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Two Acclaimed South African Films Coming Home


Die Stropers (The Harvesters) and An Act Of Defiance aka Bram Fischer, two European/South African co-productions from Spier Films, will be premiering at this year’s Silwerskerm Fees in Cape Town. Having had a successful festival run, garnering critical acclaim and scooping a number of festival awards for their exploration of the Afrikaner identity, they're coming home.

Die Stropers, directed by Etienne Kallos and starring Juliana Venter and Morne Visser, received a standing ovation at this year’s 71st Cannes Film Festival as part of the Un Certain Regard selection. The atmospheric film is set in a white, conservative, patriarchal rural community in the eastern Free State. Two stepbrothers, a teenage misfit and a hardened orphan become embroiled in a power struggle for heritage and parental love.

The Harvesters

Kallos’ screenplay won the Gan Foundation’s 'Prix opening Shot Prize’ for best screenplay at Cannes and the Mahindra ‘Global Filmmaker Award’ at Sundance before the film even went into production. Kallos says he wanted to explore adolescence and tell a story about the first generation to be born completely outside of the Apartheid system, alienated and burdened by the weight of post-colonialism.

Spier's second film, An Act of Defiance, directed by Jean van de Velde and starring Peter Paul Muller and Antoinette Louw, is a rousing historical drama and political thriller based on the real events of the pivotal 1963 Rivonia Trial. While Nelson Mandela and his compatriots face charges of conspiracy to commit sabotage and treason, white Afrikaner lawyer Bram Fischer risks everything to defend and save them from the death penalty.

An Act of Defiance - Bram Fischer

Both films "have the potential for both critical and commercial success internationally and at home while remaining dedicated to fostering South Africa’s unique talent, stories and voices", according to Spier Films chief executive, Michael Auret.

 
David Cronenberg Discusses the Death of Cinema


David Cronenberg - the critically acclaimed Canadian director behind such brilliant dramas Crash, The Fly and Existenz - told a packed audience at the Neuchatel International Fantasy Film Festival in Switzerland that the death of cinema has already arrived. The 75-year-old auteur, who was participating as part of a Masterclass at the festival, talked at length about the growing powers of streaming sites like Netflix and the troubles of working in Hollywood. Discussing his growing disillusionment with the cinema experience,  Cronenberg said: "the big screen is shattering into a million small screens” and “film-making is not dead, but cinemas are no longer the cathedral where you commune with other people.”

David Cronenberg

Viewership habits

Cronenberg's statements come amidst growing turmoil plaguing the film industry. Directors such as Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino and Ridley Scott have all voiced their fears about the future decline of the art form. Whilst more and more people prefer to get their entertainment via platforms such as YouTube, Netflix and Hulu,  Cronenberg is adamant that this transformation is a positive one and should be embraced, saying, "cinema is changing, evolving as well." Netflix has become a global powerhouse in terms of its influence. Since starting out in 1997, it has gained more than 117 million subscribers across nearly every country in the world, amidst a backdrop of the lowest movie theatre attendance in the US and Canada since 1992, with 1.24 billion tickets sold in 2017.

Films like the documentary Jim and Andy, the Korean fantasy film Okja and even the Daniel Negreanu biopic, KidPoker, present a diverse portfolio of viewing and appeal to audiences who want to enjoy flicks at home instead of heading to the cinema.

On working with Netflix

Cronenberg told the audience that he has signalled his intentions of potentially working with Netflix in the future, comparing the act of working with Netflix to that of creating a novel. Of his potential endeavours with Netflix, Cronenberg said, "the cinematic equivalent of the novel is a Netflix series that goes on for maybe 5-7 years.... and that it is possible that instead of writing a novel I would do a series for Netflix." TV shows like Stranger Things, The Handmaid's Tale and Orange is the New Black have been lauded for their willingness to explore deeper character arcs and story lines over many episodes. Allowing directors like Cronenberg creative freedom on a scale not seen before.

It's also no surprise that Cronenberg might be headed to Netflix, at the very same Masterclass he openly discussed his struggles of working within Tinseltown and the system, even talking about his director friend Martin Scorsese who till this day still finds it hard to make movies in the Hollywood system.  Cronenberg's last film, 2014’s Maps To The Stars, perfectly encapsulated the director’s state of mind. A film that predated the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and presents a rather bleak vision of the industry.  Cronenberg's remarks remind us of the dramatic shift taking place in the cinema landscape, a place where for over a century billions of moviegoers would enjoy the sights and sounds of moving pictures. Now, only time will tell whether cinema will stick around or be replaced by the small screen.

 
The Age of White Noise News...


