NAF 2015: Cinephiles Unite For Film Programme

A scene from Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales
A scene from Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales

This feature was first published in Cape Times on 2 July 2015.

Steyn du Toit

While the current National Arts Festival (NAF) in Grahamstown is best known for its celebration of the multi-coloured umbrella that is the performing arts, the (relatively) warmer first few days have also delivered a film programme able to compete with the best. Curated by Trevor Steele Taylor, several interesting figures and themes have been identified.

Regarded as a major figure in Italian poetry, filmmaking and art, the cinematic achievements of Pier Paolo Pasolini is paid tribute to over the course of the week. Among his most celebrated films screened include The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), The Decameron (1970), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974).

It is Pasolini’s controversial 1975 feature, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, however, that most often pops up when referring to the controversial nature of the director’s work. Based on the Marquis de Sade’s infamous 1785 novel, 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism, the film unflinchingly deals with (and depicts) matters of torture, humiliation, degradation, rape, murder and every other depraved topic in between.

Running alongside the Pasolini retrospective is a digital exhibition of Manfred Zylla’s 120 Days of Sodom, a series inspired by the film, as well as the writings of De Sade and Dante Alighieri. The exhibition was launched here in book format on Friday as well, thanks to a collaboration between Zylla and the Erdmann Contemporary in Cape Town.

German-born and South African-based Zylla himself is in attendance too, and will appear as part of a Think!Fest panel discussion on Tuesday (July 7). Titled Art and Resistance, during the conversation the artist and a group of his peers will examine the position of art as “a method of resistance to coercion by structures of state, religious, financial, censorial and corporate power.”

Another festival retrospective to go see should you find yourself in Grahamstown this week, and one that ties in with similar efforts on the Main theatre programme, relates to the satirical films of Pieter-Dirk Uys.

While tannie Evita Bezuidenhout will no doubt forever be his most memorable creation, the titles in this selection provide a great opportunity to experience his various other sides as an actor and comedian too. Among the films directed and/or starring The Divine Mrs. E’s alter-ego are Adapt or Dye (1982), Farce About Uys (183) as well as Skating on Thin Uys (1985).

Billed as an important freedom of speech initiative, Limits of Liberty is a resurrection of Liza Key’s former Weekly Mail & Guardian Film Festival offering. Now a component of this year’s NAF film programme, the segment sees several important films presented around issues relating to censorship and the freedom of the individual in today’s increasingly Orwellian world.

CitizenFour
CitizenFour

Winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Laura Poitras’ CitizenFour truly feels like a document of its time. Shot cinéma vérité style and presented as a series of frank, confessional interviews with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong in 2003 (only days before the National Security Agency spying scandal broke), this is what it feels like to watch history unfold in “real time.”

It’s great to see two South African films also screened as part of Limits of Liberty. Directed by Heinrich Dahms, Between the Devil and the Deep opens with an impressive scene of a lone diver seemingly taking on an entire ocean. A fitting metaphor for what is to follow, this gripping documentary follows several families from Hawston, a fishing community near Hermanus. Fracking, in turn, comes under the spotlight in Jolynn Minnaar’s Unearthed.

Between the devil and the deep

As usual Taylor, who celebrates his 17th year as curator, has grouped various other films together under interesting banner themes for the rest of the programme as well. The South, for instance, sees “a meeting between South American film artists and South Africa.”

Supported by various embassies, filmmaker Alvaro Brechner – whose films Mr. Kaplan and A Bad Day to Go Fishing were selected as Uruguay’s official submissions to the Academy Awards’ Foreign Language Film category in 2010 and 2015, respectively – are currently in attendance.

Brechner will be joined today (July 6) by his Argentinian counterpart, Pablo Cesar – known for films such as The Gods of the Water, Hunabku and The Sacred Family – for a meeting with last year’s Standard Bank Young Artist (SBYA) for Film, Jahmil XT Qubeka (Of Good Report). Together they will look at areas for collaboration between their various countries.

Another interesting theme chosen by Taylor this year sees classic films presented with new/alternative soundtracks and scores. Examples include FW Murnau’s silent classic, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, performed to a soundscape created by Jacob Israel and A Skyline on Fire; and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 black and white Vampyr, accompanied by an original live music composition by husband and wife team Jacob van der Westhuizen and Ola Kobak (appearing together as A Hollow in the Land), alongside Givan Lötz.

047-sunrise-theredlist

While previous years have had bigger offerings in terms of films on the NAF Fringe, this year sees only two items make the cut. The first, Double Bill I, comprises of Stephen Abbott’s 10-minute short Lazy Susan, Kyle Robinson’s Finding Graham’s Town (16 min) as well as the Robinson brothers’ Man on the Line, featuring well-known physical theatre performer Richard Antrobus.

Two longer short films by Siviwe Honobroke Mashiyi’s make up Double Bill II. They are Forgiveness, produced and shot without a budget, and Did She, Didn’t She?, the second film written and directed by this upcoming filmmaker.

The National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) will once again present a series of workshops during NAF too. Among the free screenings presented as part of it include Zee Ntuli’s Hard to Get (Wednesday), Koos Roets’ Faan se Trein (Friday) and Rehad Desai’s Miners Shot Down (Friday).

l NAF runs until Sunday. For full show schedule and booking details, see www.nationalartsfestival.co.za and www.facebook.com/nationalartsfestival, or follow @artsfestival on Twitter.

Steyn du Toit is a Cape Town-based freelance arts journalist. For any questions please e-mail steyndutoit (at) gmail (dot) com. 

