With entries now open for the 24th edition of the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival (set to take place between 23 June and 3 July), we spoke to Festival Director Mandisa Zitha about the premier documentary festival on the continent.
I imagine due to Encounters being one of only a few festivals of its kind on the continent that there must be a huge lineup of contenders to draw from each year, what is the selection process like?
Encounters’ call for submissions goes out every year using the festival database, website, social media, and industry newsletters. This garners us approximately 500 submissions by the time we close the Call. Many years ago, when entries were free, we would receive more than 1000! However, we now charge a small nominal fee, and entry is free for African filmmakers. We also engage directly with South African filmmakers to encourage and secure their films.
We also keep a keen eye on major festivals to keep informed of the most talked about or awarded films of the year. We have a good reputation internationally and excellent relationships with local and international filmmakers, festivals, and distribution companies, so my inbox is always full of the latest catalogues to forward to the programming team. There is great enthusiasm from filmmakers around the world to show their film on the continent and Encounters is top of mind. I work with film readers who help review the films year-round and from all these processes we begin to structure our programme of between 40-50 features and a shorts programme.
What was it that pushed you to join Encounters?
I worked on workshop for the Festival fresh out of university and the opportunity arose the following year to take over from the previous director. I though it was an amazing offer to work in the film industry on completion of my film degree with UCT! I didn’t realise the huge endeavor it was, and the multiple skills one requires to execute the festival as director. I was fortunate to receive great mentorship from festival co-founders, Steven Markovitz and Nodi Murphy in festival production, programming, fundraising, and how to represent the festival to the media and international platforms.
Trailer from 23rd Encounters Documentary Film Festival 2021
People who are not already familiar with Encounters might see the label ‘documentary festival’ and conclude its lineup would be pretty grim, could you tell us about the lighter side to the typical festival lineup? Is it important for you and the selection committee to strike a balance between the urgent and the more fun entries?
Our programming considerations prioritizes balance, because our audience is so diverse, now more so since the festival migrated to digital platforms due to Covid-19. We have seen a growth in women and youth audiences, probably because it’s more accessible. We cater for different tastes and audiences, and you will find us programming social justice films alongside documentaries that showcase craft excellently (cinematography, editing, storytelling), the personal (stranger than fiction as we call it), arts, biographies, and humor. There are topics that are always popular annually, documentaries about topical current affairs, art, and music.
What can an aspiring filmmaker gain from participating in Encounters?
If you are a documentary filmmaker who is serious about the industry, Encounters is a one stop shop. Consuming documentaries is the best way to advance your knowledge and skills. Our key feature for the industry is Encounter Talks, a series of panel discussions, presentations about the craft, opportunities, trends, and developments. It’s also a great place to network and find a mentor or a collaborator for your next project. Our team is passionate about creating a programme that engages, educates, and inspires our festival community.
You’ve hosted so many talented guests and panelists over the years, does anyone come to mind as being particularly extraordinary?
There have been so many phenomenal guests as the Festival Team is always keen to invite interesting (and sometimes controversial) subjects depicted in the films. Many years ago, we hosted Leila Khaled – the famous Palestinian hijacker, and that was quite a production. We have since hosted many well-known personalities, including Mama Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Thuli Madonsela, M.I.A, Rivonia Triallist Denis Goldberg, and the Miles Davis family, to name a few.
Trailer from 22rd Encounters Documentary Film Festival 2020
Encounters is involved in and provides Outreach and Youth Programmes, including screenings for young audiences to facilitate discussion, and you also have a masterclass available, could you talk about the importance of these programmes to the Encounters ethos?
Our mandate is to serve our filmmakers, audiences, the communities represented in the films, and the marginalized groups who are touched through the Inreach and Outreach access programmes. As the Festival prioritises diversity in the programme and audience reach, it is crucial to provide access to the Festival for these communities but to also connect filmmakers with their audiences in the disadvantaged areas.
Our filmmakers contribute to the diversity of the festival – the matters of their films and the comprehensive line up of industry programmes acknowledge the importance of the cultural background of the subjects and or creators. Encounters works with community organisations to secure participation of this constituency that includes associations and NGOs – gender, labour, legal, education and youth among others.
The master class programmes, available for free to emerging filmmakers, along with other programmes, provide valuable skills and knowledge from leaders in the field.
The call for entries to this year’s Encounters Festival has already begun, what is it that you will be looking for from prospective entries? When is the deadline for submissions?
We don’t work with a particular theme in mind as we don’t want to limit our choice from the year’s offering. Instead, we look for hidden gems and films that share a unique viewpoint with audiences. We are mindful of our audience’s tastes, and often pair award-winning films next to those by emerging filmmaker in our small programme.
You’re even accepting rough-cuts for consideration at the moment, so long as the films will be completed in time to be shown for the festival dates. How do you tell a rough cut that will make it to your festival from one that won’t? Are the fundamentals just apparent?
Usually by Rough-Cut stage a film has clear structure and a narrative that we can understand. We can also gauge the style and understand the thematic concerns and characters. Closer to our programming deadline, we request festival-cuts before inviting the film.
Trailer from 21st Encounters Documentary Film Festival 2019
Do you ever receive documentaries so one-sided, wrongheaded, or otherwise incorrigible that you outright refuse to consider showing them?
We have turned down films that we believe will not resonate with an African audience or the filmmaker was too close to the narrative. Unfortunately, we cannot give individual feedback to filmmakers as we have a large volume to tackle as a small team.
Will this year’s festival be similar to last year’s, with an online rollout? What will be different?
We plan for a similar model where we host a comprehensive online festival alongside small theatre screenings, pop-up events and outreach activities, but must be prepared to cancel physical screenings should regulations in the country change.
Considering what Encounters is; a meeting point between audience, filmmakers, and industry insiders, what was it like moving this pointedly social event online?
Film festivals by nature are social events and the online space has not been ideal for nurturing the sense of connectedness, and our industry is all about networking. However, after 22 years of running a traditional festival we have embraced the move to digital platforms as an opportunity to enhance our core offerings. The online festival has grown our audiences, as an average festivalgoer is able to watch more films at home. The challenge of travelling in the evenings and affordability of tickets has grown certain demographics in our audience base.
With the growth in online events in the global festival community, it has been possible for the festival to invite filmmakers and experts from around the world without the hinderance of travelling and accommodation costs.
The challenges exist though, as the ‘virtual cinema’ platforms have not developed features for festivals to host Q&As. Talks, auxiliary events or a community space to share information like favorite films. Our audiences must migrate across different online platforms to engage, and this has hindered the social aspect of festivals. There are many ideas to nurture connectedness, but I think the online space cannot fully achieve this.
Did you learn anything from your first virtual festival that you would take with you going forward, perhaps even once traditional festival-going is possible again? Are there any ideas you are waiting on the return of traditional festival-going to implement?
We have now hosted two virtual events and the online event space, especially in competition with streaming platforms, is congested and there is a sense of viewer fatigue. We understand that curation plays a significant role in attracting viewers. Pricing and accessibility of events will also play a big role in maintaining our audience. We do know that audiences love gathering around the conversations about the film.
When viewers come to or stream the Encounters lineup, what distinguishes the festival’s selection?
We understand our audience based now on 24 years of experience, and we aim to present a bouquet selection of films that represent what we think is exciting in the global documentary industry for this year, within our resources.