Encounters: Documentary Heaven

Encounters: Documentary Heaven

This year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Festival is excited to announce the line-up of international and local documentaries for the Festival’s 21st year.

The International list has been chosen from the past year's most riveting documentary cinema selected from the celebrated awards and top Festivals, with subjects ranging from the state-sanctioned amnesia towards the crimes of the Franco regime; a young woman who has become a symbol of hope for her people; identical triplets separated at birth and empathetic and insightful films featuring people from Mikhail Gorbachev and Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Miles Davis.

The South African and African films are as compelling as their global counterparts. From the vivid specifics of underground Cape Town in the 1960’s and 70’s to the influence of Frantz Fanon on African thought, exploring heritage through dance to the ironic rigours required when raising money for a movie in the hermetic world of the film festival circuit, all the films speak cinematically about highly charged issues for South African audiences.


MEETING GORBACHEV: Werner Herzog teams up as director with André Singer, (producer of The Act of Killing about Indonesian death squads) for this riveting documentary, filled with unforgettable archive materials and based on three long interviews, which provides incredible access to Mikhail Gorbachev, former General Secretary of the U.S.S.R. and charts his achievements.

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS: Three strangers are reunited by astonishing coincidence after being born identical triplets, separated at birth, and adopted by three different families. Their jaw-dropping, feel-good story instantly becomes a global sensation complete with fame and celebrity, however, the fairy-tale reunion sets in motion a series of events that unearth an unimaginable secret with radical repercussions. Filmmaker Tim Wardle won the 2019 Director’s Guild Award for this gripping, stranger-than-fiction account that plays like a thriller.

ON HER SHOULDERS: An award winner at numerous festivals including Canada’s Hot Docs and Best Documentary director at 2018’s Sundance, Alexandria Bombach’s film follows Nadia Murad, who survived the 2014 genocide of the Yazidis in Northern Iraq and escaped the hands of ISIS to become a relentless beacon of hope for her people, eventually being appointed a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity for Survivors of Human Trafficking. The film stops short of her sharing the Nobel Peace Prize for 2018, but it’s a moving and essential portrait of the strength required to speak out for humanity.

RBG: At the age of 84, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has developed a breath-taking legal legacy while becoming an unexpected pop culture icon. But without a definitive Ginsburg biography, the unique personal journey of this diminutive, quiet warrior's rise to the nation's highest court has been largely unknown, even to some of her biggest fans - until now.

THE SILENCE OF OTHERS: After the death of General Franco in 1975, some people hoped that those guilty of crimes against humanity would be brought to justice. However, the 1977 Amnesty Law, nicknamed “The Pact of Forgetting”, prevented that. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sheffield Documentary Film festival and Audience Award in Berlin this stylish, cinematic film from Emmy-winning Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar follows the efforts of a few ageing survivors as they try to repeal the controversial Amnesty Law and bring former perpetrators to justice. Executive produced by Pedro Almodóvar this stirring documentary unfolds with all the force of a classic political thriller.

MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL: A visionary, innovator, and originator who defied categorization and embodied the word cool: this foray into the life and career of musical and cultural icon Miles Davis is definitive. While previous books and films made Miles Davis look like a magical character, Stanley Nelson's film depicts the musician as what he was - a man who was driven by his art and chained by the racist society he was born into. Birth of the Cool which shares a title with a Davis album from 1957, explores the intricacies of his career in great detail and it’s a tantalizing portrait: rich, probing, mournful, romantic, triumphant, tragic, exhilarating, and blisteringly honest.

