Encounters 2019 South African International Documentary FestivalThe Encounters 2019 Opening Night film has been announced, as well as a host of the most talked about non-fiction films from the past year.

Fresh from the world’s leading festivals, Encounters has secured the rights to screen 2019’s most acclaimed documentaries, movies that put you in places as diverse as the front row of high-fashion’s runways to eavesdropping on an international racist conspiracy with South African ties, from a tribute to Pan-Africanism via Fela Kuti to Afrika Bambaataa’s search for his routes in Kwa-Zulu Natal, this years selection is overflowing with essential choices for documentary fans.

Encounters 2019 Opening Night film

The opening night film, coming just weeks after its World Premiere in Competition at Hot Docs, Toronto’s holy grail of documentary film festivals, Buddha In Africa, by South African director Nicole Schafer receives its joint South African premiere at Encounters and the 40th Durban International Film Festival.

This delicately observed documentary is about a Malawian teenager in a Chinese Buddhist orphanage in Africa, who finds himself torn between his African roots and Chinese upbringing. 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.

Also on the  Encounters 2019 programme:

You will find eye-popping spectacles 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 Brügger 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 Festival before winning the Fipresci Prize and Jury Prize at the Istanbul International Film Festival in April this year.

Brazilian director Joel Zito Araújo’s My Friend Fela had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 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. 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.

South African films

A feast of new South African films will also be screening at this year’s Encounters. Following its North American premiere at Hot Docs this May 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 grueling 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.

This year’s festival sees a rare screening of Village Versus Empire by Emmy winning South African director Mark J Kaplan. It’s 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 its fragile ecology and ancient shamanistic traditions are currently being devastated by the construction of a US naval base.

Paul Yule’s tribute to a South African legend – Americans, Mongrels & Funky Junkies – the Life of Jo Menell is an inspiring and affectionate tribute to a rare South African whose life of exile and global activism has aligned with many of the key moments and figures of the last 60 years. From Vietnam to Castro, from Hockney to Mandela, filmmaker Jo Menell’s exceptional capacity to be both storyteller and subject offers an unusual and brilliant perspective into the complexity of our times.

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, and 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 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 gay filmmaker Fanny Tsimong’s My Culture My Music are also on the bill.

What: Encounters 2019 SA and African film

Where and when: 6 to 16 June 2019 / Cape Town: Labia, City / Bertha Movie House Isivivana Centre, Khayelitsha / Bertha Bioscope at the Tshisimani Centre, Mowbray / Johannesburg: Rosebank Nouveau, The Bioscope

Book: Webtickets