The Festival runs May 12-24 with special in-cinema closing night screenings in Sydney and Melbourne. All ticket proceeds go to programs supporting vulnerable groups in South Africa.

We’re not getting to South Africa anytime soon, so the South African Film Festival brought it here.

Three years strong, the Festival launched in Bondi in 2019, went online in 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and this year will run online May 12-24 with special in-cinema closing night screenings in Sydney and Melbourne. All ticket proceeds this year go to programs supporting vulnerable groups in South Africa.

This year’s program includes documentaries, feature films and two short features.

“There’s a range of intrinsic directorial visions extrapolating South Africa’s past, present and future,” said Festival director Clare Jankelson. “Each year the focus is to find a selection of proudly South African films that brings the vibrancy of the unique South African culture and its people to our Australian, and for the first time this year, New Zealand, audiences.”

The program kicks off on Wednesday May 12 with documentary Influence, billed with world leaders Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma as stars.

“The disgraced PR powerhouse Bell Pottinger, with everything that went wrong, came to light with the probe into the severe Government corruption under the Zuma presidency,” said Clare. “The film highlights the relationship of truth and power on a global platform and shows how political spin and ‘fake news’ sway public perception.”

“This film won Best Documentary at the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa in 2021 and was a nominee for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.”

The documentary bears an especially strong resonance in light of events transpiring only this week past, with the ruling African National Congress’ Secretary-General Ace Magashule, currently facing fraud and other charges, being suspended by the ANC.

With South African politics remaining a consistent theme of the Festival and ever-present in the minds of South Africans both abroad and in Australia, the focus is even stronger this year in light of an unprecedented emphasis on documentaries.

“We usually try to find a balance between feature films, documentaries and short films, but this year and due to the global pandemic, most feature film productions slowed down, and documentaries were more readily available,” said Clare. “It’s a curation of ‘fresh off the press’ features launched at international Film Festivals before local South African release, like Influence and Barakat, or past releases with accolades. The Festival offers a reminder of South Africa’s history pre and post-Apartheid together with climate and environmental references that speaks to a country rich with remarkable nature and wildlife.”

Barakat, translating to ‘blessings’ in Urdu, follows a Muslim, Malay community residing in Cape Town where the feature was also completed. Also selected for the 2021 Pan African Film Festival, Barakat was the Closing Night feature of London’s most recent Film Africa Festival.

Barakat is produced by Nagvlug Films, it’s dynamic young Writer/Director Amy Jephta and her producing partner Ephraim Gordon,” said Clare. “They brought together a stellar cast of mostly Muslim people in order to achieve a nuanced integrity in their depictions of ordinary family life.”

“This passionate little family film with so much heart, which is in the vain of Minari, will not only appeal to the African diaspora across Australia and New Zealand, but to all communities trying to overcome the trials and tribulations of this year of a global pandemic. The film will be released at the same time as the South African release and during the time of breaking the fast in celebration of Eid-al-Fitr (commencing May 12, 2021), a religious holiday celebrated by Muslims world-wide marking the end of the fasting of Ramadan.”

One of four documentaries on the program, Blindside covers the 1974 British Lions’ boycott-breaking Apartheid-era tour of South Africa. Reflecting on the political role of, and debates around, rugby during the regime, the material will resonate with fans of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus and those who recall, fondly or not, the recent triumph of South Africa in the World Cup; reminiscent itself of the events depicted in the 2009 drama.

The nation’s Oscar entry Toorbos will also screen; a period drama set in a conservative Knysna forest community chronicling 18-year-old Karoliena’s forced marriage to a shopkeeper and transition to a new reality in a new town. Based on the Dalene Matthee novel, Toorbos too centres on the Government’s plans to imminently remove and rehouse the impoverished community.

Spanning the genre range to romantic adventure, Riding with Sugar covers pursuit of BMX success, the lead’s romance with a dancer and dreams of a happier life while Sandance! takes us across southern Africa via rehearsals by members of the San community bringing performances and healing dance as far as Botswana’s annual Kuru Dance Festival.

Gangster flick For Love and Broken Bones follows Motheo, a musician and debt collector who falls for his newest target while Mama Africa utilises five decades of archival footage to present singer Miriam Makeba’s legacy. Exiled from the country for more than 30 years, Makeba’s life took her from the US to Guinea, with her banishment heavily influencing her art.

A New Country and District Six Rising From the Dust, directed by Sifiso Khanyile and Weaam Williams respectively, via contemporary commentary and archival footage chronicle the continued effects of Apartheid, with Good Hope outlining the views, aspirations and experiences of younger South Africans whose earliest memories recall the post-Apartheid nation. Life is Wonderful will look to the earlier impacts of the laws and the story of Denis Goldberg, who was convicted at the infamous Rivonia trial where Mandela, alongside Goldberg and other co-defendents, were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Jozi Gold will highlight the ever-present issue of the environmental state of South Africa and the impacts of mining, with drama Tess exploring the issues of abuse and gender violence through the experiences of a sex worker who falls pregnant.

Letter Reader, one of the short features on the program, follows a 12-year-old boy who becomes his village’s letter reader.

Continuing the Festival’s commitment to ‘Education without Borders,’ all ticket proceeds will go toward a charity assisting vulnerable and young South Africans in some of the nation’s most disadvantaged communities. A strong motivating factor in taking the Festival online last year, Education without Borders and those of their ilk are seeking to ameliorate conditions further impacted by an as of yet very limited vaccine rollout and the highest mortality rate in Africa.  An education foundation functioning in South Africa since 2002, their roles are as crucial as ever now given the extent to which COVID-19 has impacted the country with many communities now left even more bereft of requisite resources amidst lengthy lockdowns.

There resides a strong Australian-South African community surrounding the South African Film Festival’s foundations in Bondi but going online has meant the Festival bears an even greater opportunity to reach more ex-pats, community members and local film fans than before. For local residents of the South African community keenly watching what is happening overseas, some of whom have had to forestall long-awaited trips to Bloemfontein or Johannesburg, this author included, it’s a more than welcome opportunity to reconnect, re-engage, enjoy some movies and be as close to South Africa as we’re going to get right now.

The South African Film Festival screens online from Wednesday 12 May to Monday 24 May, 2021 in Australia and New Zealand with Closing Night Barakat screenings in Event Cinemas Bondi Junction and Castle Hill together with Melbourne’s Classic Cinema. Get program and ticket information at the Festival website.

Glen Falkenstein

on SBS