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Softie Wins Best Documentary at DIFF


Softie has won Best Documentary at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF). The Kenyan documentary by director Sam Soko, opened Hot Docs 2020, impressed at Sundance and won Best African documentary at the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival just weeks ago. Read more about what went into the making of Softie based on Soko's DFM interview with Wilfred Okiche.

Softie documentary

The film follows Boniface "Softie" Mwangi, a photographer turned political activist who has to try and figure out, which comes first between family and country. Originally intended to be a 5 minute YouTube video, the documentary morphed into a much broader picture taking over 5 years to capture. Filmed without a script it retains a pure documentary feel as more than 600 hours of footage were condensed into the 96 minute feature-length film running time.

In a heartfelt acceptance speech via video conference from Kenya, Soko said "Thank you so much to the Durban Film Festival for honoring us with this award. It’s a culmination of the love and support we’ve received from South Africa over the years. We pitched at Durban a few years ago, and met such incredible people who enriched our work as artists."

He went on to highlight five young Sudanese artists who were recently found guilty of charges of ‘public annoyance’ while rehearsing a play. This win means Softie automatically qualifies for consideration for nomination at the next Academy Awards, scheduled to take place in Los Angeles, California on April 25, 2021.

 
Durban Film Mart 2020: Interview with Teboho Edkins on 'Days of Cannibalism'


The virtual edition of the Durban Film Mart made it possible for people from across the continent to attend. Following closely on the heels of The Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, which also presented itself in a virtual format, there was some cross-pollination particularly in the documentary section. Having watched all of the African documentaries at the Encounters festival, a series of special in-depth interviews with documentarians carried an organic appeal. Led by Nigerian film pundit, Wilfred Okiche, these discussions went deeper to uncover the director's motivations, behind-the-scenes stories and valuable details about the documentary film-making process.

Teboho Edkins is the writer-director behind the documentary Days of Cannibalism. The title may sound ominous but it's named after a local bar where the film takes place. Having lived in Lesotho, Edkins knows the culture and traditions, realising the current trend for Chinese-owned businesses to be buying up commercial space in the country. A country known for its tradition of shared wealth among cattle, there are parallels with the western genre as police, citizens and settlers find themselves in disarray and in a state of flux. The term cannibalism may not be as provocative as first anticipated, but it still represents the notion behind this surreal fly-on-the-wall documentary.

According to Edkins, he's representing themes around greed, globalisation, the "gold rush" and acts of cannibalism. The western vibration is strong in this film, echoing the recent African action drama thriller, Five Fingers for Marseilles. Days of Cannibalism has an unconventional narrative without any main players, using the environment to compel audiences. The western elements are there but this is more of a contemplative piece from a third person perspective, offering a number of pure documentary moments that are quite simply priceless. While these moments ring true, it was quite surprising to learn that Edkins was "controlling reality" at points with pure fiction too.

Discussing the finer points with Okiche, it becomes clear that the court room scene was fabricated. A critical juncture in the film, cementing the central dilemma, it's a powerful interaction that appears to have been filmed as it played out. However, as Edkins points out... it was done this way since the filmmakers were prohibited from shooting in a real court session. To accentuate the fictional sequence, they purposefully shot it with multiple cameras and traditional fictional framing. While a little earth-shattering for those who believe in the sanctity of pure documentary, it is still amazing how many real moments were captured in real-time... including the older man reprimanded his relation and the CCTV robbery.

Filmed over several years, it was mainly financed through France but received funding through multiple channels and dispensations. Taking a small crew to research, integrate and scout scenes... Edkins talks about the idea of creating the film 3 times: writing, filming and editing. Each process involves an overarching level of storytelling, allowing the evolution to take place and for the essence to unearth itself. After a screening in Berlin where some Chinese folk were in the audience, Edkins was surprised at their response and appreciative of their feedback with many citing his objectivity in his treatment of both sides. While Edkins is creating a politically-charged piece, he doesn't present his views at the expense of dehumanising or villifying the would-be aggressors. It's easy for Chinese to get visa, but not vice-versa. Delving into the fascinating first real encounter between both ancient cultures, it seems there's a documentary subject underlying the commercial investigation at play. Having had their views of each other's culture largely shaped by Western pop culture and stereotypes, it does seem to be a fresh opportunity for co-mingling and rediscovery.

 
Durban Film Mart 2020: Interview with Sam Soko on 'Softie'


The virtual edition of the Durban Film Mart made it possible for people from across the continent to attend. Following closely on the heels of The Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, which also presented itself in a virtual format, there was some cross-pollination particularly in the documentary section. Having watched all of the African documentaries at the Encounters festival, a series of special in-depth interviews with documentarians carried an organic appeal. Led by Nigerian film pundit, Wilfred Okiche, these discussions went deeper to uncover the director's motivations, behind-the-scenes stories and valuable details about the documentary film-making process.

