As the 35th Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) is almost upon us – set to
take place from 17-27 July, Screen Africa caught up with the Festival’s manager,
Peter Machen, to ask him about current and future plans for the festival, and to
share his insights on the greater global film festival environment in which DIFF
SCREEN AFRICA: IN VISITING THE VARIOUS INTERNATIONAL FESTIVALS
IN PREPARATION FOR DIFF, WHAT TRENDS AND DEVELOPMENTS HAVE YOU
NOTICED IN THE FILMS ON DISPLAY AND HOW HAS THIS INFLUENCED YOUR
CHOICES FOR DIFF?
Peter Machen: In the festivals I’ve visited over the last year,
there’s a noticeable shift away from large, sprawling, big budget films to smaller,
more considered works. This is hugely encouraging as I think smaller films tend
to be better films (although of course this is not always true and there will
always be a space on the artistic continuum for quality blockbusters) and are
often far more resonant in terms of their emotional and artistic content.
I have also noticed a major increase in both the quantity and quality of
documentaries from around the world and South Africa. This is reflected in the
increased number of doccies at DIFF 2014. Another trend that has been
accelerating over the last few years is the increasing blur between
documentaries and fiction films. We will be exploring this phenomenon this year
with a focus area entitled “Almost Fiction’.
SA: WITH AN OVERWHELMING RANGE OF CHOICES CONSTANTLY
COMING AT YOU, HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT NARROWING IT DOWN FOR THE FINAL
PROGRAMME? WHAT ARE THE CRITERIA, GUIDELINES AND OVERALL VISION THAT
YOU ARE WORKING WITH IN FORMULATING YOUR PROGRAMME?
PM: The key criterion is, as always, the quality of the films.
Although it should be pointed out that DIFF, like most film festivals, also makes a
point of showing films that are significant for other reasons, whether it’s
because they are of great social importance or because they break new ground.
And of course, DIFF, like all festivals, is always on the lookout for premieres.
Personally, the thing that makes me most excited about a film is if it is rendered
in a film language that feels new or original. And, of course, focus areas also
guide the selection process – this year, for example, we have been looking for a
slate of films that celebrate and interrogate 20 years of democracy in South
Africa. I should also mention that, with extremely rare exceptions, we do not
screen films that have had any kind of commercial release in South Africa. In
terms of the overall programme, DIFF is a true festival of world cinema, with a
strong focus on African and South African film. It is one of the best platforms in
the world for African films to premiere. Last year, all of the African films that were
showcased at DIFF went on to do very well at festivals and markets around the
SA: WHAT FILMS FROM THE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL CIRCUIT ARE YOU
HIGHLIGHTING AT DIFF?
PM: We are screening a fantastic selection of films from
around the world. These include Jim Jarmuschs’downbeat vampire masterpiece
Only Lovers Left Alive, starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston; Swim Little
Fish Swim, a delightful first film from young French co-directors Ruben Amar and
Lola Bessis (who also acts in it, and from whom I’m sure we will see a great deal
in the future – she’s a star in the making) and The Rocket, a beautifully
engaging film set in Laos, about a young outcast who enters a rocket-making
competition. We’ll also be showing the African premiere of Boyhood, Richard
Linklater’s masterful chronicle of adolescence, and Love is Strange, Ira Sach’s
emotionally exquisite account of two gay New Yorkers who marry but are then
forced to live apart from each other.
SA: WHAT SOUTH AFRICAN FILMS WILL BE SHOWCASED AT THE
PM: We are very excited to be premiering a strong slate of
South African films. Fiction titles include Zee Ntuli’s Hard to Get, a film which I
suspect is going to be huge and break the mould in terms of South African
cinema; Jenna Bass’ Love The One You Love, a delicate relationship-driven
drama; Carey Mackenzie’s tightly controlled thriller Cold Harbour; Ernest Nkosi’s
beautifully wrought The Two of Us; and Joe Bullet, a film made in 1971 but never
released and which forms part of the Gravel Road project. This project restores
unreleased South African films which got lost in the dark fog of apartheid. We
are still in the process of locking down South African titles, and there will be
many other interesting local films. We are also showing an exceptionally strong
selection of South African documentaries, including Khalo Matabane’s Mandela –
The Myth and Me, and Miners Shot Down, Rehad Desai’s devastating account of
the Marikana massacre.
