Festival with a conscience
“I love the medium of film for telling stories about the past, for tapping into what is currently unfolding and for imagining future possibilities,”
For organisers, the South African Film Festival is more than just a celebration of cinematic art, it is a festival with a conscience, with donations raised for Education Without Borders. It’s also a way to educate people about the complexities of South Africa.
“It’s an adventure that brings together a team of passionate individuals who are committed to showcasing the best of South African cinema to the world,” festival organiser Claire Jankelson told The AJN. “The films open doors for our audience. Australians and New Zealanders take great interest in South Africa and love to get a bird’s eye view into the complexities of an evolving nation, while expats make sense of their South African backgrounds.”
For Jankelson, SAFF helps showcase “the wonder, the beauty and the incredible hardships, the struggles that continue, its unique culture, the tenacity, the courage, the humour and the remarkable creativity that dwells in the country, South Africa”.
“Celebrating South African culture is joyous and contains dance and song”
Jankelson, who grew up in apartheid South Africa, founded SAFF with Di Singer, who tragically died in August last year. She said she was “irresistibly drawn” to the idea.
“I love the medium of film for telling stories about the past, for tapping into what is currently unfolding and for imagining future possibilities,” she explained.
Together, the SAFF team has curated four incredible festivals that both entertain and educate. This year, they will be producing their fifth.
A South African Film Festival has been running out of Canada for more than a decade.
The story goes that while in San Francisco, Singer was talking to someone at a family function. The pair got chatting about Education without Borders (EwB), a project that provides educational opportunities for at-risk learners through after-school programs in maths, English and science, and extracurricular activities, such as choir, surfing and leadership camps, in South Africa.
One of the ways EwB raises money, Singer was told, was through a festival dedicated to South African films in Canada.
Singer was a woman on a mission. That day, she decided to create a South African film festival in Australia.
“Here in Australia, we began screening films in cinemas in 2019 and then from 2020 reinvented the festival into an online environment because of COVID,” Jankelson recalled, saying the benefit was that the festival could now be viewed by anyone around Australia, including “the many South Africans that live in regional and rural areas of the country”.
For 2023, SAFF is offering a hybrid program.
“We hear of groups of people that gather in homes in small towns and enjoy the films together,” Jankelson shared. Of course, like all festivals, SAFF had to return to the cinema as well. As Jankelson said, “People love a good gathering,” which is why the organisers have arranged a Big Night Out for opening nights.
“Celebrating South African culture is joyous and contains dance and song,” she said, so expect a huge party atmosphere. But they haven’t turned their backs on those who prefer the at-home experience. The extended program means people who wish to enjoy the film in cinemas have more opportunities to do so, and at home, there’s a lot of bonus content available to view too.
Jankelson explained that the films are sourced by a team member who is intimately connected with the film industry in South Africa before the selection team watches each movie to decide which should be included.
“It’s a very rich, interesting, sometimes feisty and rewarding experience,” she said, so expect a fantastic variety of viewing options. The line-up includes thought-provoking documentaries, heartwarming short films, major features, and personal stories.
“With more than 25 films, the range is significant and we’re sure you’ll find something that will engage, delight and intrigue you,” Jankelson continued. “Our programs contain numerous interviews with filmmakers, directors and actors. This bonus content offers another level of insight into the production of the films, what happened on set, why the film was made and how the film is relevant here in Australia, at this time.”
When asked about standout films, Jankelson noted festival opener, Music is my Life, a superb musical documentary about Joseph Shabalala, founder of a cappella singing and dance troupe, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, as he rose from humble farm origins to international stardom following his collaboration with Paul Simon on the Graceland album. It’s the perfect film to open the festival, with those party vibes Jankelson promised.
There’s also Leemtes En Leegheid, which she said will “move you deeply”, and Water Rats, where a diverse group of Londoners find companionship and joy swimming on Hampstead Heath, illegally and through winter and summer, during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Young, old, men, women, many Jewish, a Palestinian and a recovering addict discover connections with one another that verge on the spiritual,” she explained, going on to quote South African-born Jillian Edelstein, who photographed the swimmers: “‘In the water it doesn’t matter what your views are.’”
For Jankelson, SAFF is all about remembering and helping South Africa.
“It’s a kind of remembering that we are who we are as a function of where we have come from,” she said. “As festival director it’s a great privilege to manage an extraordinary festival and know that all revenue is going to Education without Borders, which provides life-changing educational programs for students from under-resourced and socially disadvantaged communities in the Western Cape of South Africa.
The South African Film Festival begins across Australia on May 4, in cinemas and online. For more, visit saff.org.au