Powerful Chronicles at Encounters Documentary Film Festival 2023

The Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival kicks off this week and runs until the 2nd July with screenings at the Labia Cinema and V&A Waterfront Ster-Kinekor in Cape Town as well as The Bioscope and The Zone in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

The following selection of powerful documentary chronicles screening at this year’s film festival looks into the illusion of social media in the heart of Africa, child soldiers, war crimes, political electioneering and multi-racial punk music from the Apartheid era in the 1980s.

Theatre of Violence

Dominic Ongwen was abducted and conscripted as a nine-year-old boy into Joseph Kony’s army of child soldiers – the first former child soldier to be charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) some 30 years later. Theatre of Violence is an eye-opening and important documentary that explores a historic turning point for the ICC, called on to prosecute a victim turned war criminal. Mining Uganda’s complex and violent history where the LRA movement and government forces were implicated in a brutal reign of genocide and terror, the film attempts to unpack the deep-seated empathy we have for Ongwen whose 70 criminal charges include almost every atrocity imaginable.

Writer-directors, Lukasz Konopa and Emil Langballe, use poetic and haunting cutaways, hard-hitting court room testimony and candid on-the-ground interviews, Theatre of Violence composes a tragic portrait of a country still reeling in the wake of atrocities obscured by time. The documentary conveys Uganda’s complex state of affairs against international community standards by meditating on though-provoking contrasts from the challenges of living under a dictatorship to the heart-breaking reality for innocents who are raised to kill.

Bobi Wine: The People’s President

Uganda’s opposition leader, activist, and musical icon Bobi Wine, opposes the regime of Yoweri Museveni, who’s ruled the country for 35 years. This political documentary has parallels with Softie and Nevalny, journeying with an altruistic pop star who decides to risk everything to lead Uganda’s next generation to freedom. Tackling corruption, facing government agencies head on and not backing down with a power-to-the-people message of non-violence, this is an equally brave and spirited David and Goliath story. Uganda’s youth make up the country’s majority, signaling a reawakening under the likes of Bobi Wine, whose mission is to dethrone Museveni’s government.

Moving from his political reinvention to attempts to bring about change through the national elections, Bobi Wine: The People’s President (aka Bobi Wine: Ghetto President) chronicles the young hopeful’s rise to power and noble attempts to speak truth to power. Ready to die for his country, this hard-hitting documentary from Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp captures snippets from several years of campaigning, including triumphant rallies and violent altercations. Interlacing Wine’s folk reggae, the film establishes the opposition leader’s threat to the incumbent government and efforts to quell and silence Wine, his team and his supporters.

The Other Profile

Armel Hostiou, a French filmmaker, tracks down his doppelganger in Kinshasa, who is using a phony Facebook profile in order to scam aspiring actors. This quirky and timely Gonzo style documentary explores the complexities of illusion in the digital age. The Other Profile goes undercover in Kinshasa as the director embarks on an investigative quest to lure and shut down his fake self. At first playful and comical, ongoing attempts to identify and draw the fake director out of the shadows with the help of would-be targets appear futile.

A break leads this unconventional documentary down the rabbit hole as the real and fake eventually meet and form an unexpected connection questioning the essence of truth and falsehood. Curious, compelling and entertaining, The Other Profile fuses elements from Sakawa and Cold Case Hammarskjöld to create an elusive, suspenseful and twisty documentary about the secret lives of scam artists in an African metropolis.

This is National Wake

A deep dive into the colourful world of an outlaw multiracial rock band, this retrospective rekindles the zeitgeist of apartheid-era South Africa as a band challenge the racist system in order to taste freedom. This rockumentary unpacks the wild rise of National Wake, dubbed “the band that defied apartheid”, whose brave efforts to buck the system through punk music still reverberate decades after they disbanded. Tracking the band’s formation through archive photos and video, surviving member Ivan Kadey tells their story, recounting each member’s personal conviction and contribution.

A niche, modest and spirited music documentary from Mirissa Neff, This is National Wake serves as a fascinating snapshot of a band trying to effect change and live free at the turn of the 80s. Somewhat tragic in its recollection of former members, this lively film captures an important moment in time with an infectious stick-it-to-the-man attitude.

20 Days in Mariupol

As the Russian invasion begins, a group of Ukrainian journalists imprisoned in the besieged city of Mariupol fight to chronicle the war’s atrocities. This startling on-the-ground war documentary covers the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war with a specific focus on its devastating impact on civilians and emergency services. There to relay daily photos and video footage to international news services, the actual reports interrupt the flow of narration from Mstyslav Chernov, who lives through hellfire along with the city’s last remaining citizens.

Brave, unsettling, heart-breaking and haunting, 20 Days in Mariupol is not for sensitive viewers presenting imagery from the frontline of a city besieged by air raids, tanks, bomb blasts, broken infrastructure and dwindling resources. From on-the-go interviews, raw hospital footage, looting and mass graves to war-ravaged cityscapes, this visceral first-person account offers a moving, unflinching and urgent chronicle.

Get more details about this year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Festival.