Inside the South African film festival challenging perceptions of Afrikaans cinema

Inside the South African film festival challenging perceptions of Afrikaans cinema

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Now in its eleventh year, Cape Town's Silwerskermfees aims to shine a light on the diversity and talent at the heart of the Afrikaans-speaking filmmaking community.

At the end of an unusually cold winter, hordes of Afrikaans speakers descended upon the ritzy Cape Town beachfront community of Camps Bay to celebrate this year’s achievements in Afrikaans-language television and cinema. Brought to you (mostly) by kykNET, Afrikanerdom’s answer to HBO, this was the eleventh annual Silwerskermfees. Pronounced ‘silver-scare ’em-fayiss’, which is Afrikaans for “silver screen fest,” the SSF platformed twenty-five films that probably made many attendees’ forebears roll over in the grave.

Afrikaans is one of contemporary South Africa’s eleven co-equal official languages. But 30 years ago, it was the primary language of the apartheid state, a morbid legacy that this festival and most of the “born free” generation of Afrikaans speakers are trying to rectify, or at least re-frame. For context, most Afrikaans speakers aren’t white – Afrikaans is the most evenly racially and geographically distributed of the country’s languages and it has more native speakers than South African English (reflecting this, the Silwerskermfees board is multiracial). A “daughter language” of Dutch, it’s considered one of the youngest languages in the world. It’s also a touchy source of pride. Charlize Theron – arguably the most famous speaker of her native Afrikaans – memorably sparked outrage in Mzansi when she suggested that die taal [Afrikaans] was on its way out.

Love it or hate it, Afrikaans is an integral part of South Africa’s national identity and its cinema. And, in a way, its place in society signals something about how and where South Africa has succeeded and failed to actualize Desmond Tutu’s “Rainbow Nation” concept. I’ll be honest, I rolled my eyes a little when I found out that SSF would be held in Camps Bay. Ostensibly, the festival exists to reflect who actually speaks Afrikaans while nurturing genuine depictions of everyday South African life – something that was impossible under apartheid. These noble aims sit at odds with Camps Bay, which looks like Cannes at first glance – but wander a little deeper past the mansions, the double-parked Bugattis, and the oceanfront cafés pushing ten-month-aged Sancerre and you’ll see that it’s…a lot like Cannes.

The steps of the Bay Hotel, home base for the SSF, gird the main drag (the beach) like a palatial welcome mat against the 750-meter-high Twelve Apostles. The SSF celebrates a strangely beautiful language – though some say it’s an acquired taste – and its commendable investments in the arts promised an opportunity to revel in some of the best of the new South Africa. It also seemed a potential case study in everything that’s wrong with the new South Africa – rampant inequality and tone-deaf representation for example. “Prove me wrong,” I thought to myself. Still, attending was worth a shot, if nothing else, to bust out my Afrikaans.

But “Goeie dag! How are you?” floored me at check-in. The bilingual greeting standard to European hospitality is practically nonexistent in South Africa, where people of all races are presumed anglophone until proven otherwise. Though all the films had subtitles and everyone was perfectly fluent in English, the parade of pink festival lanyards spirited Camps Bay – a neighborhood so cosmo that even my American accent fails to raise an eyebrow – into Kampsbaai, where the white noise was imported from a Karoo town called something-bos-fontein.

Not wanting to immediately blow my cover, I grabbed a glass of Brut and planted myself on a beach-facing bean bag next to two hip-looking Afrikaners. They asked me what I was drinking, in Afrikaans — mostly to humor me — and when I told them it was MCC, they grabbed some for themselves. We tjors-ed [the Afrikaans equivalent of cheers] to the bubbly pride of the Cape. MCC, or méthode cap classique, is South Africa’s champagne, almost literally. It’s a sparkling wine of Western Cape origin that undergoes a second in-bottle fermentation à la champenoise. This Blaauwklippen Brut was light, delicious, and at festivals like this, conducive to saying the quiet part out loud.

I asked point blank what the festival meant for the future of the not-fast-growing, historically apartheid-adjacent Afrikaans language.

“It’s evolving,” said actor and filmmaker Luan Jacobs, “because I think it’s very self-aware.”

Rikus Strauss, also an actor, added that in the past fifteen or so years, Afrikaans television and cinema was largely fixated on the past. He said he was glad to be a part of a shift toward storytelling that’s more inclusive, but also preoccupied with real day-to-day life which, in turn, is more inclusive.

