The 21st Encounters South African International Documentary Festival has announced the opening night film as well as a host of the most talked-about non-fiction films from the past year. Fresh from the world’s leading festivals, Encounters has secured the rights to screen 2019’s most acclaimed documentaries, movies that put you in places as diverse as the front row of high-fashion’s runways to eavesdropping on an international racist conspiracy with South African ties, from a tribute to pan-Africanism via Fela Kuti to Afrika Bambaataa’s search for his routes in Kwa-Zulu Natal, this years selection is overflowing with essential choices for documentary fans.
The opening night film, coming just weeks after its World Premiere in Competition at Hot Docs, Buddha In Africa, by South African director Nicole Schafer receives its’ joint South African premiere at Encounters and the 40th Durban International Film Festival (DIFF).
This delicately observed documentary is about a Malawian teenager in a Chinese Buddhist orphanage in Africa, who finds himself torn between his African roots and Chinese upbringing. Director Schafer says, “It’s also about Africa’s relations with other foreign nations, including the former colonisers. It’s this idea that the key to the future of the continent’s development is always held by outsiders, and that in order to succeed, we have to adapt to foreign value systems and policies. I think Enock’s story challenges this idea in very refreshing ways.”
This year, once again Encounters is proud to co-present several South African and international documentaries in association with DIFF. The partnership has enabled filmmakers to premiere their films at both festivals for the last 14 years.
For ten days from 6 to 16 June, Cape Town and Johannesburg audiences will have the privilege to see this year’s top-rated documentaries, each of them breaking new ground in non-fiction filmmaking.
You will find eye-popping spectacles as you’re placed in the front row of high-fashion in Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui’s ravishing McQueen, a superbly crafted, emotionally wrenching and fully dimensional portrait of ill-fated British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. The film, like McQueen’s designs is scorchingly outspoken, thrilling, troubling and tinged with tragedy. Nominated for a BAFTA for both best documentary and Outstanding British Film of the year the film Won 2019’s LGBTQ documentary of the year from the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld won Danish provocateur Mads Brügger the Best World Documentary Director at February’s Sundance Film Festival, and received the same honour from this year’s One World International Human Rights Documentary Festival. Brügger is infamous for his ironic and incisive trawling of the tainted and the corrupt. He is back in Africa on the trail of the plotters and murderers of UN Secretary, Dag Hammarskjöld, in 1961. The dirt he uncovers should be creating a stench from London to South Africa via Belgium in what Variety’s Owen Glieberman described as, “a singular experience that counts as one of the most honestly disturbing and provocative nonfiction films in years.”
Another coup for this year’s Encounters is the screening of Talking About Trees, director Suhaib Gasmalbari’s elegant and bittersweet chronicle of the demise of Sudanese cinema and the group of retired directors hoping to revive their country’s love of film. The film won the Glasshutte Prize for Best Documentary and the Panorama Audience Award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival before winning the Fipresci Prize and Jury Prize at the Istanbul International Film Festival in April this year.
Brazilian director Joel Zito Araújo’s My Friend Fela had its World Premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam before going on to win the Paul Robeson Award for Best Film from the Diaspora at Burkina Faso’s FESPACO, the world’s pre-eminent African film festival. It explores the life of legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti from the perspective of his long-time friend Carlos Moore.
The State Against Mandela and the Others from French directors Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte was in the Official Selection of this year’s Cannes and was nominated for a Cesar, receiving acclaim for its unexpectedly refreshing take on the apartheid era’s pivotal Rivonia trial. Drawing on a treasure trove of previously inaccessible 256 hours of audio recordings, the directing duo bring the archive clips alive using heavily stylised hand-drawn visuals by the Dutch graphic artist Oerd van Cuijlenborg, whose kinetic monochrome animations morph into pure abstraction in places. It is a remarkable documentary and an inspired recycling of archival material.
A feast of new South African films will also be screening at this year’s Encounters. Following its North American premiere at Hot Docs this May, Dying for Gold from directors Catherine Meyburgh and Richard Pakleppa, is a devastating documentary centred around South Africa’s biggest class-action lawsuit, against the mining industry. Featuring a rich archive of footage from the colonial and apartheid eras, along with interviews with gold miners whose lives have been decimated by silicosis and tuberculosis, this forceful, vivid film clearly shows how Southern Africa’s indigenous societies were destroyed in order to mine the world’s richest deposits of gold at the cheapest possible price.
