Editor’s Picks: 10 Documentaries to See at Encounters Festival 2024

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The Encounters South African International Documentary Festival makes a big return with a robust lineup of compelling and artfully created documentaries set to screen in selected cinemas and venues across Joburg and Cape Town from 20 to 30 June.

This year also marks the 26th anniversary of Africa’s premier documentary festival, and the team has taken extra care to curate a memorable lineup of over 32 feature films. Here are 10 titles to put on your radar and start booking right now.

Hollywoodgate Encounters Festival

Hollywoodgate

Directed by Ibrahim Nash’at | Germany/United States| | 2023 | 91 min

When the US Army withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban immediately took over and declared themselves the de facto government of the country. Just days later, Egyptian documentary maker Ibrahim Nash’at travelled with his camera and an interpreter to document the transition to Taliban rule and the organisation’s transformation from a guerilla movement into a military regime. 

Having miraculously received permission to film from the Taliban’s leadership, Nash’at shadows a commander who has taken over Hollywoodgate, a ransacked and abandoned CIA base. But that permission is granted on the condition that the image he presents of the Taliban is the one they want. Given these life-threatening constraints, Nash’at simply films things as they are, which is enough to puncture any possibility of the film being functional propaganda. A brave and complex work, Hollywoodgate is an indictment of both Taliban rule and the American occupation that preceded it. 

Cost: R80pp, book via The Bioscope

When: Friday, 21 June at 7pm
Where: The Bioscope Independent Cinema, 44 Stanley Ave, Milpark

Black People Don't get Depressed Encounters Festival

Black People Don’t Get Depressed

Directed by Sara Chitambo-Hatira | South Africa/Canada/Zambia | 2024 | 82 min

As the title of this engaging documentary suggests, depression is often unacknowledged in Indigenous Southern African cultures and is instead written off as something that is ‘for white people.’ But, as the film makes abundantly clear, the impact of mental health is a fundamentally human experience that transcends all boundaries, racial or otherwise. In Black People Don’t Get Depressed, a filmmaker despairing for her mental peace embarks on the journey of facing her depression – but only when it becomes clear that it is something she can no longer avoid or deny. As she moves inwards towards herself, she speaks to other people about their mental health and their experience of depression as Africans – and what they go through to try and alleviate their suffering. This is a timely and vital film for South Africa, where issues around mental health cut across all layers of society.

A panel discussion will take place after the screening.

Cost: R80pp, book via The Bioscope

When: Saturday, 29 June at 8.30pm
Where: The Bioscope Independent Cinema, 44 Stanley Ave, Milpark

Johatsu - Into Thin Air Encounters Festival

Johatsu – Into Thin Air 

Directed by Andreas Hartmann & Arata Mori | Germany/Japan | 86 min

In Japan, around 80,000 people disappear every year. Most of them are eventually found or returned home, but thousands of others simply vanish. They are known as jōhatsu, which means ‘the evaporated’. Japanese data protection laws are particularly difficult, which helps to facilitate the process of voluntary disappearance, making it difficult to track missing persons, even for family members. This beautifully photographed film explores the phenomenon, talking to people who have chosen to disappear and those looking for them, as well as the ‘night movers’ who help people reset their lives in places where no one knows them. The tensions involved in disappearing or looking for someone who has disappeared permeate the film and its protagonists, giving Johatsu the feeling of a suspense thriller. It also provides an intimately candid window into the lives of those who have decided, for one desperate reason or another, that they need to start anew.

A panel discussion will take place after the screening.

Cost: R80pp, book via The Bioscope

When: Thu 27 June, 8.45pm
Where: The Bioscope Independent Cinema, 44 Stanley Ave, Milpark

Soundtrack to a Coup d'État Encounters Festival

Soundtrack to a Coup d’État

Directed by Johan Grimonprez | Belgium/France/The Netherlands | 2024 | 150 min

This densely hyperactive masterpiece of documentary filmmaking tells the story of how the CIA weaponised African American musicians without their knowledge, using their music and power as cultural ambassadors to extend American influence in Africa. This was particularly the case in the resource-rich Belgian Congo – where Patrice Lumumba had just been assassinated under very dubious circumstances. With its beautifully controlled barrage of sounds, words, and images building a coherent narrative around the CIA’s use of African American culture to consolidate its soft power and fight Soviet encroachment and the independence movements sweeping the world, the jazzy freeform structure of Soundtrack to a Coup d’État perfectly reflects the music that drives it. Featuring many of the era’s key musical and cultural talents – from Miles Davis to Miriam Makeba to Nina Simone – the film provides a unique perspective on the 20th century. It’s a scorching reproach to US foreign policy and the machinations of the West’s intelligence agencies.

Cost: R80pp, book via Ster-Kinekor

When: Fri 28 June, 7.30pm
Where: The Zone @ Rosebank, 177 Oxford Road, Rosebank

Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg Encounters Festival

Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg

Directed by Alexis Bloom & Svetlana Zill  | United States | 113 min

“I loved the feeling of culture exploding,” says legendary actress, model, and artist Anita Pallenberg in this extraordinary documentary about her life, based on an unpublished autobiography found after her death in 2017. It is a phrase that applies equally to the film, which channels her iconoclastic spirit in its rhythms and aesthetic. Pallenberg was a massive star in the 60s and 70s, but she had already established her place in the counterculture even before that. From meeting Andy Warhol when she first arrived in New York to her relationship with the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones and Keith Richards, her story is a portal into a world that has long since passed but whose influence lives on everywhere. It is Pallenberg’s words, though, voiced by an actress, that define the film and ensure that its explosion of culture coheres. Sparse, witty, cutting, and engagingly honest, they help us to see why the world fell in love with Anita Pallenberg.

