Fiction meets reality at the Vancouver South African Film Festival

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      In 1994, with the entire world cheering, South Africa held its first fully democratic elections and ended 46 years of apartheid. Today, after a quarter-century of great gains and equivalently heartbreaking losses, it remains, in the words of Vancouver South African Film Festival cofounder David Chudnovsky, an “interesting, difficult, complicated nation”.

      Mindful of this auspicious anniversary, Chudnovsky and his partners at VSAFF have curated a prismatic portrait of South Africa 25 years on from Nelson Mandela’s historic victory, like 10 distinct signals from the interference pattern between a recent colonial past and the neoliberal present.

      “Every time I tell people we’re going to South Africa, they say two things,” Chudnovsky tells the Georgia Straight. “The first thing is, ‘You’re going to get killed.’ And the second thing is, ‘Oh, that Nelson Mandela, he was a saint.’

      “Well,” he continues, ”I’ve been to South Africa lots of times, and you’re no more likely to get killed than if you’re going to Cleveland. And Nelson Mandela was a human being, not a saint, so his accomplishments are even more meaningful than if he had been a saint. What we’re trying to do with the festival is break through these silly clichés.”

      Certainly, a documentary like “Someone to Blame: The Ahmed Timol Inquest” (March 30) upturns the notion that Truth and Reconciliation have put the ghosts of apartheid to rest. Timol was murdered by security police in Johannesburg in 1971. With the reopening of an official inquiry in 2017, Enver Samuel’s film seeks to remember those whose deaths at the hands of the state and its goons remain obscured from history.

      In Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story (March 31), a tragic true-life tale reminds us that the so-called war on drugs is, in reality, a war on the poor and on community. Who benefits, we must ask, and isn’t this colonialism by another name? On a more refreshing note, Joshua Magor’s semi-improvised Siyabonga (We Are Thankful) (March 30) marries fiction and documentary to follow an aspiring actor through the daily travails of life in a semirural township. Chudnovsky calls it one of his big favourites this year.

      “In some ways it fits our theme the best,” he says. “There’s 40 percent unemployment in South Africa, and it’s higher among younger people, and so just watching him as he tries to get involved in his dream to be an actor while having to navigate these picayune, simple little challenges… Can he find two dollars to get on a bus to go to town to meet the guy to apply for the movie? It describes real life in this little town so accurately and so beautifully. I love this film.”

      As ever, the festival ends its three-day run with an Afrikaans-language feature, Kanarie. If that immediately signals “settler”, Chudnovsky points out that the variegated South Africa we find at VSAFF includes nonwhite communities where the language of the oppressor persists, as in titles like Ellen and the Cape Flats–set thriller Nommer 37. It’s one reminder that the fitful progress and failures of democracy in another nation might offer a reflection of our own.

      The Vancouver South African Film Festival takes place at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts from Friday to Sunday (March 29 to 31). More information is at