“A lot of people get stuck on Afrikaans as predominantly white,” Strauss said. “The Afrikaans boer and like that type of culture. And it’s not.”

Strauss said he had seen a film just the other night about a coloured community he wasn’t familiar with. It was important to him that I knew he was still learning about the diversity of people who speak his language even into adulthood.

As for the South Africans who are apprehensive about engaging with Afrikaans media because of apartheid associations, Luan and Rikus were a little taken aback, but excited to think it over in real time.

“It’s hard because the answer is not definite,” Jacobs said. “There is no answer to that, that anyone has succeeded [in bridging] the gap of ‘How do we speak to each other in this country?’ I always have this funny way of looking at South Africans as ‘Yeah, we can disagree but if someone goes up against us, we go by tjom [chum], I got your back.’

Another film tjommie — the Afrikaans film world is small enough that everyone’s your tjommie after a glass or two of MCC — joined our conversation midway through. Zack Mtombeni is originally from Free State, which, long story short, is poes Boer, and he’s one of many Black actors to work in Afrikaans.

To the Afrikaans-wary, Mtombeni says, “Change the people that you hang around with, because they keep reinforcing that negativity.

“It is very unfortunate that they’ve had the experience that they had, and it’s not to devalue the experience they’ve had, but now it’s more rehabilitating,” Mtombeni, whose first language is SeSotho, added.

Except for the comedies I sat through and didn’t understand — moet Afrikaans wees [gotta be Afrikaans] to get the jokes, my friends told me — a lot of the films on the docket felt rehabilitating, or at least truth-telling. The documentary “Teater Na Die Mense,” or “Theatre to the People,” recounted the Cape Flats Players’ hard-fought wielding of the apartheid regime’s language to empower the coloured communities it oppressed. Its subjects sometimes spoke in Kaaps, the Cape Coloured Afrikaans dialect, and eulogized coloured playwright Adam Small whose works like “Kanna hy kô Hystoe” are now taught in schools. “Spinners,” a prestige TV show that premiered at the festival, brought Kaaps and the Cape Flats to a present-day plagued by new systems of oppression.

Technical difficulties gave the audience a few minutes to unpack the expository scenes of “Spinners” over a drink on the house. I chatted with a couple of production folks en route to the bar and they told me a bit about filming the show on-location in Lavender Hill, a Cape Town community whose reputation for gang violence precedes it. They said matter-of-factly that one of their local partners was murdered early on in production. “But we got a week off!” a crewmember joked, shaking off the tension. Her laugh betrayed a South African-ness as galling as our proximity to Lavender Hill — only ten miles as the crow flies. That specific spatial tension, and the levity needed to make sense of it, makes South African cinema so South African.

Broadly speaking, tension — spatial or otherwise — is the history of South Africa.

Many Afrikaners have spent the last few decades decoupling centuries of hyper-religiosity from the problems and opportunities of modernity. On and off screen, Afrikanerdom often persists in tension with itself — consult Koos Kombuis for more. Thanks to my Afrikaner best friend and plus one, nowhere was this clearer than at the awards gala bringing four days of Afrikaans immersion to a close.

Exceedingly in her element, my friend parsed the crowd and the hors d’oeuvres for shibboleths of Afrikaner life that would have gone over my head, such as the posture of the Real Housewife of the Winelands holding court on the smoking deck, or that the chocolate-covered sponge cakes rolled in coconut shavings are called Ystervarkies [porcupines] here, never Lamingtons…only a Sokkie song could mend the generational divide on the dance floor.

Like the films themselves, her insights spoke to where Afrikaans stands in public life — quietly omnipresent, past and future unresolved. As for the SSF and the Rainbow Nation, Luan Jacobs thinks the childhood neighbor he called oom [uncle] would have been proud: “[Nelson Mandela] would have loved it. I think he would speak at this festival in Afrikaans, in Zulu, in Sotho, in everything. He would have loved this.”

The more casual party the night before, a master class in how (ex) Calvinists cut loose, gave some credence to that. The Bay Hotel balcony became a prom afterparty, blasting one cringe hit after another. The DJ queued “Vuli Ndlela” a 1997 chart topper whose title translates to “open the way” and stoked the Mandela-era surge in South African pride.

Just like how a few bars of “Sweet Caroline” can paralyze a frat basement, when “Vuli Ndlela” came on…everyone in the crowd, no matter where they came from, lost their damn minds.

This article was originally published by our sister magazine
 Little White Lies.

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