You will find eye-popping spectacle as you’re placed in the front row of high-fashion in Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui’s ravishing McQueen, a superbly crafted, emotionally wrenching and fully dimensional portrait of ill-fated British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. A working-class Gay boy from a housing estate, his phenomenal storming of the walls of the ever-so trendy world of the demi-monde is fascinating itself. And the film like his designs is scorchingly outspoken, thrilling, troubling and tinged with tragedy. Nominated for a BAFTA for both best documentary and Outstanding British Film of the year the film Won 2019’s LGBTQ documentary of the year from the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association,

Cold Case Hammarskjöld won Danish provocateur Mads Brugger Best World Documentary Director at February’s Sundance festival, and received the same honour from this year’s One World International Human Rights Documentary Festival. Brügger is infamous for his ironic and incisive trawling of the tainted and the corrupt. In 2011, his documentary The Ambassador was about the trading of diplomatic titles in Africa. Now he is back in Africa on the trail of the plotters and murderers of UN Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961. The dirt he uncovers should be creating a stench from London to South Africa via Belgium in what Variety’s Owen Glieberman described as, “a singular experience that counts as one of the most honestly disturbing and provocative nonfiction films in years.”

Another coup for this year’s Encounters is the screening of Talking About Trees, director Suhaib Gasmalbari’s elegant and bittersweet chronicle of the demise of Sudanese cinema and the group of retired directors hoping to revive their country’s love of film. The film won the Glasshutte Prize for Best Documentary and the Panorama Audience Award at this year’s Berlin International Film Fest before winning the Fipresci Prize and Jury Prize at the Istanbul International Film Festival in April this year. Charming and sad in equal measure this is a paean to the love of cinema as two of the one-time luminaries of Sudanese cinema – Ibrahim Shaddad, Suleiman Mohamed and their cineaste friends Suliman Enour and Eltayeb Mahdi – attempt to revive a cinema in a country where movies have been banned for years. A gorgeous experience for those who travel in the projector’s beam, and for those who prefer to watch movies in the comfort of their own streaming services, this eye-opening documentary may make them reconsider the value, both cultural and political, of being able to see something on the big screen.

Brazilian director Joel Zito Aroújo’s My Friend Fela had its world premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival before going on to win the Paul Robeson Award for Best Film From the Diaspora at Burkina Faso’s FESPACO, the world’s pre-eminent African film festival. It explores the life of legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti from the perspective of his long-time friend Carlos Moore. Locating Fela’s story firmly within the Black Consciousness movement, the film follows him from his first travels to London and New York – where he was confronted with his own blackness and African identity for the first time – to his ascent as one of the planet’s most acclaimed musical talents, and his eventual death in 1997. The resulting film is both a portrait of a remarkable man and a tribute to the Pan-African generation.

The State Against Mandela and the Others from French directors Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte was in the Official Selection of this year’s Cannes and was nominated for a Cesar, receiving acclaim for its unexpectedly refreshing take on the apartheid era’s pivotal Rivonia trial. Drawing on a treasure trove of previously inaccessible 256 hours of audio recordings, the directing duo bring the archive clips alive using heavily stylized hand-drawn visuals by the Dutch graphic artist Oerd van Cuijlenborg, whose kinetic monochrome animations morph into pure abstraction in places. It is a remarkable documentary and an inspired recycling of archival material. Weaving the reflections of those still alive into this artful fusion, the film brings emotive, enlightening perspective to a case that may be most famous for putting Mandela in prison for 27 years, but ruptured many other lives besides.

A feast of new South African films will also be screening at this year’s Encounters.

Just weeks after its World Premiere in Competition at Hot Docs, Toronto’s holy grail of documentary film fests, Buddha In Africa, by South African director Nicole Shafer receives its joint South African premiere at Encounters and the 40th Durban International Film Festival. This delicately observed documentary is about a Chinese Buddhist orphanage in Malawi. The film focuses on Enock, a young teenager caught between his traditional culture, his dreams of becoming a martial arts hero like Jet Li and the strict discipline of Confucianism. Set against the backdrop of China’s growing influence on the African continent this essential film poses complex questions about race, imperialism, faith and culture and offers a subtle exploration of the impact of soft cultural power on the identity and interior life of a young boy and his community.

Director Shafer says, “It’s also about Africans’ relations with other foreign nations, including the former colonizers. I suppose it’s just this idea that the key to the future of the continent’s development is always held by outsiders, and that in order to succeed, we always have to adapt to foreign value systems and policies. I think Enock’s story challenges this idea in very refreshing ways.”

