A ban to keep out the Muslims, a wall to keep out the Mexicans, the ghosts of segregation stirring once again: nothing is new in the vast spectrum of reactionary human stupidity; it’s just always on the comeback trail.
South Africa had 43 years of institutionalized racism under its belt when apartheid ended in 1991, with its demise lending a still potent symbol of resistance to a world increasingly in need of a good example or two. But even after vanquishing an enemy that looked indomitable, the fight never really ended.
“Back when we started, there was way more idealism and optimism in South Africa than there is now,” Vancouver South African Film Festival cofounder David Chudnovsky says in a call to the Georgia Straight. “When people come together and find those values and principles they can unite on and learn to live with their differences, they can change the world. But the South African experience since 1994 tells us that the struggle for justice goes on, that there will always be complications and setbacks and disappointments. Once you’ve achieved a great victory, as they did in South Africa, you can’t sit on your laurels.”
This might seem like lofty talk when the more immediate concern for a small three-day festival is to get some bums in seats, but it’s impossible to ignore the political/social threads weaving their way through this year’s selection of films at VSAFF.
Opener Vaya, set inside the heartless ghettos of Johannesburg, excites with bravura storytelling while sparing nothing in its depiction of the corrosive effects of poverty. Two nights later, Sink enters the manicured neighbourhoods of middle-class white suburbia to close the festival with a melodramatic critique of privilege and postcolonial racism.
Midfestival offerings are even more direct in their concerns, whether it’s fracking (Unearthed), animal cruelty and government corruption (Poachers Pipeline), or the fate of mixed-race communities after apartheid (Word of Honour: Reclaiming Mandela’s Promise). Even the comedy has some serious bite. Nobody’s Died Laughing is a portrait of Pieter-Dirk Uys, a cross-dressing satirist who fearlessly vented against the apartheid regime and became an icon in the process. Chudnovsky calls him Teflon Man.
“He got away with stuff other people couldn’t get away with,” he says. “In the movie, you see that everybody loves him. Tutu is in hysterics talking about him; Mandela makes speeches about him; the old Afrikaaner leadership even doesn’t mind him. I mean, they hated him, but they couldn’t say anything bad about him.”
Above all, Chudnovsky adds, Uys made a vital choice in the wake of a historic win. “Then democracy comes and he remains a social commentator, and he continues to be critical of what needs to be criticized, and he continues to take potshots at those who need it,” he says. “To this day.”
The Vancouver South African Film Festival takes place at the SFU Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts from Friday (March 31) to April 2. More information is at the Vancouver South African Film Festival website.