There's too much of everything. No one knows what's important anymore. It seems that nothing is important to anyone. This is the perceived "current mood" and while numbing the reality, emoticons are not going to mask the fact that the world of news and media is flailing. We're living in an age of nostalgia and confuserism where our fear of the rampant new is trying to hold the present hostage by recycling the comfortable past leaving us melancholy, disillusioned and alienated.

The internet has leveled the playing fields, making it easier than ever to get your voice heard, whether it be running a website, a blog, podcast or vlog. While the door's wide open... it's ceased to be a door. The shift from physical newspapers and books to online news and e-books has been radical, making it difficult for traditional news agencies to compete with digital and news-sharing across social media. Our confuserist society has been drawn into the get-it-while-it's-hot style of hard, fast and disposable news and media. The rise of comedic platforms like The Onion has further complicated matters, creating a glut of news ranging from fact-based to yarn. While reporting has been slanted by media company agendas since their inception, the new digital format lends itself to viral news-casting, where inflammatory and bogus news is doing the rounds. The constant buzz of insta-reporting has left us in a state of white noise news.

white noise news

While prolific, people have become weary of this wildfire reporting, which like spam has enough easy to identify earmarks to disarm and dismiss as hokum or propaganda. Still, toasting what's happening now and today has become the essence of news with in-depth Pulitzer prize-winning journalism falling to the wayside. Twitter's slogan is "What's happening now" and has shaped the culture of information gathering, preferring headline orientated news where readers only want news at a glance. The instant gratification of breaking news has made it a real-time obsession and interactive news aggregator as images, text and opinion become a live-stream of unfiltered trending content, rather than taking a more circumspect approach as has happened with news reporting in the past. Instead of waiting for the evening news or tomorrow's paper, there's a drive to get articles, video, reports and news updates to press as fast as it hits social media with many news agencies actually using social media as their guide to what's important and newsworthy.

This speedy style of reporting doesn't give journalists the time to sift through the facts, opting for catchy headlines to attract readers rather than cultivating a considered culture and strong reputation. Nowadays, reporting and reviewing is no longer considered an art form in and of itself. There's more weight on speed of delivery and less emphasis on substantial content, making it more about hooking readers and recycling content than informing or educating them. The art of the hook has become more important as digital operates on a much broader and more measurable front, making the pond an ocean and turning digital content into click bait.

There are exceptions to the rule, such as BBC, The Economist, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal, although many of the esteemed reporting and opinion agencies are struggling to keep going due to sweeping changes across the digital landscape, the transition from print to online and less advertising revenue. Why pay for a newspaper when you can check your favourite online news channel for free? Moreover, news has become infotainment... making it important to turn fact into story to keep viewers transfixed. Fudging the lines has made it difficult for good journalists to stay in the game. When newspapers don't have any budget, or at least plead poverty, journalists are swayed into writing for exposure and the practice bottoms out or shifts to adjust to compensate. If you can get a reasonable report or piece for next to nothing, it's very difficult to motivate why it's necessary to pay another more seasoned or esteemed professional.

Converting to digital platforms has also meant that there's a greater emphasis on writing SEO-friendly content, marginalising the quality of the content once again. This watering down of journalism has made it a slog for freelancers who try to peddle their writing for per word rates in a culture where bullet points rule and weak writing is published without much forethought. While the nature of journalism has changed dramatically, making it seem like anyone can write... this film critic believes we're going to see a return to high quality content.

Film critics are equally challenged. In the past, newspapers were able to support a resident film critic or even team of film writers. Now, international syndication means one review can be disseminated across news channels and partners at a fraction of the cost of generating an original, homegrown review. Converting the role into a more widespread entertainment journalist means there's less chance of specialising, accommodating theatre, TV, gossip and events. Generating multi-platform content means there's less time (and money) available to focus on crafting high quality reviews. The rise of review aggregators has made it easier for film goers to simply rely on a consensus rating than a specific voice and there's such a humdrum of opinions from social media to print that it's difficult to see the critic from the crowd. Box office figures are sliding, streaming services are subverting cinema attendance and there's no longer a fixed or stable financial model for the traditional film critic.

The burgeoning tsunami of fake news, diluted and agenda-fueled insta-journalism has to crash at some point. While the online platform has certainly opened the floodgates, there's a definite feeling of apprehension and a growing desire for substance that should amount to a new readership, who want more intelligent, thoughtful reporting that goes beyond a catchy headline and makes you want to read the paper from cover-to-cover. Fake news and social media algorithims may have swayed an election and disrupted many solid reputations, but we're in a state of overload and people are feeling overwhelmed by the relentless outpouring of fast food style content. Simplification and minimalism is gradually becoming a priority in this over-saturated new digital world.

