The Vancouver South African Film Festival (VSAFF), which runs from March 31 to April 2, first began as a movie night amongst friends at the cinema in South Africa. It was after watching Skin (2008) – a film that tells the story of a girl labeled as ‘coloured’ despite being born to Afrikaner parents during the apartheid in South Africa – that David Chudnovsky, co-founder of the VSAFF, brought this movie to Vancouver.
“We should know and understand and celebrate cultures and nationalities from all over the world. Having said that, South Africa is a really interesting and complicated place,” says Chudnovsky.
The history of South Africa is filled with fascinating events, movements and peoples. South Africa suffered under 50 years of coordinated racism and 300 years of disorganized racism prior to that. People were divided based on the colour of their skin and ethnic background. According to Chudnovsky, it is an example of a country that pulled itself out of a horrible situation – a system of organized and legalized racism: the apartheid.
Despite this conflict, South Africa is also rich in culture. The music, dance, literature and films of South Africa are captivating. Its complicated history is what makes it an interesting place to learn about.
“It is a land of contrast. On one hand, it is the inspiring story of the struggle against the apartheid, but it is also horrifying. People lived and still live in terrible conditions. It’s beautiful – unbelievably beautiful – but it is also ugly. It is a fascinating, complicated, inspiring and horrific country,” he says.
The turn of the film industry
From the 1940s to the turn of the 21st century, film in South Africa was dominated by the old ‘Elite’ called the Afrikaners. They were the descendants of the Dutch settlers in South Africa, who came in the 1600s. They were the dominant culture in South Africa; they held political power and oppressed people who were not of the same skin colour through unspeakable methods.
“You couldn’t swim in the same swimming pool, live in the same place, go to the same schools. Unlike a lot of racism in the world, which is informal in a way. In South Africa, it was codified and legalized. These people weren’t apologizing for it. It was that culture that dominated the film culture,” admits Chudnovsky.
Naturally, the film industry produced many propaganda films at this time. However, in the last 20 years, there has been a shift in the industry. Chudnovsky states that there has been an explosion of films from the many other African cultures. In South Africa, there are eleven national languages, each of them representing a nation, such as Zulu, Xhosa and Venda. These cultures that have been oppressed and suppressed have begun to become involved in the film industry as well now.
A close community
The South African community in Vancouver is not one that is large in numbers. There are less than 10,000 South Africans living in the Vancouver area. This community is made of people who left South Africa at the time of the apartheid and others that immigrated since democracy had developed.
“There is a loyal audience for our festival,” says Chudnovsky. “These immigrants want to remember South Africa, hear their languages and see their culture.”
This annual festival is one that brings together the South African community in Vancouver. Like the diverse population in South Africa, the community itself is made of differing people who once lived incredibly different lives in their motherland as well.
“It’s the one time that people get together, visit and connect. They’re very different people. Our festival provides people with the opportunity to come together, remember and think about where they came from,” notes Chudnovsky.
Tickets to the Vancouver South African Film Festival can be bought on www.vsaff.org.