The very first Encounters took place in 1999, screened 24 films and sold just over 2 000 tickets. Two decades on and it has firmly established itself as the premier non-fiction film festival on the continent, featuring compelling documentaries with strong narrative structures that are highly cinematic; films with thoughtful, character-driven storytelling that add a necessary dimension to our understanding of the news and the fake news, the hot-button issues, other people’s lives and, above all, ourselves and our place in the world.
The focus that has emerged from this year’s selection process is ‘The Power of Womanhood’, reflected by the fact that over half of the 40 films selected have female directors and many focus on women who have made an indelible mark on history, from Thuli Madonsela to Vivienne Westwood.
The opening night film, coming just weeks after it’s ‘in competition’ world premiere at Hot Docs – Toronto’s holy grail of documentary film fests – is Whispering Truth To Power. The film is human rights lawyer, Shameela Seedat’s powerful breakthrough as a filmmaker. This vital film tracks Thuli Madonsela, South Africa’s first female Public Protector, as she builds her second case against erstwhile President Jacob Zuma. Through the story of Madonsela, her office and children, the film carefully navigates the major forces at play in South Africa today, charting various contested lines in the dual battle against corruption and inequality. “Post-apartheid South Africa has thrown out a messy and complex reality that we, here at home, are keen to confront,” director Seedat says, “I am keen to bring another type of African character to the international documentary audience. A strong, super-lawyer-woman in a position of power.”
From Ombud, mother, mediator and public hero to Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, video-artist Lorna Tucker’s first film, a definitive look at the life, fashion and activism of one of Britain’s most iconic and original designers. The film which premiered to acclaim at this year’s Sundance is a vibrantly entertaining yet intimate and poignant homage to Dame Vivienne Westwood, following her rollercoaster journey from being a failed housewife, to an outsider, a leading designer and green activist. With complete access to her private moments, it blends archive, beautifully crafted montage and insightful interviews with her fascinating network of collaborators – guiding us from a childhood in post-war Derbyshire to the runways of Paris and Milan.
Changing the history of British fashion required the strength of a woman – the 1956 march on the Union Buildings to protest the Pass Laws took 20,000. This is the starting point of Xoliswa Sithole’s Standing On Their Shoulders which has its premiere at the festival after being a participant in Encounters Rough Cut Lab last year. Exploring the legacy of the women’s movement it features the poignant presence of surviving member of the March’s organisers, Sophia Williams De Bruyn, leading the film’s reverential, inspiring and necessary message. Once the backbone of resistance, did women become invisible after South Africa’s transition and are the ‘Remember Khwezi’ and Fallist campaigns re-igniting the legacy of activists like Charlotte Maxeke?
Also receiving its world premiere will be Sisters of the Wilderness, Karin Slater’s inspiring film set in the iMfolozi, the oldest game park in Africa, where five young Zulu women from underprivileged backgrounds go for the first time in their lives on a journey of self-discovery, which offers them an opportunity to grow and heal, and serves as a reminder that we are intimately linked to nature and what we do to her we do to ourselves.
Not In My Neighbourhood is an explosive film that was born in Cape Town several years ago when filmmaker Kurt Orderson documented residents facing eviction in Woodstock and Salt River to make way for development and gentrification. The project grew and is a truly impressive piece of film activism, over three years Orderson followed the anti-gentrification and police brutality monitoring collective #copwatch in New York, the rise to power of real estate mogul Donald Trump, the Occupation movements in Sao Paulo and the legacy of Apartheid Spatial Planning to modern day Gentrification experienced by communities in Woodstock. Making connections through the inter-generational stories of people fighting for the right to their city Not in my Neighbourhood takes the viewer on a journey into the everyday lives of these characters and how, daily, they experience and battle spatial violence.
Violence of another kind is confronted in the vivid and propulsive This Is Congo, photojournalist Daniel Mc Cabe’s stunningly beautiful, brutally immersive and unfiltered look into the world’s longest continuing conflict and those who are surviving within it. Through four compelling characters – a whistle-blower, a patriotic military commander, a mineral dealer and a displaced tailor – this award-winning film, that premiered in Venice last year and is the hot ticket on the festival circuit, captures a moment of time and, simultaneously, an entire history with blistering and tragic effectiveness.
Another current hot ticket on the DocFest circuit, which premiered to raves at this year’s Sundance is The Price of Everything, Nathaniel Kahn’s brilliant and captivating look at how the art world was converted into a money market. The film has unprecedented access into the global demimonde of connoisseur/investors who, over the last three decades, have made the art market into a de facto stock market, complete with trading and flipping and commodities futures. The question that drives the market is, “Who’s the most undervalued artist?” The movie shows us how this plays out for two legendary artists who live on opposite ends of the continuum, Jeff Koons, the poster boy for art as a luxury brand, and abstract painter Harry Poons whose stock dropped considerably after a successful period in the ’60s.
On the other end of the spectrum, a testament to the expansiveness of documentary as a genre and fresh from its world premiere at April’s Tribeca Film Festival is Tanzania Transit. Jeroen van Velzen’s ruminative, captivating road movie follows three people finding their way, literally and figuratively, on a train journey across Tanzania. Each has already overcome considerable hardships, yet, in some sense, they appear unable to keep up with the fast-changing society around them. Van Velzen’s artful touches neatly encapsulate their experience, creating a narrow, train-window-sized view on class, nationality, ethnicity, age, and gender, and how those divisions combine or combust in the most compact of melting pots.
These are just a few of the highlights of what promises to be an invigorating celebration of Encounters’ 20 years of being at the forefront of non-fiction cinema. Other must-see films that will be featured this year include:
Life Is Wonderful: Mandela’s Unsung Heroes: Through ground-breaking and never–before-seen interviews, the former English High Court Judge Sir Nicholas Stadlen throws light onto the extraordinary people involved in the Rivonia Trial – the court case that changed South Africa. Their stories and the stories of the anti-apartheid struggle show the power of people’s ideals to enable them to create the world as it should be, not accepting the world as it is.
Acclaimed South African filmmakers look into food and wine with Pluck! A Film Not Just About Chicken: Lloyd Ross and Joelle Chesselet’s funky investigation into Nando’s marketing campaign and Akin Omotoso’s penetrating and insightful The Colour of Wine which shows the changing face of the South African wine industry.
Lots Of Kids, A Monkey And A Castle is a madcap masterpiece that overflows with affection, warmth and humour, about a highly dysfunctional but deeply loving clan. Spanish actor Gustav Salmeron steps behind the camera to capture the winsome eccentricities of his extraordinary mother Julita, who had three dreams: having lots of kids, owning a monkey, and living in a castle.
For more information about the complete 2018 programme, visit the Encounters website. Encounters takes place from 31 May to 10 June 2018 in Cape Town at the Labia, the Nouveau V&A Waterfront and Bertha Movie House, Isivivana Centre in Khayelitsha and in Johannesburg, at the Bioscope and the Nouveau Rosebank.