audiences and various stakeholders in the industry, making conversations about the form. It was very difficult to do, but as the pandemic happened and lockdowns were enacted, festivals were being shelved while others went online immediately.”

During the festival, all the scheduled films will be available to watch online for free for a limited time. Zitha said the decision was made after negotiating with each of the films’ directors, and was based on the high cost of data in South Africa.

“Films are made to be seen,” she said. “We need to give film-makers the platform to present their work to audiences in this country and grow the genre. It’s important to create alternative platforms for us to receive critical topics and be able to encourage debating these issues with the parties involved.

“We must also build the careers of film-makers, a lot of the time a film just isn’t encountered by local audiences and is instead picked up by international festivals. It’s critical for the industry.”

Headlining this year’s festival is the local premiere of the documentary Influence, co-directed by investigative journalists Diana Neille and Richard Poplak. Influence profiles Lord Timothy Bell, the founder of the London-based PR agency Bell Pottinger that was revealed to have had a hand in stoking racial tension in South Africa via fake news, to the benefit of the Gupta family and former president Jacob Zuma.

Diana Neille said: “The mandate for Richard and I from the outset has been to take South Africa stories and put them in a global context. It’s very important to dig deeper to find the connections. The story wouldn’t have had a real heart to it if we hadn’t taken it to the very beginning. Able to trace Bell’s life, the development of weaponised public relations and the early days of advertising, creates a lot of context and understanding and the kind of work that was being perpetrated.”

The film made its international debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was met with critical acclaim. It features numerous interviews of South African figures such as former President FW de Klerk, Black First Land First founder Andile Mngxitama, DA MP Phumzile van Damme, and Bell himself, recorded before his death in August last year.

Influence tells the story of how Bell Pottinger stoked racial tension in South Africa through the use of misinformation and fake news. Photo: Supplied

Neille hoped that South Africans would leave their viewing of the documentary with a sense of accomplishment.

“South Africa was exceptional and we proved to ourselves what is possible when the whole situation went down,” she said. “There was a sense of achievement and real solidarity. We wanted to reflect that and also remind ourselves that globally, these companies exist who work in the PR industry and who do this kind of work. We want to say that someone is watching and they will be held accountable for their actions. There is always an outcome and you get your comeuppance.”

Another notable film to debut at Encounters is Mother to Mother, directed by Cape Town film-maker Sara CF de Gouveia. Adapted from the book of the same name by Sindiwe Magona, the film tells the story of American anti-apartheid activist Amy Biehl who was murdered in 1993 in Gugulethu.

“After reading the book Mother to Mother, it was clear to me that the depth of Sindiwe’s writing offered us an understanding of South Africa in the 1990s that could easily be translated into present day,” De Gouveia said. “Having access to both the book and the adapted play, performed by Thembi Mtshali-Jones, allowed us to create a parallel between past and present in a more poetic way.”

She added: “This is a film that highlights a conversation that so many have been having, which is that life hasn’t changed much for many since the beginning of democracy. However, we get to meet some students and through their voices, we get a sense of hope. Sindiwe also gives us plenty to think about in terms of our own social responsibility, so that is perhaps the main focus of the film: the need to look at the past in order to imagine the future.”

For more information on the Encounters Film Festival, see

Weekend Argus

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