From Russia, With Love

My interest in African cinema began when I was a student of film history at the VGIK film school in Moscow. Films by a number of great African filmmakers including Yeelen, Manabi, Black Girl, Tiyabu Biru, Badou Boy, Sambizanga, Saruouni, among others, captured my imagination forever. That time began my lifelong love affair with African cinema. It is interesting to note that a number of filmmakers, including the “Father of African Cinema” Ousmane Sembene as well as Souleymane Cissé, Sarah Moldoror, Abderrahmane Sissako, studied film in the former Soviet Union, at a time when young African filmmakers were provided with enormous opportunities to learn film in Soviet-bloc countries. While establishing my career in Russia as a young film historian specializing in African Cinema, I always dreamed of traveling to the continent, picturing the African landscapes and people I felt I knew so well. That dream did not become reality until thirteen years later, after I had left my home country and moved to New York. This past summer, two of my company’s films, one an African/French production and one Russian, brought me to the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa.

Interestingly, 2004 marks ten years of democracy in South Africa, and it also marks twenty five years of the Durban International Film Festival. It should come as no surprise that the festival celebrated its anniversary with a wide range of African, South African, and international cinema, including Crimson Gold by Jafar Panahi (Iran), Lost Embrace by Daniel Burman (Argentina), Russian Ark by Alexandre Sokurov (Russia), Zatoichi by Takeshi Kitano (Japan), Asshak by Ulrike Koch (Switzerland) Anything Else by Woody Allen (USA), Hollow City by Maria Joao Ganga (Angola) and James’ Journey to Jerusalem by Ra’anan Alexandrovich (Israel) starring an up-and-coming South African TV and movie star, Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe.

The Durban Film Festival, no doubt, has come a long way in its evolution and development. Started in 1979 by Ros Sarkin (the festival’s director for seventeen years) the Durban festival survived apartheid and South Africa’s oppressive regime, and over the years, the festival has created a space for art and experimental films that speak to the political and social realities of contemporary life. Today, it embraces a free spirited, modern and vibrant South African identity, deeply rooted in the country’s outstandingly rich visual art.

As a first-time attendee to the DIFF, I was impressed by the efforts of festival organizers to highlight and promote African and South African cinema. Introductions and Q&A by the filmmakers were just a tiny part of the activities. Seminars, workshops at Durban University and specially created events were offered to film-lovers and scholars. As the distributor, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on the latest phenomena of Nigerian video production and distribution. This year’s DIFF created a special program with a focus on Nigerian Cinema, which has surprised the film world with its vitality, despite recent economic hardships and the collapse of the exchange rates. Unable to produce 35mm films, the Nigerian film industry turned to creating popular TV series and video productions. Producers and directors took charge of finances and distribution and went on making about 1000 productions a year.

Another festival highlight and success story was the host country’s own Project 10 — Real Stories from a Free South Africa. Project 10 was developed and commissioned by SABC1, the South African Broadcasting Company, supported by the National Film and Video Foundation with the aim of selecting thirteen young South African filmmakers to tell their personal stories. Working thoughtfully and carefully with the chosen talents, the producers came up with outstanding results — a wonderful and diverse portrait of the new South Africa told by the country’s younger generation. It is no accident that the project was embraced by the international film community and went on to be shown at film festivals and special presentations around the world after the series’ striking premiere at the Berlin International FF.

It is hard to believe that only ten years after South Africans elected Nelson Mandela as their president in their country’s first free election, South Africa’s young generation has moved so far and adopted modernity’s obvious benefits so quickly. The digital technology boom and the ability to provide high-class facilities and technicians to many foreign film crews is not foreign to the South African film industry. Surely enough, South Africa’s transformation is still a work in progress. But, due to the hard work of the country’s own people, it is a progress that is overwhelmingly inspirational. The festival’s organizers did not shy away from those South African and African films that deal with the continent’s problems and wounds. The wonderful selection of documentaries was a real treat for those viewers who were interested in this great film genre and wanted to examine issues such as AIDS, racial and social injustice, civil war and political turmoil.

Last but not least, DIFF, was really determined to introduce South Africans to the work of young and upcoming international filmmakers, including their own with films like Let the Wind Blow by Partho Sen Gupta (India), The Return by Andrey Zvyagintsev (Russia), Since Otar Left by Julie Bertuccelli (France), A Thousand Months by Faouzi Bensaidi (Morocco), The Wooden Camera by Ntshavheni Wa Luruli (South Africa) and Magic Gloves by Martin Rejtman (Argentina) among others. My time and experience at Durban FF enriched me as a film producer, distributor, and programmer. But the biggest gift I brought back home with me is a memory of South African people — their beauty, dignity and grace and their striving, passionate, unbeatable desire to build a better life, a better country, and a better future. My friend, the Ethiopian filmmaker Abraham Haile Biru, once wrote to me, “I am back filming in South Africa and what can I say? The country is beautiful, the people are beautiful. It’s inspirational to be here.” Well, it’s all true. I am glad I was given a chance to encounter South Africa. I hope that I can someday pay back for the inspiration engendered by the country and for the opportunity to experience this festival.

Alla Verlotskyis the founder and president of NY based Seagull Films, the only North American company that specializes in programming and distribution of critically acclaimed art cinema from the former Soviet Union and Russia. Prior to moving to the United States in 1991, Ms. Verlotsky was the Executive Director of the former Soviet Union Association of Independent Filmmakers, based in Moscow.