As people tend towards de-cluttering their minds and switching off the constant white noise of modern society, perhaps then it'll be time for news agencies to rethink their reporting model... opting for the kind of content and writing that builds lifelong and loyal relationships with their readers rather than opting for quick, baseless and reheated news for mass appeal. If news agencies convert their content generation from advertiser loyal to reader loyal it could become an echo chamber. What we're needing is reporting integrity crowdfunded by those who want to know what's really happening.

 
2018 Oscar Winners


The 2018 Oscars provided plenty of surprises in almost every category. Bets at some of the South African online casinos were wild, with both neither the bookies nor the bettors quite sure what to expect. In the end, most observers commented that the choices were correct but some people still wonder about the choices.

Here is a round up of the 2018 Oscar top prize winners and what made them stand out in the eyes of the Academy.

Best Picture and Best Director for The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water won for Best Picture and Best Director, which surprised many people, not the least because the film was basically a science fiction film which is generally overlooked by Hollywood's award season.

The movie, which is set in 1962, focuses on Elisa, a mute woman who is isolated by her inability to speak. She works as a cleaning lady in a high-security government laboratory and discovers a classified secret -- a scaled creature that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with this mysterious creature she learns that its fate lies in the hands of a marine biologist and a hostile government agent.

The passion of director, Guillermo Del Toro, for this simple tale of loyalty and love touched and resonated with many in the Academy. Many observers noted that he spent a good chunk of his post-production time traveling around the world to explain his vision – for many in the Academy, that gave the movie the context that voters needed to cast their votes for this film. Del Toro made the movie because he was pursuing the direction that his heart told him to follow and that spoke to the academy.

Some observers have noted that The Shape of Water spoke to the older Academy members who appreciated the period-movie setting. One voter explained that he saw it as a "love letter to Hollywood and movies” while a second expanded, saying “It’s a movie-lover’s movie.” It was seen as a movie that wears its old-school cinematic influences on its sleeve while being brave enough to explore new horizons with both lead characters being mute. In the end, The Shape of Water won because the Academy liked it the best - it offered an escape into a romantic fantasy.

It's also worth noting that The Shape of Water won for Original Score. Alexander Desplat composed his score to give voice to the film’s two mute characters (the amphibious creature and the cleaning woman, whose theme was whistled by Desplat himself). The "voice" took the form of a South American bandoneon style accordion, which was included to suggest the creature’s geographical home.

Frances McDormand, Best Actress for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand's award as Best Actress wasn't a great surprise but it did give pause to observers who questioned how the Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri could work, given the movie's unsettling subject matter.

McDormand succeeded in bringing director Martin McDonagh's vision to life as she portrayed a grieving mother who was prepared to take on her town's citizens, her friends and powerful authorities in her pursuit of justice for her murdered daughter.

The film focuses on Mildred Hayes who rents three local billboards in an attempt to draw attention to the lackluster police investigation into the murder. The comedy is interspersed between unthinkably painful, banal and idiotic happenings and McDormand makes it come together in this scorching, tragicomedy.

Through her acting McDormand keeps the film from getting stuck in the hold of a morality play and brings it into the realm of an unblinking depiction of white, working-class America without simplifying or sanitizing reality or presenting events as simple right or wrong. Her portrayal hovers between nuance and complexity as she interacts with characters whose humanity extends beyond their bad behavior.

It's rumored that McDormand based her character on John Wayne, combining a fierce pursuit of justice with a certain silliness and playfulness as she demonstrates how to temper devastation with hope.

Gary Oldman, Best Actor for Darkest Hour

It's hard to imagine the dark terror that England faced in 1940 as it was targeted by Germany's Blitzrkieg. The German army had already overrun much of Europe and seemed invincible. America was not yet supporting Great Britain, Russia was crumbling and the Germans had made their intention of conquering all of Europe clear.

Gary Oldman was chosen to portray one of the 20th century's greatest statesmen, Winston Churchill, who led England through the dark days of World War II after the country lost faith in apologist Neville Chamberlain. Oldman is not acting in a historical drama as much as he demonstrates how England, under his leadership, moved through the early days of WWII through the political intrigues of the British parliament, royalty and diplomatic relations with the United States.

The movie covers the period of May to June 1940, the first few weeks of Churchill’s premiership when powerful voices in the upper echelons of the British government were clamoring for negotiation with Germany. Darkest Hour is Churchill versus his cabinet as events move briskly and decisions can mean the life or death of thousands. Oldman successfully shows how Churchill’s alienation from many of his peers was juxtaposed with a camaraderie with his countrymen through the dark early days of the war and the crucial decisions involved in evacuating Dunkirk.

