“We can’t pretend to have told the whole story of South Africa in eight films,” VSAFF co-chair David Chudnovsky says by phone. “But what we can certainly say is that the eight films present an authentic picture of elements of South African life.”
Chudnovsky, a former MLA and retired teacher, doesn’t have any South African heritage but has visited the country nine times with the BC Teachers’ Federation. Last year, on a visit to Cape Town, his friends took him to see the dramatic feature Skin. He was so moved by it, that when he returned to Vancouver and dined with Ruth and Cecil Hershler, founders of Education Without Borders (which provides education to disadvantaged regions around the world), plans for the VSAFF were underway by meal’s end.
Watch the trailer for Skin.
The inaugural edition of the volunteer-run festival will present a program of eight films on Saturday and Sunday (January 22 and 23) at the Empire Granville 7 Cinemas (855 Granville Street). All proceeds will benefit educational projects at a secondary school in Gugulethu in South Africa.
Chudnovsky explains that part of their criteria was to find films that reflect contemporary South Africa while also providing a range of different representations of the country.
“South Africa’s an incredibly diverse and complex and textured society, and so we wanted to try and reflect some of that,” he says. “So among the films, there’s rural and urban and township, there’s old and young, there’s a variety of ethnic experiences, there’s some reflections on violence, especially in the film Jerusalema, which finishes up the festival; but there are also reflections on hope and peace and progress. There’s HIV/AIDS [Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story, Themba, and the short film “Thembi”] but there’s also comedy and good feelings and romance [White Wedding].”
Many of the selections broach larger social issues indirectly through personal stories.
For example, the festival opens with, Skin, an engaging biopic about a girl named Sandra Laing (played by Hotel Rwanda’s Sophie Okonedo) with an African appearance but who was born to white parents (played by Sam Neill and Alice Krige). As she grew up during the apartheid system, she was constantly reclassified, switching back and forth betweeen “white” or “coloured”, in a stressful tug-of-war that took its toll on her and her relationships.
“It tells the whole story of this insane social system—apartheid—without ever using the word, without ever referring explicitly to it,” Chudnovsky says.
Meanwhile, Themba tells the inspiring tale of a rural boy who transcends poverty and abuse to become a soccer star. But the film also tackles a prevalent social tabboo: HIV and AIDS. Chudnovsky explains that just getting the test alone is a controversial issue in South Africa, particularly for men.
“I think Themba is a successful film because it doesn’t dwell or anything on the HIV issue, it comes up as part of life in Themba, which I think is an appropriate use of the issue in the film,” he says. “I think the filmmakers were very smart in the way that HIV/AIDS appears in that film but it doesn’t dominate that film. It’s not the main story. The main story is something very heartwarming story about a young man growing up and becoming successful.”
Similarly, Chudnovsky points out how the closing film, Jerusalema, is based on the real-life Johannesburg gangster Lucky Kunene, but reveals much more about the social conditions it takes place in.
“Jerusalema on one level is a gangster flick. But on another level, it’s the story of the disappointments of the post-Apartheid era and the continuing poverty.”
He compares the film to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. “It forces the viewer to make some assessments, make some moral judgments about the actions taken by the key characters,” he says. “On some level, they’re simply gangsters. But on another level, they’re people struggling to deal with a difficult economic and social situation with disappointment, with lack of job opportunities, with poverty, with lack of housing. That’s the context in which this gangster flick takes place.”
Chudnovsky thinks two documentaries, Afrikaaps and Rewind, will be the underground hits of the festival. Afrikaaps captures a movement to reclaim Afrikaans, a Dutch-derived language that became associated with oppression, and transform it into a language of liberation through music, theatre, poetry, and video. Rewind chronicles how South African composer Philip Miller used recordings of testimonies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings (during which an astonishing 21,000 victims gave their testimonies and 7,000 perpetrators made confessions) to create a cantata to mark the tenth anniversary of the commission.
“One of themes of both of them is memory,” he says, “and we have a kind of responsibility to remember our past, the mistakes of the past, the crimes of the past, and that there’s a kind of social responsibility, a collective community responsibility, for knowing and remembering the past so we can make the future better.”
With universal themes like that, there’s certainly a lot that Vancouverites can take away with them after attending the VSAFF.