Upon entering its 37th year the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) was looking for a young, inspired new face to represent the festival.
In March 2016 Sarah Dawson was appointed as festival manager to fulfil that role. Dawson is also the first woman to occupy this position since it was co-founded by Ros Sarkin in 1979. Dawson exudes this year’s festival theme: Visions of the Future.
Sharing her thoughts on this theme Dawson says: “We are experiencing a watershed moment, globally and locally, where the traditional narratives of the past are increasingly being forsaken in favour of new ideas, formations and stories.” She believes that “cinema is a tool for visualising realities beyond our own, an eye to see into the future.”
At DIFF 2016, roughly 200 fiction, documentary and short films will be presented over 10 days in venues across Durban. “We will be introducing new venues, refreshing our approach to audience development and will be making an exciting foray into virtual reality for the first time,” says Dawson.
New on the agenda is a “spotlight on music, rhythm and dance in films,” she adds. “Audiences can expect an emphasis on African film in the programme presenting films that were censored or banned under Apartheid, and we will bring to light some lesser known gems of Lusophone cinema,” comments Dawson. “In light of the signing of a co-production treaty with the Netherlands, we will also be presenting a country-specific focus on Dutch film.”
Over four decades DIFF has steadily grown into one of the largest film festivals on the continent. Dawson believes that the festival creates opportunities to build bridges and forge links that connect the industry on the continent to the world.
She encourages filmmakers to tell their stories using advancing available technology. “You shouldn’t wait for the permission or endorsement of a funder,” she says. As a programmer Dawson is hungry for fresh views on the South African experience, “There is a notable lack of black female and LGBTQ voices in SA film. The only way it will change is if these voices are supported in taking command of their own stories.”
Deeply passionate about film Dawson brings to DIFF her cultured past. “My experience at other festivals and in journalism have been excellent training in exercising the ability to see film outside the lens of my own taste. Working at festivals such as Sheffield Doc/Fest and Africa in Motion have helped put in context the idiosyncrasies of screening films to audiences at home.” Dawson comes with a strong academic interest in film, with an MA (cum laude) in the theory of cinema, she also lectured in film history contributing to what she regards as a lifelong obsession with understanding film.
Dawson sees “a film programme as being like an eco-system, with a need to strive for a careful, responsive, living balance, in which all forms of filmmaking can thrive.”