What I Learned at Durban Film Mart 2020

The Durban Film Mart is one of the most important annual events for South African and African film. Each year at the finance and co-production market deals get made, up-and-comers are mentored through the Talents Durban programme, and expert panellists are brought in to discuss the issues affecting local film. Some of SA’s best films and film-makers can trace their origins to previous editions of the DFM.  

This year, due to you-know-what, the Durban Film Mart moved to an online format for its 11th edition which opened it up to a wide swathe of film industry professionals from around the world. I had the privilege and honour of hosting a number of panel discussions and interviews on topics ranging from co-production to insurance. It was an enlightening experience that I’m grateful for and I figured I’d share some of what I learned with you. 

VR Will Revolutionise Documentary Filmmaking

Dylan Valley is someone who I’ve been familiar with for a while thanks to his writing for Africa is a Country. He’s spent over a decade creating award-winning documentaries and currently lectures at UCT. His most recent work is a VR documentary on two South African homeless black artists/activists who occupy an abandoned house called ‘Azibuye – The Occupation‘.

In the short film, we’re introduced to Masello and Evan. Masello Motana is an actor, artist, and poet with notable credits to her name and Evan Abrahamse is an activist who spent many years as a trade unionist and who was part of the armed wing of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Both of them found themselves homeless and decided to occupy a derelict house in the heart of suburban Joburg- partly out of necessity and partly as a political and artistic protest. Things get tricky when we find out who owns the house and why it’s in disrepair, but the film lets you decide how you feel about everything for yourself. 

Most of my VR experiences so far have been in gaming so to be transported to a crumbling mansion in Jozi felt like a subversion of the typical uses of the technology. Compared to the hyper-reality of my previous VR experiences, the reality presented was sobering. Being able to virtually put yourself in someone else’s shoes seems like the natural evolution of documentaries, although I didn’t know that until I experienced it for myself. I’m looking forward to walking many kilometres in a wide variety of footwear as the medium develops. 

Keep an eye on Electric South for more boundary-pushing local VR work films.

Bigger isn’t Better

The modern dream for many filmmakers is to have their film picked up by Netflix thanks to their extensive reach but you might actually get more out of going with more focused streaming services. I hosted an enlightening panel discussion with DeShuna Spencer from kwelitv, Tigist Kebede from habesha view, and Wilfred Kiumi from African Digital Media Group where we got into the intricacies of running more tailored streaming services. 

One of the advantages of being picked up by these alternative streaming services is that you’re likely to get a lot more support from them. While Netflix has the potential to put your film in front of millions of people, with so many other viewing options to choose from, it’s more likely your film will get lost in the algorithm. Streaming platforms with more curated content tend to spend more of their marketing budget on the content they buy because they believe in it. Plus, they have an audience that’s specifically looking for what you’re creating. As the saying goes: “The riches are in the nitches.” Find the right platforms for your film and you could find success without relying on the monoliths of media.  

Payment Platforms Pose Hurdles in Africa

In the same panel discussion I mentioned above, we also got into the unique challenges of offering streaming platforms for African markets. I knew data costs would be an issue for providing services in many African countries, but I wasn’t expecting to hear that payment platforms were one of the biggest hurdles to doing business in Africa. Considering there are 54 countries with their own banking systems and online platforms, it makes sense that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution yet. There are many companies trying to fill this role, which, of course just adds to the problem of too many options. The solution at the moment is for these streaming platforms to liaise directly with local banks and financial institutions to set up payment options. A tiresome task but one that’ll reap rewards in the long term. 

Empathy is the New Normal

One of the more surprising points that was repeatedly brought up throughout the various panel discussions was how the industry is more empathetic than before Corona. From Zoom meetings to how sets are managed, extra consideration is given to the extraordinary circumstances we’ve all found ourselves in. From what I gathered, film can be a fast-paced and cutthroat industry that grinds you down. With things coming to a halt due to global shutdowns, it seems that film-makers have had a chance to chill the fuck out. Hopefully, it’ll have a lasting impact on how people work together going forward.

If you’re a filmmaker or looking to learn how to break into the industry, the Durban Film Mart is unmissable. I know I’ll be applying to enter the Talents Durban programme next year. Hopefully, I make the cut and I’ll see a few of you there.

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