Interview With Sydney South African Film Festival 2020 Director Claire Jankelson

Preceding Sydney and Melbourne International Film Festivals transition to digital this year, the Sydney South African Film Festival (SSAFF) is one of Australia’s first festivals to go online in 2020. The Festival will screen nationwide from 16 to 26 May, with four feature films, four documentaries and one short, showcasing the diverse and exciting cinema that South Africa currently has to offer.

Ahead of the festival’s launch, I had the opportunity to talk with the festival’s director Claire Jankelson about the festival’s lineup, the distinctive qualities of South African cinema and how the festival has reinvented itself within COVID-19 restrictions.

Alex Lines for Film Inquiry: Can you tell us what goes into programming a festival like the Sydney South African Film Festival? 

Claire Jankelson: It takes a great film committee and in this case, volunteers, to set aside time and review a selection of feature films and documentaries that would best depict authentic South African story narratives and appeal to Australian ex-pat audiences and to potentially attract new audiences.

Our focus remains on our undertaking to support Education without Borders, our Charity partner and to program a festival that would be a true reflection of the vibrant South African culture and its people, the rainbow nation! The only way that we know to do this is with a collaborative spirit. We meet on a regular basis to discuss and debate the program that would create buzz and sell tickets to our festival.

To find films that would shape a local interest film program and create the most buzz can be quite daunting, especially when you are not in the film industry, but luckily I am still involved with a local interest film festival in SA, celebrating its 10th anniversary and making sure that I stay abreast of all the new projects that are launched in South Africa that are creating buzz worldwide

What are some distinctive traits that you feel like are uniquely South African when it comes to their cinematic output?

Claire Jankelson: The mere fact that South Africa has 11 official local languages with so many diverse cultures already sets the tone for young talented filmmakers to develop story narratives with authentic South African characters. Stories are set in what is now called Ghetto townships and in cinema, this has gained worldwide appeal.

Themes are often dark contrasts set against socio-economic and political backdrops, but global cinema audiences and film fans are drawn into these worlds that makes it so uniquely South African.

What are some of your recommendations from this year’s festival line-up?

Claire Jankelson: The 2020 South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTAS) were announced on-line last week and some of the films in our program won some of these coveted awards and I would certainly put them top of the list to screen: Back of the Moon, Knuckle City, Buddha in Africa and Fiela Se Kind.

Interview with Sydney South African Film Festival 2020 Director Claire Jankelson
Beyond Moving (2020, Vikram Dasgupta) – source: Sydney South African Film Festival

I would however also recommend a Canadian production and our opening night film, Beyond Moving. It tells the story of a talented South African boy that secures a spot in a known international Ballet academy. It was described by the New Zealand Doc Edge Festival as being “Billy Elliot” with a South African twist.

What are some classic South African titles that you would recommend to a beginner?

Claire Jankelson: I would not really describe any of the films in the program this year as classic South African titles as recent productions from young talented filmmakers has the appeal and interest from global audiences and within these parameters, I would suggest that a beginner should watch Flatland. A true reflection of the diverse South African cultures against the backdrop of the beautiful vast open South African landscapes.

Can you tell us about how the Sydney South African Film Festival has been able to benefit the Education without Borders organisation?

Claire Jankelson: The film festival was a natural way to generate proceeds and create interest from Sponsors and people to donate and support EwB. The ground-breaking films and South African stories appealing to South African/Australian ex-pats and general film festival audiences has become a successful vehicle to create buzz around an event to raise funds.

How was the process of adapting and reinventing this year’s festival with drastic social changes that have been occurring?

Claire Jankelson: In one word, the process has been exhilaratingLaunching a local interest festival in cinema has its own unique challenges, but with our inaugural festival, the community not only enjoyed the uniquely South African film program, they also enjoyed connecting with the community. Upon receiving news from the EwB management recently on the impact of this global pandemic on the at-risk students within impoverished communities in South Africa, we had no choice to go online!

Interview with Sydney South African Film Festival 2020 Director Claire Jankelson
Back of the Moon (2020, Angus Gibson) – source: Sydney South African Film Festival

We had to think “inside” the box and how to best engage with audiences that are almost getting viewership fatigue with their in-home entertainment and binging their favourite television programs. Our go-to line has been IMMERSIVE, and our focus. We had to adapt to an agile environment, move fast and learn quickly about what technology platforms can best serve our event and what we can offer our sponsorship partners in this new digital realm.

From new technology to web design, our website had to overnight be developed into a more interactive platform with screenings and special events. It has been a very stressful, but overall fun experience to get this all together and we hope that this new national online experience will attract a variety of film audiences around the country.

Film Inquiry thanks Claire Jankelson for taking the time to talk with us.

The Sydney South African Film Festival will be available online at from 16 to 26 May.

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