SA: WHAT FILMS HAVE YOU BROUGHT FROM ELSEWHERE ON THE
PM: We have a very strong selection of films from around the
continent, including the disturbing but gorgeously made Timbuktu, which has
received a lot of positive attention at Cannes; the riveting White Shadow, about
albinism in Tanzania, the Tunisia/Netherlands production Die Welt, which is
already gathering cult status; and Beti and Amare, a super-low budget Moroccan
vampire film with which I fell in love. Then there’s the utterly charming Coz ov
Moni II: Fokn Revenge, a Ghanaian hip-hop opera, and Bloody Beans, a highly
experimental and utterly bewitching metaphorical re-enactment of the Algerian
revolution which is populated almost entirely by young children.
All of these films, as well as several others which we will be screening, extend
the language of African cinema and provide unique experiences on the world
cinema stage. While African film is still facing a massive struggle in commercial
terms, the artistic growth in the last few years has been astounding and is truly
I should point out that some of these films are African co-productions made by
non-African directors. While Africa is often used as a canvas for European or
American fantasies about Africa, this is certainly not the case with the titles
screened at DIFF 2014, all of which function powerfully within an African idiom.
SA: HOW ARE YOU FINDING YOUR POSITION AS FESTIVAL MANAGER
AND WHAT CHALLENGES HAVE YOU FACED SINCE YOU TOOK THE JOB?
PM: I am loving the job but it’s also exceptionally hard work.
It seems inconceivable to many people I speak to that the job involves any work
at all – the general perception is that I just sit back watching films, which would
be a wonderful thing indeed! But the reality is that DIFF is a massive
undertaking. The festival involves a remarkable amount of logistical planning and
while the artistic content is central, the curation thereof is only a small part of
the job. In terms of the challenges facing the festival itself, the key challenge is
engaging local audiences.
I’ve been working in the broader culture industry for more than two decades as
a writer and critic, and South African audiences are remarkably intransigent. It’s
very difficult to get them to attend cultural events, particularly if they are local in
flavour. This has changed to some extent but there is still much work to be done
in terms of persuading local audiences that home-grown events and cultural
products can be as good as anything from America or Europe. That said, DIFF
has a very loyal audience in Durban and South Africa for which I am extremely
grateful but it is an audience that needs to be substantially expanded.
SA: WHAT DO YOU HAVE IN MIND FOR THE FESTIVAL GOING FORWARD –
ARE THERE ANY CHANGES OR ADDITIONS THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO MAKE TO
THE EVENT, THE PROGRAMMING AND SO ON?
PM: Over the last 35 years DIFF has grown into a festival of
globally significant proportions, something I am reminded of wherever I go by
the international enthusiasm and respect for the festival. This is largely due to
the fantastic work done by Peter Rorvik and Nashen Moodley over the last
decade. Every year, DIFF develops incrementally but substantially and I think
that it’s a good idea to maintain this gradual but consistent growth.
The only real change that I’d like to make over the coming years is to increase
the glamour-factor around the event, giving it the sheen and polish that will
increase the festival’s appeal to South African audiences. The move to the
beachfront two years ago, and to the newly revamped Elangeni-Maharani
complex this year, will go some way to achieving this.
In the future I’d also like to add some very high profile names to the festival,
although it’s imperative that the celebrity quotient never outshines the festival
itself in terms of national publicity. Programming-wise, I’d like to increase the
programme slightly and also introduce a larger repertory section in order to help
young filmmakers and audiences increase their understanding and experience of
film history. At the end of the day, though, DIFF is centred around a profound
love and respect for the medium of film, an art form that I consider to be
humanity’s greatest gift to itself, and for me it’s key that this remains the case.