Oldman disappears into his role completely, giving the audience the full Churchill... at turns affectionate, full of self-doubt, witty, merry and drunkenly rebarbative. Most Oscar observers were not surprised to see Oldman walk away with the Best Actor Award.

 
The Last Encounters Documentary Film Festival?


The Encounters Documentary Film Festival has been running for 20 years. During this time the festival has become a much-anticipated calendar event, and the premiere documentary festival in Africa. With many environmental causes, on-going poaching and a civil war-ravaged continent, Africa seems to be at the forefront of documentary film-making with many filmmakers using Africa as the destination of choice. While the Encounters Documentary Film Festival has been running for two decades, it's at a critical turning point in terms of funding.

 

With many sponsors reducing their sponsorship, they have become more reliant on their major sponsors such as the National Film and Video Foundation. Unfortunately, at the eleventh hour, actually on the opening night of the festival, their funding was cut. Anticipating this reluctance from the NFVF, they started a crowdfunding project under the hashtag #HelpKeepEncountersAlive to raise R700,000 in order to sustain the festival. The festival went ahead even though the goal wasn't achieved, making it even more important that they find a new flagship sponsor if its to continue in 2019.

Renowned for featuring world-class documentaries and serving as an important showcase for documentary filmmakers, it will be a travesty for the Encounters Documentary Film Festival to make 2018 its last year. Encouraging young filmmakers, inspiring the next generation of documentary filmmakers and creating jobs around the event, it is important that this festival continue. Sadly, in a tough economic environment it's becoming more and more difficult to lure advertisers to get involved with these kinds of annual projects.

While international funding institutions certainly make things easier, it seems odd that the Encounters Documentary Film Festival hasn't been able to garner more worldwide support. A blossoming film industry, the subject of many documentaries, becoming a popular destination for film-making, the obvious benefits of the exchange rate and being able to have an active influence and control over the showcase, it seems strange that no one has taken an active interest in rescuing the renowned South African film festival.

Trying to ramp up that kind of branding and reputation isn't easy, which would make any successor sluggish in terms of its drive to create something similar, making it seem like a lost opportunity for a bigger entity not to get involved. Appealing to a key figure like Leonardo DiCaprio, as a strong proponent of documentary films, having been instrumental in The 11th Hour and Before the Flood, it wouldn't take much terms of investment when you work it back into Rands. Add your support behind Spling's tweet or begin your own campaign to get the message heard.

This year's festival featured a myriad of documentary features and short films... here are two.

The Deminer follows a Kurdish Colonel who made it his life's mission to save lives by defusing mines and bombs in the city of Mosul, Iraq. Working on behalf of the U.S. Army, this brave man could have been the inspiration for Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker in the relentless manner he carried out his work. A family man of eight children, his matter of fact style is next level in terms of confidence. Known as "Crazy Fahkir" by his co-workers, and becoming a national icon of sorts, the man's altruistic efforts are inspiring,and his family's interviews demonstrate that while he was constantly in the field, he was well-loved.

Taking a fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité style documentary footage we get a unique perspective and thrilling account of the man's life going into very dangerous terrain and seeing him disarm bombs and mines using nothing but a simple knife and a pair of clippers. Taking a camera behind-the-scenes, we get a first hand account of a true hero. Even after facing near-fatal explosions and having a target on his back, Colonel Fahkir went on... The Deminer ensures that his story will endure.

Then, following the rags-to-riches success story of Trevor Noah, Kill or Die, a low-budget local doccie, follows the journey of several local comedians from all walks of life. The title references the need for comedians to dominate the stage, establishing a great rapport with the audience or suffering the humiliation of feigned laughter and the possibility of being booed off stage. Focusing on the trajectory of several comedians, most in the early stages of their career, this fly-on-the-wall documentary goes behind-the-scenes to get the inside story of what it takes.

Talent and hard work are the cornerstones of the profession, and this documentary gets to grips with the rigours and ability of comedians to pick themselves up. Taking the leap of faith and moving from traditional career paths onto stand-up stages is no easy feat, requires great self belief and is easier said than done. Yet somehow each of these comedians is able to rise above their circumstances coming from very humble backgrounds to the limelight where they're able to shine. Centring predominantly around a charming and cocky comedian with a bright future ahead of him, we see a star in the making, who seems ready to command his own show. Then, following a rising star female comedian, we discover a woman with fresh challenges. Another comedian who uses a puppet as part of his show, finds himself in South Africa turning his street smarts into comic agility, while another up-and-coming comedian discovers it's a lot tougher to get noticed, taking a few knocks along the way.

With incredible international and local documentaries featuring at the Encounters Documentary Film Festival, it's quite tragic that there's a strong chance they won't get the same platform in 2019... unless we do something about it.

 
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