Also arriving from Hot Docs is Dying for Gold from directors Catherine Meyburgh and Richard Pakleppa, is a devastating documentary centred around South Africa’s biggest class-action lawsuit, against the mining industry - a key force in shaping apartheid South Africa. Featuring a rich archive of footage from the colonial and apartheid eras, along with interviews with gold miners whose lives have been decimated by silicosis and tuberculosis, this forceful, vivid film clearly shows how Southern Africa’s indigenous societies were destroyed in order to mine the world’s richest deposits of gold at the cheapest possible price.

Equally as passionate is Susan Scott’s Stroop: Journey into the Rhino Horn War, which made headlines as South Africa’s breakout documentary of the year after winning over 17 international awards. As gripping and gruelling as the best of thrillers, it follows two inexperienced female filmmakers who travel the African bush and South-East Asia in search of answers to the random slaughter of the world’s diminishing rhino population. Most recently it won the sought-after 'Best of Festival' award as well as 'Best Independent or Feature Film' at the International Wildlife Film Festival (IWFF) in Montana this April.

BILLY MONK: A SHOT IN THE DARK, (World Premiere) sees fine artist, archivist and filmmaker Craig Cameron-Mackintosh pay tribute to small-time crook, drifter and gifted photographer Billy Monk in this essential film about underground life in the Mother City’s dockside nightclub ‘The Catacombs’ while he was a bouncer. In between keeping order, he took photographs of the clientele and his non-judgmental approach gave birth to an archive of stunning images of visiting sailors, goodtime girls, transvestites, musicians and bar regulars. His access to this cross-section of society allowed him to photograph scenes of uncensored joy, passion and debauchery not often associated with apartheid-era South Africa. Various people, including his son David Monk and a number of well-known photographers (David Goldblatt, Gavin Furlonger, Jac de Villiers) add their observations and it is pulled together by journalist Lin Sampson reading from her book “Now you’ve gone ‘n killed me”, Sampson wrote of Monk, “He was killed before he knew he was famous”. He was shot in 1982 en route to his first exhibition at the Market Theatre Gallery.

FANON: YESTERDAY, TODAY, this is a significant documentary about the legacy of Martiniquan intellectual Frantz Fanon. Through the testimonies of his comrades and the people who knew him, Algerian director Hassane Mezine explores Fanon's eventful life and extraordinary struggles. The Caribbean intellectual died in 1961 yet the impact of his work is still tremendous on social movements and subaltern groups. The documentary examines the relevance of Fanonian thought in the context of contemporary revolts in South Africa, Palestine, Algeria, and the United States.

THE SOUND OF MASKS, directed and produced by Sara Gouveia, is a beautifully moving ode to the cultures of Mozambique told primarily through dance and music. Mapiko is a traditional masked dance exclusive to the male members of the Makonde community in northern Mozambique. During the War of Independence, this dance became a tool to challenge colonization. His Mapiko dancing skills gave Atanásio Nyusi the opportunity to become a professional dancer and avoid fighting in the civil war that followed independence. In relating his life story, the now legendary dancer also leads us through the history of Mozambique. Blending observational footage, archive material and contemporary dance sequences, this captivating film crosses the threshold between real and imaginary. After its World Premiere at IDFA in November 2018, the film had its African Premiere at the Marrakech International Film Festival in December and will screen at Encounters immediately after its North American Premiere at Hot Docs this May.

This year’s Encounters will see Dali Tambo’s tribute to his late father OR TAMBO THE JEWEL IN OUR CROWN. Produced by Kamscilla Naidoo the informative, celebratory film tells his story against the backdrop of a century that spanned two world wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War, the independence of various African countries, southern African border wars, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of Apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of Apartheid in 1994. An unconventional biopic, it plays as a series of milestones in the liberation history of South Africa, and links to the man who influenced each one of them despite never setting foot inside his country for thirty years.

