Friday, June 20, 2008

Encounters Film Festival - New Deal?

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The 10th annual Encounters Documentary Film Festival is on in Johannesburg from the 19th to the 29th of June. For political nuts there will be an array of documentary features, supplemented by panel discussions and debates.

I saw New Deal? on Fri the 20th. The film was made during the genesis of the United Democratic Front, which was founded in response to the tricameral constitutional reforms of P.W. Botha's Nationalist government in 1983. That was 25 years ago and New Deal? provides a glimpse of the Front and its power as a grass-roots democratising force. The UDF re-energised the struggle for freedom with genuine participatory structures that encompassed a range of civil society and community groups. It was also an important conduit between the exile leadership of the ANC and its networks within the country.

Although lacking in context and having felt the deteriorating effects of time, New Deal? captures some of the chaotic energy that propelled this historic phenomenon forward. Early on in the film there are some revealing moments from a National Party convention, held in a NGK church, where President Botha sews the seeds of fear, warning of the dangers of majority rule and outlining his reform agenda. An all-white audience looks on with steely adoration. This provides the backdrop for the inauguration of the UDF with the stiff uniformity of the Nationalists juxtaposed with scenes of the first meeting of the UDF in Mitchels Plain. We see throngs of excited crowds, racially mixed and burning with moral indignation. The articulate rabble-rousing of young Frank Chikane and Terror Lekota (both of whom have since put on a lot of weight and become mandarins of the state) is also on display.

Several guest speakers were present to discuss their involvement, many of whom have now been absorbed into government and business. They included Popo Molefe, former Premier of North West, activist and academic Raymond Suttner, as well as "People's Poet" Mzwakhe Mbuli.

My reaction to the discussion was ambivalent. The director, Tony Bensusan, who was also present, had to endure several rather patronising comments from the panelists as to how the film could have been improved. Popo Molefe cited the need to focus more on the community self-governing units, and not just the high-level stuff, the launches, speeches, etc. I think this was to miss the point. Certainly New Deal? should not be read as some over-arching narrative of the movement but it is precisely because of its lack of retrospect and its rawness as an historical text that made it worth viewing. It is the perspective of one film maker and his reaction to events as they unfolded before his young eyes. A comprehensive study of the movement is certainly overdue in film format, but that will be somebody else's job.

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New Deal? will be screened again on Sun 22nd June at 17h00 at NuMetro Hyde Park with another Q&A taking place afterwards. It will also be shown in Cape Town when the festival moves down there next month. Sat 5th July at 17:30pm as well as Wed 9th July at 18:30.

For a list of South African documentary films at the festival follow this link.

Tonight Online: Hands-on history goes visual for new generation

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