Paul Simon heads up Vancouver South African Film Festival

Organizers of the Vancouver South African Film Festival are hoping their second-annual event this weekend will showcase what they say is a growing film industry in South Africa.

“We’ve reached a new stage of African predominance in the film industry,” Ian Merkel, director and curator of the festival, told the Georgia Straight in an interview. “I think it’s growing quite strongly now.”

Merkel said the collection of documentaries and features being screened at Denman Cinemas (1779 Comox Street) between Friday and Sunday (April 20 and 22) represents a broad cross section of South African life.

The festival will include an opening gala screening of Under African Skies on April 20, as well as a second screening of the film on April 21 at noon. The Joe Berlinger–directed documentary depicts Paul Simon’s return to South Africa in 2011 for the 25th anniversary of his album Graceland.

Through footage of the original recording sessions and interviews with some of the South African musicians featured on the album, the film details the creation of the record, and the controversy surrounding Simon’s trip to the country at the time of a United Nations cultural boycott during apartheid.

Audiences may be surprised at the story behind the album, Merkel predicted.

“I don’t think a lot of people knew that he had really gone against the grains of…most of the musicians who were not going to South Africa,” he said.

Merkel expects festivalgoers will be informed about a range of other historical, cultural, and political issues through the films, which are set in locations across South Africa.

“We’ve got a real mix this year,” he noted.

Some of the topics depicted in the films include the Constitutional Court of South Africa as seen in a documentary short, South African art history as described by musician Johnny Clegg in two episodes of his documentary series A Country Imagined, and the issue of xenophobia, as portrayed in Nigerian director Akin Omotoso’s feature film Man on Ground and the documentary Where Do I Stand.

Other films include the documentary Glitterboys and Ganglands, which shows the battle between 14 contestants for the title of Miss Gay Western Cape; Mama Goema, about an ensemble of musicians in Cape Town; and the psychological thriller Retribution. The festival will conclude with the feature comedy Spud, starring John Cleese as a boarding-school teacher.

Merkel expects the event to draw both South African and non–South African viewers. Organizers believe it may be the first significant festival dedicated to South African films held outside the country itself.

The festival was launched last year as a fundraiser for the nonprofit foundation Education Without Borders. All proceeds of this year’s event will benefit the charity’s educational programs in South African township schools.

The organization’s current initiatives focus on math, English tutoring, photography, dance, a food garden, and a lecture series in the township of Gugulethu, on the outskirts of Cape Town.

Last year, the festival raised over $14,000 for the charity, and this year organizers aim to generate $20,000.