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Durban Film Mart 2020: Interview with Sam Soko on 'Softie'


The virtual edition of the Durban Film Mart made it possible for people from across the continent to attend. Following closely on the heels of The Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, which also presented itself in a virtual format, there was some cross-pollination particularly in the documentary section. Having watched all of the African documentaries at the Encounters festival, a series of special in-depth interviews with documentarians carried an organic appeal. Led by Nigerian film pundit, Wilfred Okiche, these discussions went deeper to uncover the director's motivations, behind-the-scenes stories and valuable details about the documentary film-making process.

Sam Soko's documentary, Softie, journeys with journalist photographer turned political activist, Boniface Mwangi. Having won the best African documentary prize at the Encounters Documentary Film Festival, Soko's efforts were rewarded making his words of particular interest. Softie grapples with the awakening of a political activist who decides to run for office in Kenya. From creative political campaigns in a country regarded as one of the most corrupt on the planet to navigating his life between the rigours of politics and family, it's an eye-opening and intimate account of a man trying to choose between patriotism and family values.

A self-confessed advocate of freedom of expression, it's easy to see how Sam Soko resonated with his primary subject and the political undercurrent of Softie. Soko reveals that Softie was originally meant to be a 5 minute YouTube video. Filmed over the course of 5 years, the scope of the project grew into a behemoth, eventually gathering over 600 hours of footage. A masterful feat of editing, Soko's efforts have been reduced to a 96 minute feature film. Softie has a local flavour, centring in Kenya but operates on a universal level through a global storytelling lens. This makes the tale of family versus country accessible to all audiences and it's treated with an "Africa is a country" sentiment, reflecting common narratives belying many nations with similar colonial histories.

It's brought home by its pure documentary with virtually no fictional scenes. Soko was observing Boniface and his family, involved as a film-maker and forming a relationship with his subjects but so integrated Softie almost has a fly-on-the-wall feel. He didn't shoot with a script, instead capturing real moments and events that contribute to the authenticity of his picture. Another message he wanted to portray is the idea of non-violent activism. There's been a blurring of lines when it comes to what protest and activism entail, typically on the back of the thinking that you only get results following violent action. Softie is gearing up for a release in Kenya, but due to the uncertainty of the current markets and exhibition standards - it could be delayed.

When asked for advice by budding filmmakers, Soko said "don't pitch a film you can't deliver" and "be honest, ask questions". There's a temptation to wow prospective film partners with ambitious and sweeping visions of what your film will be about or like, but it's important to be circumspect. Rather underpromise and over-deliver. Then, identifying another problem area he revealed that it's important to present a grounded view of what you can offer and not be afraid to ask questions to avoid potential pitfalls.

 
The Ever-Shortening Gap Between Cinema and Streaming...


The whole lockdown and enforced break from cinemas got me thinking. We've been conditioned to think new releases are everything. In years gone by, theatrical releases would hold more power because you couldn't see it anywhere else, your friends would be talking about the film and after its cinema run, it would take months to become available on video. Nowadays the gap between cinema and video has shrunk to the point that some cinemas are actually showing films you can order as DVDs online or as pay-per-view. There are now more viewing platforms with their own original new releases that become available and stay accessible. There's just so much blooming entertainment content, it's difficult to see it all and chances are your friends probably won't even know what you're banging on about if you haven't committed to watching the same thing.

The whole condensation of entertainment media means that the urgency of a new theatrical release doesn't hold as much weight or appeal. There are exceptions with must-see blockbusters that capture our imagination, rock the box office and make kids believe they can fly or drift. These larger-than-life spectacles have kept commercial cinemas in the business of magic and the exclusivity and fan culture has nurtured these events. However, these escapist blockbusters from the realm of superheroes, space operas and car chases only come round 2 or 3 times a year.

After some thought, I think we can start appreciating old films as new. Most of them have been remastered to stand up against DVD and Blu-ray players. If you haven't seen it yet... you haven't been exposed to the director's vision or the time capsule of entertainment therein... it's essentially brand spanking new. We've been sold to believe in the idea of constantly consuming new products being thrown under our nose on a conveyor belt. Instead of trying to keep up with the wave of entertainment dropping every week or hitting 'Next Episode', perhaps now's the time to become more circumspect about the substance and quality of what we're actually watching.

We've witnessed this through content streaming platforms like Netflix where films that didn't get their dues originally are arriving as if new. Possibly slipping under the radar at the time of their release or fronting a star who's much bigger and important now, there's a curious thing happening as audiences discover hidden gems or castaway films. If someone in my position is struggling to keep up with the tide of mainstream films flowing into public view, there's got to be a glut of movies that will accumulating under these circumstances. It's great for Netflix to be capitalising on these dusty and forgotten movies, but perhaps it's pointing to a much bigger story around prizing open these little treasures.

