South African films bound for Sydney

Jarrid Geduld plays the role of Abie in Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story.

Enthralling entertainment meets eye-opening education in the inaugural Sydney South African Film Festival (SSAFF). Sophie Deutsch speaks to festival directors Claire Jankelson and Di Singer about their motivations behind bringing South African films to Bondi Junction’s Event Cinemas.

IN contrast to her image as a devoted, religious mother and community-minded figure, Ellen Pakkies made headlines in 2007 when she was implicated in a brutal crime in the gang-ridden and drugs-fuelled Cape Flats neighbourhood of Lavender Hill in South Africa.

Desperate to protect herself from the violent fits of anger to which her drug-addicted son, Abie, was prone, Pakkies had also been exposed to a lifetime of violence at the hands of various abusers.

In September that year, she reached breaking point and strangled Abie to death.

Pakkies’ heart-wrenching story will soon play out on Sydney’s big screen when Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story comes to Event Cinemas, Bondi Junction on May 15, as part of the Sydney South African Film Festival.

The high-stakes drama Nommer 37 provides an intense picture into South Africa.

Highlighting the festival’s emphasis on education through thought-provoking film and discussion, prior to the screening, a woman from Cape Flats will share her experience of living there, and following the film, psychiatrist 

Dr Michael David will discuss the complex issues surrounding criminal behaviour in low-income neighbourhoods.

Festival co-director Claire Jankelson remarked: “Ellen is a woman who we see dealing with the daily realities of living in a crime and gang-infested area … You see a mother trying to save her own life from her drug-addicted son, and the authorities that completely failed her.”

Co-directing the festival with Jankelson is Di Singer, who added: “Ultimately it is very satisfying to understand how important the system is in maintaining a status quo.”

Increasing understanding and education lies at the heart of Jankelson and Singer’s mission to open a South African Film Festival to Sydney.

Commencing this evening (Thursday), the festival of eight films runs over 10 nights until May 19, opening a window into the bitter challenges confronting South African society, while raising funds for Education Without Borders (EwB) – a not-for-profit organisation providing educational opportunities for at-risk children in South Africa. The SSAFF will help fund a new chapter of EwB, supporting a new school in Cape Town. 

“It’s a film festival which is penetrating into the hearts of South Africa in its post-apartheid state. I left there at the end of apartheid just as Mandela was coming into power, and this is now giving us a remarkable bird’s eye view into where South Africa is at this point in time,” Jankelson remarked. 

“It’s a very interesting and exciting country with huge problems, but meeting a lot of them with great courage.”

Through a gripping Hitchcock-style thriller, the widespread scourge of drugs is explored in Nommer 37 – “a richly satisfying film, and fiercely acted and directed”, said Singer.

Kanarie, a coming-of-age musical war drama, is the SSAFF’s closing film.

In Kanarie, Johan Niemand, a young gay man recruited into the South African Defence Force, experiences a powerful awakening when he joins the military choir, and begins to question the injustices occurring around him. Claire adds that Kanarie is “a delightful story and it’s got quite a lot of humour in it”.

Bringing South African culture and politics to Australian cinema – with the added benefit of improving the education prospects for disadvantaged South Africans in the process – first became a possibility when Singer was visiting Vancouver last year.

After meeting Cecil and Ruth Hershler, who run EwB and raise funds through the Vancouver South African Film Festival and the Toronto South African Film Festival, the couple asked Singer if she would be interested in setting up a South African film festival in Sydney. 

“It was a project that ticked a lot of boxes for me, because I liked the idea of education and empowerment of young people,” said Singer. “I also wanted to give back to South Africa – the country in which I was born, and which shaped me.”

Back in Sydney, Singer met Jankelson and told her about EwB and the SSAFF.

“For me as well, the project was tremendously exciting,” said Jankelson, and together, the two pushed forward to make their vision a reality, working to reconnect ex-pat South Africans with their roots, shine a light on the persistent problems plaguing South Africa, and all the while, expressing their gratitude for the great gifts South Africa gave them – a “brilliant education”, as Jankelson describes, even extending her gratitude to the lessons she leant living in an apartheid state.

“It was such a repulsive system that it actually shaped our value system to lead us to who we are, such that we could never tolerate those kinds of values again,” remarked Jankelson. “It was a very forming experience being in such a reprehensible country and being confronted with the huge human rights indictments on a daily level.”

Working on the SSAFF with a dedicated committee, and revisiting issues around racial tensions in South Africa, has resonated on a deeper, emotional level for the directors.

“Doing this project now does talk to that discomfort we experienced when we were living there,” said Singer. “It’s not only been setting up a film festival but looking at our own values and how we express things … Oftentimes one isn’t even aware of racist undertones or nuance, and so what this has done is really heightened for me my awareness of how I think and how I express things.”

The SSAFF runs from May 9-19. Enquiries: ssaff.org.au.