Sam Soko's documentary, Softie, journeys with journalist photographer turned political activist, Boniface Mwangi. Having won the best African documentary prize at the Encounters Documentary Film Festival, Soko's efforts were rewarded making his words of particular interest. Softie grapples with the awakening of a political activist who decides to run for office in Kenya. From creative political campaigns in a country regarded as one of the most corrupt on the planet to navigating his life between the rigours of politics and family, it's an eye-opening and intimate account of a man trying to choose between patriotism and family values.

A self-confessed advocate of freedom of expression, it's easy to see how Sam Soko resonated with his primary subject and the political undercurrent of Softie. Soko reveals that Softie was originally meant to be a 5 minute YouTube video. Filmed over the course of 5 years, the scope of the project grew into a behemoth, eventually gathering over 600 hours of footage. A masterful feat of editing, Soko's efforts have been reduced to a 96 minute feature film. Softie has a local flavour, centring in Kenya but operates on a universal level through a global storytelling lens. This makes the tale of family versus country accessible to all audiences and it's treated with an "Africa is a country" sentiment, reflecting common narratives belying many nations with similar colonial histories.

It's brought home by its pure documentary with virtually no fictional scenes. Soko was observing Boniface and his family, involved as a film-maker and forming a relationship with his subjects but so integrated Softie almost has a fly-on-the-wall feel. He didn't shoot with a script, instead capturing real moments and events that contribute to the authenticity of his picture. Another message he wanted to portray is the idea of non-violent activism. There's been a blurring of lines when it comes to what protest and activism entail, typically on the back of the thinking that you only get results following violent action. Softie is gearing up for a release in Kenya, but due to the uncertainty of the current markets and exhibition standards - it could be delayed.

When asked for advice by budding filmmakers, Soko said "don't pitch a film you can't deliver" and "be honest, ask questions". There's a temptation to wow prospective film partners with ambitious and sweeping visions of what your film will be about or like, but it's important to be circumspect. Rather underpromise and over-deliver. Then, identifying another problem area he revealed that it's important to present a grounded view of what you can offer and not be afraid to ask questions to avoid potential pitfalls.

 
The Ever-Shortening Gap Between Cinema and Streaming...


The whole lockdown and enforced break from cinemas got me thinking. We've been conditioned to think new releases are everything. In years gone by, theatrical releases would hold more power because you couldn't see it anywhere else, your friends would be talking about the film and after its cinema run, it would take months to become available on video. Nowadays the gap between cinema and video has shrunk to the point that some cinemas are actually showing films you can order as DVDs online or as pay-per-view. There are now more viewing platforms with their own original new releases that become available and stay accessible. There's just so much blooming entertainment content, it's difficult to see it all and chances are your friends probably won't even know what you're banging on about if you haven't committed to watching the same thing.

The whole condensation of entertainment media means that the urgency of a new theatrical release doesn't hold as much weight or appeal. There are exceptions with must-see blockbusters that capture our imagination, rock the box office and make kids believe they can fly or drift. These larger-than-life spectacles have kept commercial cinemas in the business of magic and the exclusivity and fan culture has nurtured these events. However, these escapist blockbusters from the realm of superheroes, space operas and car chases only come round 2 or 3 times a year.

After some thought, I think we can start appreciating old films as new. Most of them have been remastered to stand up against DVD and Blu-ray players. If you haven't seen it yet... you haven't been exposed to the director's vision or the time capsule of entertainment therein... it's essentially brand spanking new. We've been sold to believe in the idea of constantly consuming new products being thrown under our nose on a conveyor belt. Instead of trying to keep up with the wave of entertainment dropping every week or hitting 'Next Episode', perhaps now's the time to become more circumspect about the substance and quality of what we're actually watching.

We've witnessed this through content streaming platforms like Netflix where films that didn't get their dues originally are arriving as if new. Possibly slipping under the radar at the time of their release or fronting a star who's much bigger and important now, there's a curious thing happening as audiences discover hidden gems or castaway films. If someone in my position is struggling to keep up with the tide of mainstream films flowing into public view, there's got to be a glut of movies that will accumulating under these circumstances. It's great for Netflix to be capitalising on these dusty and forgotten movies, but perhaps it's pointing to a much bigger story around prizing open these little treasures.

In this spirit, I'm currently anticipating A Cure for Wellness, Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, My Own Private Idaho, The Iron Giant, My Cousin Vinny and Listen to Me Marlon. It won't make sense to people used to having entertainment dished out to them... but in our wake is a century of films waiting to be seen. Now that disc prices have bottomed out and before these films stop being pressed, I'm making sure I get round to enjoying these "new" experiences.

 
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