The 2016 National Arts Festival included a film festival based on women activists. While the programme boasts an impressive lineup, significant portions are international films and focused on the achievements of white women. With only two South African films and only one film looking at a black woman, there is a concern that diversity and local talent were not well considered.
This is not to say that any of these films do not deserve their place. They are all critically acclaimed and accepted as worthwhile acknowledgements of these women’s commitment and work.
However, the heavy focus on the World War II and white activists from the apartheid era detracts slightly from this wonderful dedication.
With regard to the choice of international films over local or African films, National Arts Festival curator Trevor Steele Taylor explained that he was looking for a wide range of activists.
“There are two from South Africa [in the major lineup]. I suppose they are similar since they were both communists,” says Taylor. “The other people were chosen randomly. They are people I admire.”
For Taylor, the specific focus on so many World War II era activists came about as a result of this admiration.
“That era [WW II] was very important in my growth. I was a child of the fifties and the Nazi era was very much still there [in our consciousness],” he says.
He also relates this choice to the need to remember what right-wing fascism can create.
“I am very scared by what I see,” says Taylor. “Especially with the re-animation of the right wing thought in Europe at the moment. The fifties became an era of free thought and we almost thought it [right-wing facism] couldn’t come back.”
In relation to the choice to only screen one film about a black activist, Angela Davis, Taylor points to logistical issues.
“It was not that I was ignoring black women, [but] rather there were expense and time constraints,” says Taylor.
Taylor acknowledges that if he were given more time and had a larger budget he would have endeavored to secure more regional work which highlights the role of black women alongside their white counterparts.
Ultimately where acknowledgment of black women leading, other than Angela Davis, can be found is in the student documentary Disrupt. The documentary focuses on interviews with black women activists who were crucial in the shutdown of the University currently known as Rhodes during the #RUReferenceList protests.
As is the issue with one of the films on the Main programme, Suffragette, the Film Festival’s exclusion of black women activists is concerning and must be reconsidered.
By Leila Stein and Shannon Wilson