In this spirit, I'm currently anticipating A Cure for Wellness, Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, My Own Private Idaho, The Iron Giant, My Cousin Vinny and Listen to Me Marlon. It won't make sense to people used to having entertainment dished out to them... but in our wake is a century of films waiting to be seen. Now that disc prices have bottomed out and before these films stop being pressed, I'm making sure I get round to enjoying these "new" experiences.

 
Is It Time to Go Back to the Movies?


Cinemas have recently opened in South Africa under the banner of a campaign to get movie patrons back into theatres. After more than 5 months, it's been a major setback for exhibitors who not only have to absorb several months of income loss but also retrain their customers to make movie-going a regular occurrence again. Things have slowly been returning to a new type of normal with many going back to their place of employment. Strict hand-washing, mask-wearing and safety protocols have been implemented at places of public gathering with some stores maintaining a strict policy around the number of customers allowed in the store at one time.

The same is happening at cinemas where movie-goers are being given a series of safety protocols to try and reduce risk of infection. Cleaning cinemas inbetween screenings, hand-washing, cashless ticketing and enforced social distancing within cinemas are making it possible for these businesses to get back into gear. If companies and restaurants are being allowed to continue operation why shouldn't cinemas also have this right? It's going to take some time for patrons to feel safe enough to share a closed cinema with others, but this has to happen in order for cinemas to survive. The theatre business is already under pressure thanks to advances in home entertainment technology and the adoption of streaming services, which have gained more ground thanks to the enforced stay-at-home lockdown.

It seems ironic that cinemas are finally operating the way I would want to attend public screenings and yet I remain unmoved. Having fewer people in the cinema, maintaining social distancing... it's one way you can actually sit back, relax and just enjoy the movie. Despite being free from being kicked in the back, wrestling for arm rest dominance or having people sidestep their way past you without stepping on your toes... it's still going to take time for me to return to cinemas. Being out of the cinema loop, I've had a chance to think. Since society and technology is making it feasible to do life remotely, it's becoming acceptable for people to do meetings, work and play from home. I'm wanting to continue reviewing film in this capacity by way of streaming, pay-per-view or online screeners.

Watching movies from home is just more efficient for a movie critic in my position. Avoiding traffic, seeing the movie start on time, viewing with the ability to pause and rewind, getting the chance to scribe notes about your assessment without int interrupting other audience members... it's just easier and more efficient, even if I'm missing out on the complimentary popcorn, soda water and trailers. The biggest argument against reviewing film this way is that movies are designed for big screen viewing and as big as 42 inches sounds, it can't compete with a wall-sized screen. Moreover, getting a read on the audience's responses can help you make a better assessment. Being in a cinema full of film critics, this only really happens in the foyer - unless the room is mostly comprised of Marvel or Star Wars fans.

As a movie critic I want the film industry to recover, box office numbers to escalate and things to get back on track. However, if I'm not going to cinemas myself... I can't support the movie-going experience in good conscience. We were in lockdown when there were less than 100 cases of Covid-19. Aware of several confirmed cases in my immediate circle of friends and family, it just seems irresponsible to take any unnecessary risks at this stage. The industry has been brought to its knees and obviously cinemas are there to provide a public service to those who are willing to attend in this current format and stage of lockdown. As with mask-wearing, it's a contentious issue across the globe that concerns human rights and the consideration of the health and safety of others. I'm not going to fight cinemas reopening but I don't think it's safe to go back to the movies yet.

There hasn't been enough creativity and unity around intermediary solutions. It may seem overly cautious to some but how can cinemas even justify the facilitation and management of these entertainment amenities when they're not operating at full capacity? Nu Metro are only opening over weekends, which seems like a smart move to keep things ticking over during the peak times. The Galileo Open Air Cinema has branched out into drive-in theatres, which are making a healthy resurgence. Disney have made Mulan available to their Disney+ subscribers at an additional surcharge and this seems like the way to go. Other films affected by the pandemic have jumped to viewing platforms quicker. I love that the Labia Theatre in Cape Town opened an online fifth screen to their patrons for pay-per-view over the lockdown at Labia Home Screen.

It may seem counter-intuitive to an exhibitor business model but evolution and diversification seems like the right direction for now. It does seem like confirmed cases have begun the downward turn and that the curve will be flattening out. I know I'll only feel safe doing anything in a public space when the pandemic has been contained. If people in my immediate circle are still contracting the coronavirus and ICU nurses are struggling to come to terms with the effects of the pandemic, as much as I love movies... it seems insane to pretend everything's okay.

