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Spling's 15 Favourite African Documentaries from the 22nd Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival


Spling was asked to serve as a juror for the 22nd Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival.

For the first time in the history of the festival, Encounters and Gauteng Film Commission selected three film journalists from across the country to present an award for Best South African/African Film.

Having watched 22 documentaries in competition for this award, which went to Softie, here are Spling's Top 15 from this year's festival line-up.

Influence

Running time: 107 min
Director: Richard Poplak & Diana Neille

Influence is an incisive rise-and-fall documentary, which rewinds the story of Bell Pottinger to its origins with an all-access confessional style interview with Lord Tim Bell. While other documentaries and films such as The Great Hack, After Truth, How to Steal A Country and Brexit: The Uncivil War splayed open the fake news and weaponised PR debate, Influence goes deeper in a dizzying, eye-opening, powerful and long overdue exposé. This cautionary and timely film offers evidence to validate the post-truth era and hopefully provoke the kind of actions and discussions to unlock and protect against it.

Finding Sally

Running time: 78 min
Director: Tamara Mariam Dawit

Finding Sally is an eye-opening, heartfelt and intimate mystery documentary about an activist turned rebel, her surviving family and the country she left behind. Steeped in the same enigma that made Searching for Sugarman so compelling, Tamara Dawit connects with her four aunts who have each tried to overcome the heartache and mystery of what happened to their sister. Finding Sally is an emotional investigative journey recapping some of Ethiopia's darkest days under a dictatorship and the Red Terror regime. Unlocking their family history, memories of Sally and taking the expedition to trace her last days, Finding Sally draws you into this personal and touching story through photos, archive footage and extensive family interviews.

Softie (Winner - Best African Film)

Running time: 96 min
Director: Sam Soko

Softie is an unpredictable on-the-ground documentary and compelling character portrait set against Kenya's volatile environment of inequality, prejudice and violence, where election campaigns are won on hard cash and t-shirts. Following the story of brave Boniface "Softie" Mwangi, a photographer turned political activist who took his dissent to the streets, this visceral state-of-the-nation documentary captures the inspiration, patriotism and conviction of altruistic endeavour against all odds. Softie explores Kenya's corrupt political landscape and drills down to the intimacy of its direct impact on an activist's young family, capturing priceless moments and brutal protest action.

Days of Cannibalism (First Runner Up)

Running time: 79 min
Director: Teboho Edkins

Taken from a fly-on-the-wall perspective, Days of Cannibalism explores the integration of the Chinese in Lesotho's society and the rise of crime in a struggling economy. Recalling Five Fingers for Marseilles through horse-racing, unspoilt landscapes and police intervention, it also taps into the hardships of cattle-rearing, rising unemployment and changing attitude toward ancient traditions. The contrasts and culture shock speaks for itself as Days of Cannibalism laces together an almost-poetic portrait of a country in the throes of change.

Mrs. F

Running time: 77 min
Director: Chris van der Vorm

Mrs F tells the story of a fierce feminist, who is trying to win hearts and minds through her powerful street productions. The documentary delves into her critical mission, relentless bravery and dedication to campaigning for a renewal in Nigeria's longstanding prejudices. A fly-on-the-wall approach takes us on a journey from the canals of a Nigerian slum to the rehearsal room of an eye-opening stage play. It's a beautiful and emotive story of one woman's efforts to break through to a community, liberate her actors from their toxic mindset and stage a progressive production in a dangerous stronghold.

Good Hope

Running time: 93 min
Director: Anthony Fabian

This ‘state of the nation’ documentary is refreshing, exploring the possibilities for our country’s next generation through achievable solutions, restoration of confidence in humanity and the power of one. Celebrating South Africa’s remarkable achievements, our constitution and the potential to become a global powerhouse, Good Hope carries forth Mandela’s positive vision for our country. The documentary touches on South Africa's current challenges and explores efforts around rehabilitating our education system, bolstering entrepreneurship programmes and adopting a go-getting approach with interviews from inspirational and respected public figures.

Tin Soldiers

Running time: 85 min
Director: Odette Schwegler

Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva or FOP is an extremely rare medical condition that slowly turns connective tissue to bone. Tin Soldiers tells the courageous story of people living with this affliction, exploring the medical science and ways the community is banding together to support loved ones and research. It's a touching and well-balanced account of the resilient "tin soldiers" whose gratitude and spirit is inspiring. Traveling between South Africa, Brazil, United States, United Kingdom and France... Tin Soldiers is about celebrating the human spirit and creating awareness to help assist hundreds of undiagnosed cases.