Cost: R80pp, book via Ster Kinekor

When: Fri 21 June, 8pm
Where: The Zone @ Rosebank, 177 Oxford Road, Rosebank

encounters festival

Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano

Directed by Cyril Aris | Germany/Lebanon | 87 min

When a massive explosion hit the port of Beirut in August 2020, destroying a large part of Lebanon’s capital, it was yet another blow to a city that has been witness to its own destruction seemingly countless times. For the director and crew of the feature film Costa Brava, it presented the existential challenge of whether to continue with the production of their movie or abandon it. Torn between their belief in the power of cinema to affect change and a deep cynicism that Lebanon will never transcend its social turmoil and political corruption, they decide to forge ahead. 

Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano chronicles their struggle to get the film made. Burning with the frustration of living under a corrupt regime and the resilient spirit of the Lebanese people, it is a powerful companion piece to the original film and a remarkable work in its own right.

Cost: R80pp, book via Ster Kinekor

When: Sat 22 June, 8.30pm
Where: The Zone @ Rosebank, 177 Oxford Road, Rosebank

Our Land, Our Freedom Encounters Festival

Our Land, Our Freedom

Directed by Zippy Kimundu | Kenya/United States/Portugal/Germany | 2024 | 100 min

A passionate woman embarks on a seemingly impossible quest to reclaim ancestral land. What starts as a search for her father’s remains soon turns into a tense national issue surrounding British colonialism, freedom fighters, and an unjust reality. Pitfalls ensue, and it is hard for those involved not to feel as if their lives are at stake. It is pure grit, determination, and a genuine love for her people that keep her going despite it all and push her to provide for those who did so much for her country yet received so little reward for such a sacrifice. 

A panel discussion will take place after the screening.

Cost: R80pp, book via The Bioscope

When: Sun 30 June, 1.20pm
Where: The Bioscope Independent Cinema, 44 Stanley Ave, Milpark

Playing the Changes - Tracking Darius Brubeck

Playing the Changes – Tracking Darius Brubeck

Directed by Michiel Ten Kleij | Egypt | 2023 | 62 min

Playing the Changes documents the life of jazz pianist Darius Brubeck as he recounts a life of pioneering the musical, political, and cultural landscape in South Africa. Born in San Francisco in 1947 to legendary jazz musician Dave Brubeck, the film explores Darius’s childhood, career, and activism throughout the years, from his involvement with creating the first university degree in Africa focused on Jazz to the establishment of the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music, which remains open 30 years on. Through interviews and archival footage, Playing the Changes explores how music plays an integral role in social mobility, transformation, and political reform. The film provides a deeply moving and engaging biography of Darius Brubeck, who leaves a legacy of liberation through the power of Jazz.

Cost: R80pp, book via Ster Kinekor

When: Sat 22 June, 5pm
Where: The Zone @ Rosebank, 177 Oxford Road, Rosebank

Black Box Diaries

Black Box Diaries

Directed by Shiori Itō | Japan/United States/United Kingdom | 2024 | 102 min

When young Japanese journalist Shiori Itō fails to get the police to investigate and prosecute her charge of sexual assault against a politically connected bureau chief, she takes it upon herself to arrange a press conference. She then proceeded to do the investigation herself, including all of the forensic work, which was documented mostly on her cellphone camera and released the results as a published book and film. 

Black Box Diaries is a raw, riveting, and singular film that plays like a procedural thriller for the social media age, although it is not just the alleged perpetrator being investigated but the whole Japanese political and justice system. Itō’s investigative and media work around her case shook the foundations of Japanese society, and her film offers powerful inspiration for those elsewhere in the world who find themselves victims of unfair systems, presenting agency, bravery, and determination as the most powerful weapons we have as individuals, particularly in our newly digital reality.

Cost: R80pp, book via Ster Kinekor

When: Thu 27 June, 8.30pm
Where: The Zone @ Rosebank, 177 Oxford Road, Rosebank

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project

Directed by Joe Brewster & Michèle Stephenson | United States | 2023 | 102 min

This masterfully produced look at the life of hugely influential African American poet and activist Nikki Giovanni is instantly engaging because of Giovanni’s presence. Profoundly charismatic and with a powerful intelligence, she has taken on the world as a black woman who has lived life very much on her own idiosyncratic terms. 

Framed by its subject’s famous statement that “the trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans,” the film fuses a rich archive of historical footage and interviews with the young Giovanni with contemporary access to the poet and her peers. Exquisitely edited and infused with empathy, Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project is both a richly detailed portrait of a life driven by a commitment to duty, truth, and community and an alternative history of the American century and the civil rights movement, rendered from a black perspective.

Cost: R80pp, book via The Bioscope

When: Fri 28 June, 8:45pm
Where: The Bioscope Independent Cinema, 44 Stanley Ave

Learn more about the festival and find contact info below:

Website: encounters.co.za
Email:
info@encounters.co.za
Instagram: @encountersdoc
Facebook: @encountersdoc

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