Equally as passionate is Susan Scott’s Stroop: Journey into the Rhino Horn War, which made headlines as South Africa’s breakout documentary of the year after winning over 17 international awards. As gripping and grueling as the best of thrillers, it follows two inexperienced female filmmakers who travel the African bush and South-East Asia in search of answers to the random slaughter of the world’s diminishing rhino population.
Paul Yule’s tribute to a South African legend, Americans, Mongrels & Funky Junkies – the Life of Jo Menell is an inspiring and affectionate tribute to a rare South African whose life of exile and global activism has aligned with many of the key moments and figures of the last 60 years. From Vietnam to Castro, from Hockney to Mandela, filmmaker Jo Menell’s exceptional capacity to be both storyteller and subject offers an unusual and brilliant perspective into the complexity of our times.
This year’s festival sees a rare screening of Village Versus Empire by Emmy award-winning South African director Mark J Kaplan. Set on Jeju Island, off the coast of the Korean Peninsula – one of the ‘Seven Wonders of Nature’, with more UNESCO Natural Heritage Sites than any single geographic location on planet earth. But, there is trouble in this paradise. Its fragile ecology and ancient shamanistic traditions are currently being devastated by the construction of a US naval base. Through the memories and actions of a range of political activists, religious leaders and artists the film explores the inter-connectedness of past, present and future and the universal relevance of a village resisting an empire.
Zulu Return is the intriguing debut from emerging director Gugulethu. The documentary follows the fallen hip hop hero Afrika Bambaataa’s spiritual quest to South Africa – the country he spent so much of his life honouring and defending through his music and activism – as he faces the effects of abuse allegations against him in his own life.
Encounters is delighted to announce a Swiss Focus, in association with Swiss Films and the Embassy of Switzerland in South Africa, Consulate General of Switzerland in Cape Town, that will include #FemalePleasure Barbara Miller’s Award winning examination of the obstacles that stand in the way of female sexuality in the 21st century. Emmanuelle Antille’s A Bright Light: Karen and the Process a wild and enchanting journey in the footsteps of cult singer Karen Dalton, forgotten muse of the 60’s, and Chris the Swiss, director Anja Kofmel’s dazzling feature debut where she revisits the wild life and strange death of her war reporter cousin with an innovative blend of animation and documentary.
It was 21 years ago that Encounters collaborated with Pro Helvetia on the first Encounters Swiss South African Documentary Film Festival and the Close Encounters Documentary Film Making Lab in 1999. In 2001 Encounters became the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival, but the festival’s relationship with Switzerland has endured, particularly with Vision du Réel, in Nyon, a documentary festival that regularly incorporates a South African Focus, hosting local filmmakers and their work.
Also in the bumper line-up for this years feast of non-fiction film are Beyond the Frontlines: Resistance and Resilience in Palestine, a significant and powerful film from French author and feminist Alexandra Dols; and German documentarian Karin Jurschick’s Playing God which follows the struggle of the charismatic and controversial US attorney who, since 9/11, has been charged with the impossible task of assigning a dollar value to life when compensating victims of America’s most tragic events. Lesotho breakthrough filmmaker, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s beautifully poetic Mother, I Am Suffocating, This Is My Last Film About You; Jacqueline Gozland’s moving tribute to the heydays of the Algerian cinematheque, My Story Is Not Written Yet; as well as the premiere of progressive Soweto-born filmmaker Fanney Tsimong’s My Culture My Music.
The festival will hold the World Premiere of Jozi Gold – a story of wealth, greed and poisonous mountains. Johannesburg has produced a third of all the gold in the world. Now the gold is running out, the mines are falling apart and toxic waste turns water into poison. Former Jehovah’s witness, Mariette Liefferink is on a mission to force the mine bosses to clean up. The film is by Fredrik Gertten and Sylvia Vollenhoven, based on an original story by Adam Welz.
Encounters is made possible by the support of Bertha Foundation, City of Cape Town, WESGRO, Embassy of Switzerland in South Africa Consulate General of Switzerland in Cape Town, Swiss Films, IFAS – The French Institute of South Africa, DOK.fest Munich, Goethe Institut, Backsberg Estate Cellars, HCI Foundation, Refinery, Documentary Filmmakers Association, South African Guild of Editors, UCT Centre for Film & Media Studies, City Varsity, Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking, Labia, Ster Kinekor Cinema Nouveau, The Bioscope, Bertha Movie House, Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education and Protea Hotel Fire & Ice.