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NAF 2015: Cinephiles Unite For Film Programme

NAF 2015: Manfred Zylla’s 120 Days of Sodom book launch

The Lovers
The Lovers

This interview was first published in Cape Times on 25 June 2015.

Anyone familiar with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom will tell you that there’s no going back from watching its contents.

Similarly, reading through Dante’s Divine Comedy, or experiencing the depraved writings of literary scoundrel Marquis de Sade, are feats not advised on a full stomach.

Inspired by the above-mentioned references, German artist Manfred Zylla’s 120 Days of Sodom is a series of images born out of the painter’s lifelong kinship with the work produced by their creators.

Produced by Zylla alongside the Erdmann Contemporary in Cape Town, a new 177-page book featuring the entire collection will be launched at this year’s National Arts Festival (NAF) in Grahamstown.

Featuring a lead essay written by writer, filmmaker and NAF film programme curator Trevor Steele Taylor, among the book’s more than 30 other contributors are Ivor Powell, James Matthews, Niklas Zimmer, Aryan Kaganof as well as Artscape’s Marlene le Roux.

“We asked Trevor to write a leading essay which contextualises the series in terms of its influences,” says Heidi Erdmann.

“Titled A Saint in the city of Pandemonium: Pier Paolo Pasolini, a revolutionary thinker in a time of consumption, through the piece Taylor explores the contemporaneity of the three main influences behind Zylla’s work.”

A scene from the film, Salo
A scene from the film, Salo

When it came to approaching the rest of the book’s contributors, Erdmann recalls, both she and Zylla were set on having non-art industry voices.

“We preferred drawing on the thread of cinema for the text, and mother tongue submissions were also preferred. Finally it was necessary for the text to equal the transgressive nature of the series; which I think we have achieved.”

Referring to Zylla as “an extraordinary artist”, Taylor, who has known him for nearly forty years, describes his work as confronting inequality and hypocrisy on a cultural and political level.

“He does so, however, in a manner that is both humble and unswervingly direct,” Taylor observes.

Trevor Steele Taylor (Pic by Suzy Bernstein)
Trevor Steele Taylor (Pic by Suzy Bernstein)

“The first Zylla exhibition I remember seeing was a series of distorted images of young white conscripts. This was during the mid-70s, and the purpose of the exhibition was confrontational. He succeeded on that level causing a good deal of official reaction.

“The visceral nature of the images resonated with the mood of the time and the complexity and artistic skill of the pieces were unforgettable. He further confronted the system by living openly with his coloured wife and children in the midst of apartheid society.”

Describing 120 Days of Sodom as “an incomplete, but mind-bending, meditation on power”, Taylor goes on to say that the Marquis de Sade is often misrepresented as a pornographer.

“There is nothing pornographic is his work. His meditations – in which the human body is abused in pursuit of power, not sexuality – is a nexus between power and its attempts at control.

“Ultimately power can, to quote Adrian Mitchell, take the human body and twist it all about. One’s soul, however, is out of bounds to wielders of power.”

In presenting his vision of the Marquis de Sade’s seminal work, Taylor goes on to explain, Zylla comes to Sade through a relationship with the lens of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.

“Pasolini is probably the most directly political of filmmakers. That said, he is also the most spiritual; a Marxist with deep understanding of the message and the journey of Christ, and a homosexual who glorified the natural energy and innocence of sexuality in its widest meaning.”

Taylor considers Pasolini’s final film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, to be “cinema on the very edge of the abyss.”

“Sade’s book concerns a group of libertines (representing power in the form of religion, politics, finances and and governance) who, through their wealth, manages to kidnap a group of the children of the rich to fulfil, through a series of ritualistic orgies, their depraved desires.

The sinners on the rack of punishment.
The sinners on the rack of punishment.

“Pasolini reset the events in fascist Italy in the last months of the war, with the same pantheon of power brokers now gorging their cruelty and lust for power on the kidnapped children of the proletariat.

“Zylla’s series of paintings vary between direct representations of frames from Pasolini’s film as well as side references to modern consumerism, nuclear immolation, the rape of Gaia (fracking) and militarism (the military-industrial complex).”

While not individually titled, among the collection’s images resonating strongest with Taylor are a group of MBA-clutching, Wolf of Wall Street-impersonating sinners on “the rack of punishment”; an image of two lovers naked and alone in “the Hall of Power”; a pair of skeletons dancing above a nuclear power plant like “the horseman of the apocalypse”, as well as an image he refers to as “sodomy, X-ray skeletons and the power of Red Bull.”

Along with the book’s launch all images from 120 Days of Sodom will be exhibited digitally during NAF, together with a new series of paintings by Zylla in which Pasolini can be seen at work. Several of the director’s films – including Salò, The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights – will be screened as part of the festival’s film programme as well.

“In addition, Zylla will be in attendance and will take part in discussion called Art and Resistance. In it the panel will look at a myriad of issues that were intrinsic to Zylla, Sade, Pasolini, Dante, Milton and perhaps even St Paul and Christ.”

l NAF takes place from July 2 – July 12. For full show schedule and booking details, see www.nationalartsfestival.co.za and www.facebook.com/nationalartsfestival, or follow @artsfestival on Twitter.

Steyn du Toit is a Cape Town-based freelance arts journalist. For any questions please e-mail steyndutoit (at) gmail (dot) com. 

NAF 2015: Manfred Zylla’s 120 Days of Sodom book launch