Sakawa (Second Runner Up)

Running time: 81 min
Director: Ben Asamoah

Sakawa immerses itself in the subculture of a group of online dating website fraudsters in Ghana who have turned curated fantasy relationships into a full-time career. Grappling with the socio-economic conditions, Sakawa is a bold and thought-provoking documentary that simply journeys with the crazy and colourful lives of several fraudsters. Presenting the situation without bias or any attempt to solve the problem, this fly-on-the-wall documentary makes a fascinating, surreal and sometimes shocking journey with a few takeaways.

How to Steal a Country

Running time: 87 min
Director: Rehad Desai

How to Steal A Country grapples with the unthinkable as state capture becomes a reality for three former shoe salesmen under the nose of an unconscionable President and his cronies. Taking on a similar investigative tone to All the President's Men as a tribute to brave journalists, the soundtrack is compelling, taking cues from news room and espionage thrillers to create a sleek style of reporting and storytelling. It may not be in-your-face enough, covers material most South Africans would sooner forget and doesn't have the raw urgency of Desai's previous documentaries, but it's still a first-class documentary feature, a time capsule and essential viewing for all South Africans.

Listen to My Song

Running time: 78 min
Director: Glenn Ujebe Masokoane

Listen to My Song unpacks the life's work of Gideon Nxumalo and his influence on the jazz scene of the 1950s and 60s in South Africa. A jazz icon, the documentary lovingly captures his spirit through his music and essence through friends and musicians of the time. Absolute characters in their own respect, whose natural charm oozes and compels their rich insights and memories, it's a lively discussion on jazz in relation to traditional African music and the musical form's roots in African-American culture. Operating with a free-form of it's own, Listen to My Song is entertaining and features a trove of Nxumalo's compositions.

The Letter

Running time: 84 min
Director: Maia Lekow & Christopher King

Kenya's Witchcraft Act in 1925 made it illegal to accuse or threaten to accuse someone of being a witch or practicing witchcraft. The Letter tracks with one such woman accused of witchcraft by way of an "anonymous" letter, in spite of being a devoted member of her local church and a much-loved grandmother. Delving into the heritage, exploring the dangers and revealing possible short-term solutions, The Letter attempts to present a comprehensive yet personal view of this fragile ongoing travesty by exploring generational politics around land, tradition and inheritance.

The Art of Being Human

Running time: 67 min
Director: Pule Phokompe

The Art of Being Human is a character portrait of Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza. From his early years in the Transkei to his participation in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee and Marikana Commission, he's been characterised as a steadfast man of great influence and integrity. Through interviews with family, friends and colleagues we piece together a puzzle of a life well-lived. Entertaining thanks to Ntsebeza's grace and understated charm, the documentary touches on deeper issues surrounding South Africa's past, exemplifying Ntsebeza's morality and calm in the chaos. A solid production, it's somewhat hampered by its bombastic soundtrack and underlying advert.

San dance! : A Journey to the Heart of San Dance Culture

Running time: 60 min
Director: Richard Wicksteed

San dance! : A Journey to the Heart of San Dance Culture follows several San dance groups as they travel from remote Kalahari villages to the Kuru Dance Festival in Botswana. Exploring the origins of their dance from their ancient culture, it's a hypnotic meditation on their techniques, the healing power of entering a trance state and attempts to preserve the practice for future generations. A colourful, upbeat and spectacular documentary San dance! celebrates the core values of the ancient culture and traditions, which still have valuable lessons about peace, harmony and nature.

Beyond my Steps

Running time: 72 min
Director: Kamy Lara

Angola's tradition, culture, memory and identity are expressed through five dancers from the Contemporary Dance Company of Angola. Set in the country's capital, Luanda, the dancers hailing from various provinces reflect the city's energy through interpretive dance. Beautifully choreographed and inclusive dance sequences intersperse this vibrant documentary and exploration of identity within dance. Documenting the rehearsal and performances, Beyond my Steps captures powerful images of graceful and elemental strength against surreal backdrops.

Rumba in the Jungle - The Return

Running time: 75 min
Director: Yolanda Keabetswe Mogatusi

Rumba in the Jungle - The Return chronicles the return of a celebrated international dance event hosted at Sun City after having been discontinued for almost two decades. Centring around South African dance legends, Michael Wentink and Tebogo Kgobokoe, the flamboyant documentary captures the larger-than-life characters, the sport's professional dimension and attempts to re-ignite the DanceSport and prestigious annual event.