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Tuesday, June 20, 2017


(Sarah Dumont and Tom Ainsley star in Amanda Evans's thriller, “Serpent”, 
which will open the Durban International Film Festival on July 13.)

Report by Patrick Compton

This year’s 38th edition of Durban International Film Festival (July 13-23) will open with a thriller, Serpent, produced by Anant Singh of Durban-based Videovision.

This was announced at the festival’s official launch at Durban’s Maharani Hotel on Monday (June 19). It’s a curious choice by the new DIFF regime of director David Wamaahlamela and manager Chipo Zhou, because opening films traditionally set the tone for the festival to come.

Last year there was an almighty row over another Singh movie, the politically and dramatically weighty Shepherds and Butchers, which was denied the opening slot by then DIFF manager Sarah Dawson.

This did not go down well with Singh who described the treatment his film had received as “insulting”. The row eventually resulted in Dawson’s resignation and Singh’s decision to withdraw his film from the festival. The result was a public relations disaster.

Clearly, it was not a situation that could be allowed to last and Zhou’s decision to open next month’s festival with what looks like a “B” movie suggests that the former Zimbabwean soapie actress has made an attempt to kiss and make up with the powerful producer.

Fences may have been mended, but whether it’s a good decision for the status of the festival itself is another matter.

On the face of it, Serpent lacks the gravitas to open the festival. It’s directed by first-timer Amanda Evans from Cape Town and stars an obscure Californian actress, Sarah Dumont, best known for her role in an exploitation movie called Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. The plot involves a white American couple who holiday in South Africa. Their “romantic escape into nature turns into the ultimate moment of reckoning when a husband and wife are trapped in a tent with a deadly snake”.

The movie, whose blurb describes it as a “tightly wound psychological time bomb”, is already a commercial success, however, as it has been sold to be distributed to north America, and Zhou said, encouragingly, that she had been “literally kept on the edge of my seat throughout”.

Nobody would criticise Singh for making a popcorn movie with a white narrative, but it remains to be seen whether Serpent is the right kind of film to open South Africa’s longest running festival.

Meanwhile, the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal will not be used as a venue for the festival this year.

The Sneddon has been the festival’s central viewing hub since it began under Ros Sarkin in 1979. Long-time devotees will recall the large tent next to the theatre where enthusiasts could eat, drink and discuss movies. In the early days, the festival was launched and wrapped at the Sneddon, but this no longer occurs.

Wamaahlamela acknowledged that there had been “certain challenges” over using the theatre this year, but he said he hoped to use it again next year. He did not elaborate on the nature of the challenges.

In her media address, Zhou announced that the festival would close with Mbongeni Ngema’s movie, Asinamali, adapted from the Broadway hit show of the same name and featuring a new musical score. The anti-apartheid musical is produced by Ngema and Darrell Roodt.

If the Sneddon is – perhaps temporarily – out of the reckoning as a venue, DIFF is reportedly using a township tavern as one of its screening venues, and a local prison as another.

Zhou told a South African newspaper that the festival would run a one-day screening and workshop at Westville Prison, a first for the festival.

“The idea is to show inmates what is involved in being a film maker‚ from how to come up with concepts to the skills of writing scripts.”

Zhou said the Centre for Creative Arts‚ the home of the festival, has had an ongoing relationship with the prison. “We provide books to the prison in order to improve literacy levels and we thought why not expand it to beyond literature?”

The newspaper reported that movies would also be screened at the popular Max’s Lifestyle‚ a shiysanyama venue and tavern in Umlazi.

“It is very vibey and a great space. They have a big screen‚ a lot of traffic‚ good food and we thought we should tap into that market‚” said Zhou.

The outreach programme will also include screenings at libraries‚ museums and colleges around Durban‚ as well as Ushaka Marine World.

In total 225 films will be screened – 49 documentaries; 90 feature films; 56 shorts; and 30 local‚ micro- budget films. South Africa will contribute 74 movies with 40 coming from the African continent.

There will also be a German focus with 10 movies being screened, and a focus on women-led film production.

The festival will also pay tribute to film stalwarts who died last year, including Joe Mafela‚ veteran television and film actor‚ and leading South African movie producer Junaid Ahmed.

NB: artSMart will publish the full festival programme when it becomes available.