Much like writer-director Christopher Nolan, who recently released Tenet to cinemas, I want to preserve the big screen experience. It's a cultural phenomenon, a piece of pop culture history that needs to survive. So I'm going to keep supporting the film industry as much as I can from the sideline. Right now I just can't see myself in a cinema... even if it's just me.

 
Spling's 15 Favourite African Documentaries from the 22nd Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival


Spling was asked to serve as a juror for the 22nd Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival.

For the first time in the history of the festival, Encounters and Gauteng Film Commission selected three film journalists from across the country to present an award for Best South African/African Film.

Having watched 22 documentaries in competition for this award, which went to Softie, here are Spling's Top 15 from this year's festival line-up.

Influence

Running time: 107 min
Director: Richard Poplak & Diana Neille

Influence is an incisive rise-and-fall documentary, which rewinds the story of Bell Pottinger to its origins with an all-access confessional style interview with Lord Tim Bell. While other documentaries and films such as The Great Hack, After Truth, How to Steal A Country and Brexit: The Uncivil War splayed open the fake news and weaponised PR debate, Influence goes deeper in a dizzying, eye-opening, powerful and long overdue exposé. This cautionary and timely film offers evidence to validate the post-truth era and hopefully provoke the kind of actions and discussions to unlock and protect against it.

Finding Sally

Running time: 78 min
Director: Tamara Mariam Dawit

Finding Sally is an eye-opening, heartfelt and intimate mystery documentary about an activist turned rebel, her surviving family and the country she left behind. Steeped in the same enigma that made Searching for Sugarman so compelling, Tamara Dawit connects with her four aunts who have each tried to overcome the heartache and mystery of what happened to their sister. Finding Sally is an emotional investigative journey recapping some of Ethiopia's darkest days under a dictatorship and the Red Terror regime. Unlocking their family history, memories of Sally and taking the expedition to trace her last days, Finding Sally draws you into this personal and touching story through photos, archive footage and extensive family interviews.

Softie (Winner - Best African Film)

Running time: 96 min
Director: Sam Soko

Softie is an unpredictable on-the-ground documentary and compelling character portrait set against Kenya's volatile environment of inequality, prejudice and violence, where election campaigns are won on hard cash and t-shirts. Following the story of brave Boniface "Softie" Mwangi, a photographer turned political activist who took his dissent to the streets, this visceral state-of-the-nation documentary captures the inspiration, patriotism and conviction of altruistic endeavour against all odds. Softie explores Kenya's corrupt political landscape and drills down to the intimacy of its direct impact on an activist's young family, capturing priceless moments and brutal protest action.

Days of Cannibalism (First Runner Up)

Running time: 79 min
Director: Teboho Edkins

Taken from a fly-on-the-wall perspective, Days of Cannibalism explores the integration of the Chinese in Lesotho's society and the rise of crime in a struggling economy. Recalling Five Fingers for Marseilles through horse-racing, unspoilt landscapes and police intervention, it also taps into the hardships of cattle-rearing, rising unemployment and changing attitude toward ancient traditions. The contrasts and culture shock speaks for itself as Days of Cannibalism laces together an almost-poetic portrait of a country in the throes of change.

Mrs. F

Running time: 77 min
Director: Chris van der Vorm

Mrs F tells the story of a fierce feminist, who is trying to win hearts and minds through her powerful street productions. The documentary delves into her critical mission, relentless bravery and dedication to campaigning for a renewal in Nigeria's longstanding prejudices. A fly-on-the-wall approach takes us on a journey from the canals of a Nigerian slum to the rehearsal room of an eye-opening stage play. It's a beautiful and emotive story of one woman's efforts to break through to a community, liberate her actors from their toxic mindset and stage a progressive production in a dangerous stronghold.

Good Hope

Running time: 93 min
Director: Anthony Fabian

This ‘state of the nation’ documentary is refreshing, exploring the possibilities for our country’s next generation through achievable solutions, restoration of confidence in humanity and the power of one. Celebrating South Africa’s remarkable achievements, our constitution and the potential to become a global powerhouse, Good Hope carries forth Mandela’s positive vision for our country. The documentary touches on South Africa's current challenges and explores efforts around rehabilitating our education system, bolstering entrepreneurship programmes and adopting a go-getting approach with interviews from inspirational and respected public figures.

Tin Soldiers

Running time: 85 min
Director: Odette Schwegler

Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva or FOP is an extremely rare medical condition that slowly turns connective tissue to bone. Tin Soldiers tells the courageous story of people living with this affliction, exploring the medical science and ways the community is banding together to support loved ones and research. It's a touching and well-balanced account of the resilient "tin soldiers" whose gratitude and spirit is inspiring. Traveling between South Africa, Brazil, United States, United Kingdom and France... Tin Soldiers is about celebrating the human spirit and creating awareness to help assist hundreds of undiagnosed cases.

