In a fascinating lineup of documentaries from around the globe, this year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Festival offers over 45 films that promise to captivate and delight a myriad of interests and tastes at venues in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Music, its magic and the mystery, the lives of the people who create it or surround it, and the impact it has on society always pops up as intriguing subject matter for documentaries – whether it be rock, jazz, or indigenous vibes.

Take the captivating and deliciously surprising Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg (USA) directed by Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill, a film which will have audiences mesmerized. This is an intimate and extraordinary documentary about the life of maverick and legendary actress, model, and artist Anita Pallenberg. Produced by Marlon Richards, her son with Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, the film is based on an unpublished memoir found after her death and is a portal into a world of a creative force well ahead of her time. Using 8mm home movie footage as well as a string of fascinating interviews including Marlon, his sister Angela Richards, their father Keith, and supermodel Kate Moss whom Anita mentored.

Then Playing the Changes – Tracking Darius Brubeck (Netherlands/Poland/South Africa/United Kingdom) directed by Michiel Ten Kleij is a soulful lick of history, backed by the soundtrack of Darius’s father Dave’s nostalgic classics, making for a vibrant testament to the unifying potency of music. “Jazz, just by its nature, is subversive”. This quote from jazz pianist Darius Brubeck encapsulates his legacy and that of his famous father Dave Brubeck with his typical modesty; without admitting that they too are subversive by nature. Both Brubecks pioneered socio-political change through their music. With his wife Cathy, Darius, this understated mentor, fledged South Africa’s budding jazz scene at the Moon Hotel in Durban, created the first formalised jazz degree in the country and empowered black students musically against the government’s wishes.

On a more traditional note Ballaké Sissoko, Kora Tales (France/Mali/Senegal ) directed by Lucy Durán and Laurent Benhamou tells the definitive story of the mythic West African harp, with one of its modern masters, Ballaké Sissoko, as our guide The kora is so integral to the culture of West Africa that the top players are akin to royalty. Over the past 50 years, the 21-stringed instrument has transcended its West African origins, becoming a truly global sound, with artists as diverse as Herbie Hancock, Bjork, and Damon Albarn among its devotees. Driven by the resonant rhythms of its two central subjects, this enchanting documentary is based on nearly half a century of research by co-director Lucy Durán.

Two films about mental health and in particular Black people’s mental health, asking pertinent and interesting questions promise to make for some intriguing discussions:

Black People Don’t Get Depressed (South Africa/Canada/Zambia)
directed by Sara Chitambo-Hatira is an engaging documentary about depression that is often unacknowledged in indigenous Southern African cultures and written off as something that is “for white people”. The filmmaker, despairing for her mental peace, embarks on the journey of facing her depression and speaks to other African people about their experiences of mental illness. This is a timely and vital film for South Africa, where issues around mental health cut across all layers of society.

The Friendship Bench (SA)
directed by Rea Moeti-Vogt is a sensitive documentary that dives into the origin of a grassroots mental health organisation in Zimbabwe called ‘The Friendship Bench’ led by determined psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda. Through raw and powerful interviews, it delves into local struggles and cultural perceptions of mental health, highlighting the organisation’s role in providing non-judgmental support and destigmatising mental health issues in rural communities.

As always, the environment and man’s impact on it takes centre stage with several films focussed on an orphaned baby elephant, seabirds, tiny American hummingbirds and citizens fighting against environmental destruction:

On a magnificent white rock, desolate yet teeming with life, Yves, an isolated conservationist battles seals and inner demons in equal measure, as his lone mission for ecological balance brings him to the brink of madness. The “white gold rush” for guano in the 19th century had almost driven the Namibian seabird colonies of Mercury Island to extinction by 1990, when Yves, a passionate maverick nature conservationist, became the island’s only inhabitant, taking on the Sisyphean task of protecting tens of thousands of birds from tens of thousands of seals. In My Mercury co-director Joëlle Chesselet with Pippa Ehrlich uses her brother Yves’ diaries and footage from his handheld camera to share the unique, primal story of his years alone. Although the film doesn’t shy away from the devastating effect humans have had on wildlife, there’s a refreshing absence of environmental agenda – if anything, it is optimistic about the impact that one committed person can have to preserve the diversity of our world.

Nick Chevallier, Leigh Wood and Guido Zanghi’s Wild Coast Warriors (South Africa) explores the fight against the establishment of oil exploration operations by the Shell corporation in the Wild Coast in an effort to prevent the irreversible destruction of the environment and surrounding communities. The film goes beyond the surface of the legal case, exploring the interconnected rights of indigenous communities, customary law, and conservation in the face of foreign interests, corruption, and exploitation.

Diary of an Elephant Orphan (SA) directed by Hermien Roelvert-Van takes the audience through the struggles and turmoils of orphaned baby elephants and the people who have made it their life’s mission to save them. The film follows Khanyisa, a baby elephant newly orphaned, on her journey in becoming strong enough to join a herd of her own.

Sally Aitken’s gorgeous Every Little Thing (USA) is described as a “documentary about hummingbirds you never knew you needed to watch!” In the hills of Hollywood, Terry Masear cares for wounded hummingbirds, her life transformed by the fragility and resilience of the tiny creatures. Masear wrote a book about working with the world’s smallest birds, which led to filmmaker Sally Aitken following her over a busy caretaking season in Los Angeles. Exquisitely photographed and phenomenally heartwarming, watching Masear take care of the birds is so therapeutic that it is easy to see how her relationship with the winged wonders changed her life.

Cinemas that will screen the 2024 Encounters’ line-up:
In Cape Town – Ster-Kinekor V&A Waterfront, The Labia Theatre
In Johannesburg – The Zone @ Rosebank, The Bioscope Independent Cinema

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