Durban International Film Festival 2011: A personal viewing recap

I managed to catch 5 films during this year’s Durban International Film Festival (DIFF official site here) – where over 200 screenings took place at cinemas across the city from 21 to 31 July. Overall, I’d say I had a pretty good experience at this year's festival - which is South Africa's biggest and longest-running. The movies varied between good and boring, but they were always intelligently made. You may want to keep a look out for them. Perhaps a couple will pop up at film festivals in your area, or on the Indie and Art Cinema circuit in the near future.

Whatever Happened to Robert Mugabe?
I can’t say that this feature length documentary on Zimbabwean president/dictator Robert Mugabe says anything new if you’re already familiar with the situation in that Southern African nation.

Basically at the beginning of his 30 year rule, well spoken and educated Mugabe was a political darling internationally, seeing as he brought positive reform and heightened prosperity to the former British colony. Zimbabwe was the Bread Basket of Africa. However, Mugabe’s increased obsession with maintaining power meant a complete twisting of priorities to keep his supporters happy. This in turned collapsed the economy, and has transformed Zimbabwe into a poverty-stricken, backwards nation.

What this documentary does do very well is reveal that since the start of his political career, Mugabe has always been a bastard behind the scenes, severely punishing his opponents and their supporters. The included interviews with Mugabe’s former friends and admirers are insightful, but hands down the most fascinating - and despairingly comic - thing about the documentary is the inclusion of several absurdly threatening “Vote ZANU-PF” TV ads that flighted on Zimbabwean television.


Inside Job
Inside Job won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It explores – in a very accessible way – the reasons for the recent and, well, ongoing, world economic crisis, revealing how corruption and greed on Wall Street was largely responsible. The film also makes a strong case in favour of economic regulation, citing situations in the US and Iceland where deregulation and a free market attitude to finance has been exploited to the point of disaster.

If you’re already cynical about humanity, then Inside Job will further strengthen your beliefs. A big part of the film reveals how the big decision-makers who profited from, and were responsible for, the Crash received no punishment, and remain in influential positions today - to potentially fuck the man on the street again, while simultaneously swelling their multi-million dollar personal fortunes. It’s a massively depressing situation and the filmmakers are furious about the injustice.

Playing Devil’s Advocate though, it needs to be mentioned that the film ignores how ordinary citizens happily bought into the mindset that living on credit to consume beyond their means was acceptable. The only home owners interviewed in Inside Job are non-English speaking immigrants, and it’s inferred that they were duped. I just think it’s silly to ignore how the public developed irresponsible attitudes just like the slimy policy-making economists. The belief that you can live without consequence is the most dangerous thing of all to a society.


Rubber
Of the 5 films I watched at this year’s DIFF, this was the biggest disappointment. How is it possible to take a horror comedy about a sentient tyre (that uses psychic powers to explode people’s heads) and suck all the fun out of it? Well, French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux manages to do just that.

I had much the same problem with this film as Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (my review here) – where instead of playing up the premise for maximum entertainment, the film gets bogged down in intellectual experiments with genre and audience expectations. In Rubber you have characters addressing the viewer with cringe-worthy speeches about pointlessness and cinematic artificiality, and you even have a cinema audience actually inserted into the film, offering commentary while they watch events from afar with binoculars.

The end result is a movie that, apart from featuring great special effects and a good sound mix, is pretentious, obnoxious... and really boring. Granted the film started 30 minutes late – at almost 11:30pm – but after a few amused titters, the cheerful audience grew quickly silent. Barring a few snores.

I suggest that anyone curious about Rubber just watch the trailer instead. It’s tight, funny, features all the best bits and excises all Lynchian oddities. Alternatively, seek out Machete for an over-the-top, B-grade spoof done right (my review here).


Play
Play is a Swedish language drama based on real-life events. The film centres on a gang of immigrant youths, who, over a period of 2 years exploited, bullied and robbed affluent (and admittedly very naive) boys in the city of Gothenburg… without ever laying a finger on them.

Play is perhaps a bit too long – it seems to really lose steam, and its otherwise ominous edge, in the last 20 minutes. However, you don’t get more authentic feeling than this film. Director and screenwriter Ruben Ostlund utilises incredibly long, unbroken takes that really showcase the talents of the child actors. The movie-maker also adopts an unusual approach to filming where the camera doesn’t follow the characters. Rather, it is set up, unmoving, at a distance to film an area, with the characters continually entering the frame. The feel created is like that of a spying on events through the eyes of mall security staff, and it really heightens the sense of realism.

My sister, who is a clinical psychologist with a special interest in bullying and masculinities was really in her element with Play. And there is a helluva lot to enjoyably analyse in this film.


Michael
Fresh from competing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this Austrian drama is certainly an uncomfortable film. It centres on the day-to-day life of Michael, an apparently very ordinary, very private man (Michael Fuith), who, in reality, has a young boy locked in his basement as a sex slave. You know, the Austrian national pastime.

Seriously though, Michael doesn’t try to make the audience feel for its title character, a paedophile. This isn’t another Happiness that portrays child abuse as a compulsion that the abuser knows is wrong, and feels massively guilty about. You never feel pity for the abuser.

Michael is a very cold movie, emotionally, but I think that’s kind of the point. The film seems more concerned with exploring the massive psychological damage that icy Michael inflicts on his nameless victim. For every scene where Michael treats his victim to an animal farm outing, or shares a father-son activity like building a jigsaw puzzle together, there are scenes where Michael digs a grave in preparation for the boys’ death from illness, or leaves the child alone with some cans of food while he goes on a week-long skiing vacation.

This kind of affection flip-flopping appears to be more devastating than the sexual abuse – which fortunately is never given a graphic treatment, but is still unnervingly suggested now and then by Michael’s lustful gazes and poses, and moments where we see the character descending to the basement dungeon with a bottle of lube in his hand.

Michael, the film, is cold and it’s psychologically brutal... but it never really surprises or goes anywhere unexpected - despite its high interest value.

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