Cape Town Film Festival off to a red carpet start

CAPE TOWN - The Cape Town International Film Market and Festival kicked off in fine style on Tuesday night as the cream of the local film industry crop walked the red carpet ahead of the 10 day cinematic extravaganza.

The festival, in its second year, has grown with more film makers submitting entries for selection and judges having to make tougher choices as the quality of the African cinema experience improving dramatically, according to festival director Leon van der Merwe. 

"We had over 800 entries this year from over 80 countries in the world, a lot of them which we unfortunately could not take because you can only show so much films, but yes the interest in the festival is definitely growing."

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The selected films will be screened at Ster Kinekor and Nu Metro theatres at the V&A Waterfront, which will also be the venue where industry players will participate in workshops, training and talks for both the seasoned film maker and those new to the industry wanting to learn how to gain a foothold in the movie business.

"It's a window into world cinema. Festival goers get the chance to see films from all over, film makers get the chance to see what else they can do, what else can be done and what is the new trend in films," he said. 

South Africa's submission to the Oscars in the foreign language film category, Sew the Winter to My Skin, screened on opening night. The film, which made it debut at the Toronto Film Festival last month, tells the Robin Hood-style tale of John Kepe or "Samson of the Boschberg", a stock thief who stole from white colonial farmers in the  Karoo between the 1920s and 1950s and shared his spoils with his people. 

The film director, Jahmil XT Qubeka, described how he was drawn to the story of Kepe and his "Samuel L Jackson kind of swag".

"The thing that drew me the most to him was essentially there was a sense of dignity, a sense of pride that he had that I did not understand where that came from, looking at the circumstances around the reality that he lived...I was asking myself brother where do you get your swag from in 1952 South Africa... so that's why I was drawn to it," said Qubeka.

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Qubeka said he was born in Somerset East, where the legend of Kepe, "Samson of the Boschberg", as he called himself still resonates today.

"I think the story around John Kepe, a man who was put to death in Pretoria prison for being accused of a murder and preceding that basically being a thorn in the side of the colonial government of the time because he stole from wealthy white farmers and he shared with his people, was a powerful one."

South African born actor Ezra Mabengeza, now based in New York, plays the character of John Kepe. Mabengeza said he had jumped at the opportunity to work with Qubeka again.

"He's passionate, committed and he takes risks and he's not afraid and then obviously he said this is the man that I want you to portray and it's going to demand a lot of you but I know you're up for it."

Mabengeza said playing the complex character was a "spiritual" experience.

"We finished shooting in October, November...and only now am I feeling like Ezra again so from 2016 I've been living this person's life and only today am I able to say I am myself again ..you do the physical and then once you've prepared the physical, the spiritual takes over. You prepare then you let the spirit take you where it needs to take you."

Sew the Winter to My Skin is one of 160-odd films to be screened during the festival period.  Festival executive chairman Rafiq Samsodien, himself a film maker, said the films could be seen as part of the revolution happening around how South African and African films are being received both locally and abroad. He said one of the aims of the festival was to "connect people with the content, expertise and narrative we are giving birth to in South Africa".

Samsodien said the festival was also key to building the industry and expertise of the local film market.

"Even as an established film maker, I've got to put myself in the same shoes of a kid who sits in Khayelitsha, who sits in Bontheuwel, who sits in Mitchell's Plain, and if these kids are the projects of building the future and the next Black Panther phenomenon then we need these kind of platforms and initiatives, grounding, engaging platforms that is going to build the interface and development of our people."