Sakawa (Second Runner Up)

Running time: 81 min
Director: Ben Asamoah

Sakawa immerses itself in the subculture of a group of online dating website fraudsters in Ghana who have turned curated fantasy relationships into a full-time career. Grappling with the socio-economic conditions, Sakawa is a bold and thought-provoking documentary that simply journeys with the crazy and colourful lives of several fraudsters. Presenting the situation without bias or any attempt to solve the problem, this fly-on-the-wall documentary makes a fascinating, surreal and sometimes shocking journey with a few takeaways.

How to Steal a Country

Running time: 87 min
Director: Rehad Desai

How to Steal A Country grapples with the unthinkable as state capture becomes a reality for three former shoe salesmen under the nose of an unconscionable President and his cronies. Taking on a similar investigative tone to All the President's Men as a tribute to brave journalists, the soundtrack is compelling, taking cues from news room and espionage thrillers to create a sleek style of reporting and storytelling. It may not be in-your-face enough, covers material most South Africans would sooner forget and doesn't have the raw urgency of Desai's previous documentaries, but it's still a first-class documentary feature, a time capsule and essential viewing for all South Africans.

Listen to My Song

Running time: 78 min
Director: Glenn Ujebe Masokoane

Listen to My Song unpacks the life's work of Gideon Nxumalo and his influence on the jazz scene of the 1950s and 60s in South Africa. A jazz icon, the documentary lovingly captures his spirit through his music and essence through friends and musicians of the time. Absolute characters in their own respect, whose natural charm oozes and compels their rich insights and memories, it's a lively discussion on jazz in relation to traditional African music and the musical form's roots in African-American culture. Operating with a free-form of it's own, Listen to My Song is entertaining and features a trove of Nxumalo's compositions.

The Letter

Running time: 84 min
Director: Maia Lekow & Christopher King

Kenya's Witchcraft Act in 1925 made it illegal to accuse or threaten to accuse someone of being a witch or practicing witchcraft. The Letter tracks with one such woman accused of witchcraft by way of an "anonymous" letter, in spite of being a devoted member of her local church and a much-loved grandmother. Delving into the heritage, exploring the dangers and revealing possible short-term solutions, The Letter attempts to present a comprehensive yet personal view of this fragile ongoing travesty by exploring generational politics around land, tradition and inheritance.

The Art of Being Human

Running time: 67 min
Director: Pule Phokompe

The Art of Being Human is a character portrait of Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza. From his early years in the Transkei to his participation in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee and Marikana Commission, he's been characterised as a steadfast man of great influence and integrity. Through interviews with family, friends and colleagues we piece together a puzzle of a life well-lived. Entertaining thanks to Ntsebeza's grace and understated charm, the documentary touches on deeper issues surrounding South Africa's past, exemplifying Ntsebeza's morality and calm in the chaos. A solid production, it's somewhat hampered by its bombastic soundtrack and underlying advert.

San dance! : A Journey to the Heart of San Dance Culture

Running time: 60 min
Director: Richard Wicksteed

San dance! : A Journey to the Heart of San Dance Culture follows several San dance groups as they travel from remote Kalahari villages to the Kuru Dance Festival in Botswana. Exploring the origins of their dance from their ancient culture, it's a hypnotic meditation on their techniques, the healing power of entering a trance state and attempts to preserve the practice for future generations. A colourful, upbeat and spectacular documentary San dance! celebrates the core values of the ancient culture and traditions, which still have valuable lessons about peace, harmony and nature.

Beyond my Steps

Running time: 72 min
Director: Kamy Lara

Angola's tradition, culture, memory and identity are expressed through five dancers from the Contemporary Dance Company of Angola. Set in the country's capital, Luanda, the dancers hailing from various provinces reflect the city's energy through interpretive dance. Beautifully choreographed and inclusive dance sequences intersperse this vibrant documentary and exploration of identity within dance. Documenting the rehearsal and performances, Beyond my Steps captures powerful images of graceful and elemental strength against surreal backdrops.

Rumba in the Jungle - The Return

Running time: 75 min
Director: Yolanda Keabetswe Mogatusi

Rumba in the Jungle - The Return chronicles the return of a celebrated international dance event hosted at Sun City after having been discontinued for almost two decades. Centring around South African dance legends, Michael Wentink and Tebogo Kgobokoe, the flamboyant documentary captures the larger-than-life characters, the sport's professional dimension and attempts to re-ignite the DanceSport and prestigious annual event.

 
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