MovieMaker’s exclusive interview with Durban International Film Festival’s manager Peter Machen touches on the festival’s rich, emotional history: from apartheid onwards to a more liberal cultural community.


This year at DIFF, screenings of both British auteur Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love (about real-life soft-pornographer and night-club owner, Paul Raymond) and local moviemaker Jahmil XT Qubeka’s Of Good Report (about a teacher’s illicit attraction to a teenage student, and the festival’s opening night film) were cancelled due to a lack of clearance from the South African Film and Publications Board. The incident turned some heads in the press, raising questions about the extent of cinematic sexual representation, censorship procedures in South Africa, and the role of a film festival within a conservative society – one that at the festival’s inception 34 years ago was buried under the weight of apartheid.

Machen maintains that the movement towards a greater freedom of speech is an “ongoing battle that is gaining momentum every day. The festival concluded yesterday night (Sunday, July 28), awarding Pussy Riot–A Punk Prayer the Audience Choice Best Documentary accolade and the Amnesty International Durban Human Rights Award, as well as giving Qubeka an award for “Artistic Bravery.” And this growing liberalism is reflected in not only the permissible content of selected films, but also in formal and stylistic evolutions over the years – striding more and more into the truly difficult, avant-garde waters that characterize the world’s greatest and most influential cinematic celebrations.

What’s a good international film festival without any controversy? We wish DIFF all the best in future years, and thank Machen for his eloquent and erudite conversation below.

Kelly Leow (MM): DIFF has now completed its 34th year, which is a fantastic legacy by any standards. How has DIFF grown over the years and what has it become for you?

Peter Machen (PM): Although I’ve only recently been appointed as festival manager, I realized a little while ago that I first attended the festival 25 years ago. Of course, it feels like just the other day, but the truth is that we’re worlds away from those times. In 1989, apartheid, although crumbling, was still in full force. Apartheid was not simply a system of racial oppression and social and economic segregation. It was—like the Soviet Union—a vast system of social control where reality itself was filtered by the state. Every magazine, every book, every television program, every film was scanned for offending subject matter that did not reflect the so-called Christian Nationalist vision of what reality should be.

And in that heavily controlled and censored reality, the Durban International Film Festival was a portal to other worlds that I had never seen before, worlds that often seemed extraordinarily free—no matter how bleak their subject matter. Because somehow, the festival managed to avoid the wrath of the censors and showed things that the National Party government of the time really would rather we didn’t see. And those windows into other worlds were life-changing: they became part of me, and I myself grew bigger. And for that I will always be grateful to this festival.

MM: What makes DIFF on par with the best film festivals around the world?

PM: DIFF is truly a festival of world cinema, offering a global cross-section of filmmaking in any given year. It wasn’t always that way, though, and I’ve seen the festival move from a space that was dominated by the more Merchant-Ivory accented films, to a place where there is enormous room for experimentation and ‘difficult’ films. Although the festival has certainly favored certain directors over the years (from Brillante Mendoza, to Xavier Dolan, to Michael Winterbottom), the focus is generally more on presenting a global spread of cinema than it is on the big names and the big stars. We’re also a festival that takes great delight in showing small gems such as Francine or Old Joy, the kind of films that are unlikely to ever attract massive attention, but which offer enormous rewards. And I think that by plugging into the zeitgeist and operating on an open submissions policy, we offer a festival with a unique flavor that is enhanced by Durban’s gorgeous winter, its beachfront location and the enthusiasm and friendliness of local film lovers.

MM: Would you say that the role of a film festival in South Africa is different, perhaps, than in another country? What kind of function does DIFF have within the artistic community of South Africa?

PM: In South African theater chains, there is very little space for anything except generic Hollywood output. While this is increasingly the case all over the world, the truth is that very few of the films shown at DIFF will ever get a commercial release in South Africa. The festival is particularly important in Durban, which has a vibrant creative sector, yet is home to very few other large-scale cultural events. Beyond this very important function of providing local film lovers with films they wouldn’t otherwise see, the festival also helps to grow the local and continental industry by offering a rare platform for South African and African film. And as the industry grows and expands, the festival grows with it.

MM: We love that the festival conducts screenings in townships that lack traditional theaters. Can you tell us more about that?

PM: For many years now, we have had screening venues in KwaMashu and Groutville, where people usually have no access to film. This is something that we intend expanding substantially next year. Additionally, we also offer free screenings to schools, as well as providing transportation to the theatres. It’s an enormously rewarding experience watching a film with a large audience of children, most of whom have never seen a film on a big screen before.

Of Good Report

MM: This year’s festival made headlines over the cancellation or banning of the films Of Good Report and The Look of Love, due to a lack of approval from the Film and Publication Board. What kind of role should censorship play in contemporary South Africa, and should an international film festival like DIFF be subject to these rules?

PM: I was very much looking forward to the public response to the opening night film Of Good Report by South African director Jahmil XT Qubeka because it’s a challenging and beautifully rendered film that expands the language of African cinema and at the same time provides a very engaging viewing experience. One on level, it is a film about film history yet no knowledge of film history is required in order to engage with the film. However, the film was refused classification by South Africa’s Film and Publication board and effectively banned. It did however, show at a preview on Sunday after being unbanned the night before, and several viewers and film critics commented that it sat very comfortably next to Hitchcock’s Psycho, which it clearly references.

Let me clarify, too, that The Look of Love was not banned but has simply not been classified because we couldn’t get a screener from the sales agent in time and the South African Film and Publications Board have no online screening facilities. However, as you suggest, this non-classification does amount to a kind of effective ban. We are very fortunate in South Africa to have freedom of speech enshrined in no uncertain words in our constitution, and I should point out that this is certainly not the first attack on freedom of speech in South Africa. It is an ongoing battle that demands persistent vigilance.

What was particularly interesting, and of great concern to me, was that although we have a large spread of films about sexuality and sexual behavior at this year’s festivalincluding several film about relationships between teenagers and older personsfour out of the seven films which the FPB requested in order to exempt the festival program from classification were from Africa, and at least two of the seven films (Il Futuro and A Lot Like Love) included scenes which were much more explicit than Of Good Report, which suggests that it is African sexuality itself that is being policed. We screened the five films that they classified but were restricted from screening Of Good Report or The Look of Love.

MM: What were you excited about in particular at this year’s festival?

PM: I was very excited about introducing a repertory section to the festival. Entitled ‘The Films That Made Me’, this section presented five films selected and introduced by an established filmmaker—this year, as it happens, we asked Jahmil to curate the section. In South Africa we have no repertory cinema and little access to film history, so I think that this is a very significant addition to DIFF.

For more information on the Durban International Film Festival, click here.

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