A South African film takes on race and class in the film industry.
Shit got real at the debut screening of the exciting short film, Film Festival Film at the 69th Berlinale. The South African short film follows Fanon—played by Lindiwe Matshikiza—trying to shop her film at the Durban International Film Festival, one of South Africa’s two major industry events. At the end of the screening, during the question and answer session Fanon was invited to talk about her role in the film by Mpumelelo Mcata, one of the film directors. Fanon instead turned to Mcata and co-director Perivi Katjavivi and pointedly asked, “how do you feel as two black male directors taking all the credit for a film that is essentially about my struggle?” Flipping the script on the post-screening epilogue, Fanon cut to the chase about stuff at the heart of this quirky, surprising short film.
The film sets Fanon’s agonising attempt to pull together a film pitch. We see her rehearsing the plot of her somewhat ridiculous film about the tragic death of Marike de Klerk, the former wife of the last apartheid president F.W de Klerk. She was brutally murdered in 2001 by a security guard working at her beach-side apartment complex. During his time as president F.W de Klerk cultivated an image similar to Gorbachev in the West, as a “great reformer,” while Marike, who he divorced while negotiating with Nelson Mandela, struggled to adjust to her new life.
The film shuttles between the claustrophobic, yet atmospheric setting of her tiny hotel room where she is heard constantly running through her pitch and the bright, kitsch rooms of the Sun Coast Casino resort where the film festival takes place. Her performance well captures the fraught struggle of a young black female filmmaker trying to hustle in a business where the odds are stacked against her.
Film finance and race are two major themes that the crew seem to want to comment on, but they do so in playful, ironic ways. For example, early on Fanon announces that it is considered normal that white directors package and sell black stories while she does not get the same treatment. This is an odd narrative reversal: a young black woman complains that her script about the death of a white Afrikaner politician’s wife is not attracting funding. It is as comically biting as it is bitter.
Documentary and film genres are spliced together unevenly throughout the piece. The crew includes scenes where filming is intruded upon by folks just wanting to say hi at the festival, and the use of interviews and backstage scenes that include Matshikiza, seemingly out of character, candidly commenting on how she feels about performing. Blurring reality and fiction only helps deepen its mischeivous questioning of the film business. This is the product of some sharp craft in plotting and cutting, however haphazard the crew wish to make it seem.
At the screening, the directors looked at a loss for words when confronted by Fanon in the question and answer session. They tried to dodge her question and sidestep the volley of follow-ups from women in the audience who wanted to know about authorship, power and positioning. All the while members of the crew in the audience recorded sound and footage as the robust discussion unfolded. The recordings could have been for posterity.
But then this is the Film Festival Film, a film about a film festival that was just a side-project that, the directors admitted, was never intended to make it to Berlin. It could just be another punchline in what is already a fascinating mockery of the contemporary film industry.
By provoking this kind of lively discussion in Berlin you could say the crew were taking a gamble, staking their audience’s faith in the integrity of the film on the greater goal of asking big questions about the business of film making today. Indeed, if anything, this is Film Festival Film’s real strength, that it makes you wonder where critique begins and filming ends. It is a troubling proposition that makes you feel unsettled, unsure, and gets people talking. But then, isn’t that what all good works of cinema are meant to do?