The World Premiere of JOZI GOLD is a story of wealth, greed and poisonous mountains, Johannesburg produces a third of all gold mined, Now the gold is running out, the mines are falling apart and toxic waste turns water into poison. Former Jehovah’s Witness Mariette Liefferink is on a mission to force the mine bosses to clean up. The film is by Fredrik Gertten and Sylvia Vollenhoven based on an original story by Adam Welz.

Fresh from a controversial screening at this year’s Berlin Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM is the most mischievous film in this year’s program. Shot at 2018’s Durban International Film Festival with a prankster’s sense of high jinks and minimal resources pooled together by its contributors, the film by Mpumelelo Mcata and Perivi Katjavivi tells the story of Fanon (played by Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom star Lindiwe Matshikiza) a black female filmmaker beset by her demons ten floors up in an ocean-side hotel, during the hermetically-sealed weirdness that is the world of a film festival. Blurring reality and fiction only helps deepen its roguish questioning of the film business, in this sharply made, much needed exploration of how one tries to get movies made.

This year’s festival sees a rare screening of Village Versus Empire by Emmy winning South African director Mrk J Kaplan. Set on Jeju Island, off the coast of the Korean Peninsula - one of the 'Seven Wonders of Nature', with more UNESCO Natural Heritage Sites than any single geographic location on planet earth. But, there is trouble in this paradise. Its fragile ecology and ancient shamanistic traditions are currently being devastated by the construction of a US naval base. Through the memories and actions of a range of political activists, religious leaders and artists the film explores the interconnectedness of past, present and future and the universal relevance of a village resisting an empire.

Zulu Return is the intriguing debut from emerging director Gugulethu. The documentary follows the fallen hip hop hero Afrika Bambaataa’s spiritual quest to South Africa – the country he spent so much of his life honouring and defending through his music and activism – as he faces the effects of abuse allegations against him in his own life.

Also in the bumper line-up for this year’s feast of non-fiction film are Beyond the Frontlines: Resistance and Resilience in Palestine a significant and powerful film from French author and feminist Alexandra Dols, German documentarian Karin Jurschick’s Playing God which follows the struggle of the charismatic and controversial US attorney who, since 9/11, has been charged with the impossible task of assigning a dollar value to life when compensating victims of America’s most tragic events. Lesotho’s breakthrough filmmaker Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s beautifully poetic Mother, I am Suffocating, This is my last film about you. Jacqueline Gozland’s moving tribute to the heydays of the Algerian cinematheque My Story Is Not Written Yet as well as the premiere of progressive Soweto-born filmmaker Fanny Tsimong’s My Culture My Music.



Johannesburg: Ster Kinekor Cinema Nouveau Rosebank / Bioscope Independent Cinema

*Further information and schedule: Encouters

Your Review



Share To

Culture Reporter

Culture Reporter

Unlearn – The Return

Unlearn – The Return

“Unlearn is a story about a complex layered young woman who, after a night of euphoric freedom and an unexpected turn of events, decides to make a choice that would spiral into a frenzy of questions about what really happened? It was very important for me to explore the notion of warped time and the unending knock-on effects that circulate in ourselves and those around us when we don't deal with the mental, behavioural and environmental issues that often times we don't have names for.



Umgidi Ensemble was Ndabo Zulu's recent master's project at the Norwegian music Academy; this project aims at looking at what could be a possible orchestration of a Nguni orchestra. Like in a western symphony orchestra which comprises of instruments that have a huge traditional significance to the west, the ensemble aims at assembling both conventional and Nguni traditional instruments that will complement the compositional content.

Amanda Black-Thandwa Ndim

Amanda Black-Thandwa Ndim

I want ‘Thandwa Ndim’ to bring strength and courage to women who feel that they are trapped in toxic situations,” says Amanda Black of a song that she wrote after seeing a news report of yet another South African woman killed by her partner. “I want these women to understand that they are not alone and that they are truly loved.”

Go to TOP