“Amazing’ cinema


The National Arts Festival (NAF) takes place this month in Grahamstown. While
its film programme is only a small part of its vast offering, it always provides a
fascinating mix of content, thanks to the encyclopedic cinema knowledge and
eclectic tastes of its curators Trevor Taylor and Cedric Sundstrom. Topping the
programme this year is one of South Africa’s most talked-about filmmakers,
Jahmil XT Qubeka.

Given out annually in several categories since the early 1980s, the Standard
Bank Young Artist Awards, according to the financial institution’s website
“recognise established South African artists of a relatively young age who have
demonstrated exceptional ability in their chosen fields but who have not yet
achieved national exposure or acclaim.’

The original set of awards covered drama, music and visual art. In 1991, the
award was given out in the film category for the first time – to Darrell James
Roodt. Since then, it has been awarded far more sporadically than other
categories but has nevertheless recognised a number of South Africa’s foremost
film artists, including Akin Omotoso and Claire Angelique. This year, Jahmil XT
Qubeka became the latest to join this select group and therefore features
prominently in the 2014 NAF Film programme.

A South African original

Trevor Taylor, director of the NAF Film Festival, says of Qubeka: “My attention
was drawn to Jahmil’s film A Small Town Called Descent by my colleague
Cedric Sundstrom. He had been thoroughly amazed by the film, which had crept
onto DVD with barely a whisper. I too was taken aback. Here was a young
South African filmmaker with a sophisticated cinematic aesthetic and a suitably
acerbic, world weary take on the intricacies of corruption, xenophobia, golf-
playing corporate vermin and the cesspool of local politics.

“I then watched his short films and a rough cut of Of Good Report before it set
off censorial fireworks at DIFF. Cedric likens the film stylistically to the Roman
Polanski of Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966). Jahmil is a
film literate, trained in the cinemas of East London on a diet of Italian westerns,
Citizen Kane and Rosselini. Besides that though, he has a natural affinity
for film language and the moving image and a lack of sympathy with political
affiliations, schmoozing and shape-shifting. He joins a small group of South
African filmmakers – Jans Rautenbach, Andrew Worsdale and Claire Angelique to
name a few – whose work is truly original.’

In addition to Qubeka’s two features, a number of his short projects will be
screened, including the documentary Qula Kwedini and the experimental
A Night at the Summit, a foretaste of the filmmaker’s upcoming feature.

The Atrocity Exhibition

Taylor has a strong affinity for maverick, intellectual film that questions the
norms of both commercial cinema and society as a whole. This always shows
strongly in his programming; in previous years, he has themed sections of the
film festival around – among other subjects – cinematic expressions of the ideas
of the Marquis de Sade and the virulently anti-establishment work of British
filmmaker Peter Watkins.

On the programme this year is a selection of films and a symposium exploring
the dystopian vision of renowned English author JG Ballard, whose science-
fiction imaginings, Taylor feels, seem to be alarmingly consistent with the
realities of today.

“Besides Ballard being one of the greatest British writers of the last century, his
work is also remarkably prescient. He modelled a future which was not full of
aliens and spaceships but one full of decay, ruins and moral turpitude – much
like the present. His landscape is one of parking garages, shopping malls and
super highways. There is no real freedom to be had and the globalised, tick-
boxed lifestyle is stifling. Sex has to be perverse to be stimulating and the
noose of conformity allows for violence, sexual deviation and xenophobia to let
off steam. Ballard speaks for the present as we are all packed into small
apartments in housing estates and live lives bounded by highways, shopping
malls and sexual liaisons equated with fast cars,’ Taylor says.

The best-known film in this symposium is David Cronenberg’s Crash, adapted
from Ballard’s novel of the same name, which tells of a group of people whose
sexuality is disturbingly linked to the horrors of traffic accidents. “Crash is
the most familiar film,’ Taylor says, “but the beautiful Low Flying Aircraft,
in which a husband and his pregnant wife try to avoid the eyes of Big Brother;
the super-disturbing The Atrocity Exhibition, from Ballard’s “unfilmable’
collection of vignettes; and the very personal search of JG Ballard: The
Oracle of Shepperton
, are all musts. In London Orbital, Ballard’s M25
motorway strangles the lifeblood out of London and in High Rise – The Movie, a
Ballard expert plots the architecture of a film not yet made.’

Another portion of the festival programme, titled simply “Blaxploitation’, extends
the meaning of the word beyond the famous movie genre that arose from the
US in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to a gathering of films that explore, in
Taylor’s words: “the exploitation of ethnic and gender-specific groups by capital
– governmental and corporate.’

This includes Shola Lynch’s Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners;
Australian documentary maker John Pilger’s Utopia, an intense
examination of Australia’s genocide and continued exploitation of its aboriginal
population; and Aryan Kaganof’s Night Is Coming: Threnody for the Victims of
. This film, which premieres at the festival, explores the Marikana
massacre as: “a ritual murder, of which it is a simulacrum, a form of sacrifice
heralding ominous change.’

The return of “serious’ Afrikaans cinema

Another theme on the programme explores what Taylor sees as a return of
serious Afrikaans cinema. “Even in the apartheid years, Afrikaans cinema was
streets ahead of its English counterparts. Some of the titles I can mention are
Jans Rautenbach’s Jannie Totsiens, Dirk de Villiers’ My
Broer se Bril
and Manie van Rensburg’s Die Perdesmous.

In those years, Afrikaans cinema was a protected filmic environment – better
subsidies, more financial incentive. But of course with that, came a stranglehold
of political control. In the 20 years since apartheid dropped off its perch, we
have seen an amazing growth in Afrikaans art, theatre, music, literature and

Although Taylor feels that a lot of the cinematic output, being geared towards
commercial, inoffensive, family fare, has been execrable, he has noticed an
appreciable increase in Afrikaans films that treat serious subject matter with a
high level of cinematic artistry. As examples of this trend, the festival will screen
Verraaiers, Die Wonderwerker, Faan se Trein and Die Ballade van Robbie de


A section of the festival simply titled “Amazing’ includes a mix of films from around
the world with no particular unifying theme but which Taylor has found worthy of
showcasing. “The word “amazing’ is the clarion call of the National Arts Festival
as a whole,’ he explains. “This section includes recent films which I consider
worthy of being labelled as such. Within the selection I would draw particular
attention to James Franco’s gothic adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay
, the Austrian film The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich, Richard
Stanley’s mythical The Other World, the Reza de Wet adaptation
African Gothic and from Mozambique, the harrowing Virgin

While its offerings are fairly wide ranging, the NAF’s film programme is not for
everyone, but it is ideal for film lovers who crave challenging cinema with big


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