Documentary film festival expands beyond screenings

(This article was published on 29 May 2016 in the Weekend Argus, a weekly newspaper published by Independent Media in Cape Town, Western Cape province.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

After more than an hour of chatting with Darryl Els, the recently appointed director of the Encounters International SA Film Festival, one walks away feeling content that this 18-year-old is in good hands.

Els talks fast. He needs editing. But what he says is backed up with a track record of commitment to particularly independent filmmaking, which Encounters has always championed.

Cue: sigh of relief. Internal dialogue: this guy won’t mess it up.


Darryl Els is the recently appointed director of the Encounters documentary film festival. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

Els studied film and television at Wits University in Johannesburg, worked with award-winning director Rehad Desai who made Miners Shot Down and then went on to open up the Bioscope independent cinema in Johannesburg.

He started his new job last November, braving Cape storms, terrible drivers (you know especially when it rains it’s hell down here) and added a dash of ADHD to the festival. Like I said, he talks. A LOT. And fast.

“You have to stop me otherwise I’ll just keep talking,” Els says before getting back to his sandwich.

“My history with Encounters goes back ten years when I first attended in 2006 as a student. It was interesting with very intense discussions,” adds Els.

Then in 2010, when he opened the Bioscope with partners, Encounters asked them to host screenings.

“We had just opened. It was such a huge thing for us. We needed to tell people we were on the map. This helped,” says Els.

Els is still involved in the Bioscope but no longer its programming director. His focus in Encounters, which he wants to make more than just a two week gig.

Els wants to run Encounters events all year round. He wants the festival to be more than just screening films and talking about it. Then going home.

“There are different opportunities that you can create. You can create financial and relationship opportunities,” says Els.

To this end, Encounters has partnered with The Guardian newspaper in the UK to create a competition for short filmmakers. Storytellers can pitch an idea, with a cash prize and a possible commission to make a film for the newspaper’s website up for the taking.

Encounters has also for the last few years partnered with Al Jazeera to run pitching sessions for filmmakers who could get a commission to make a film for this Qatar-based news channel. These are tangible outcomes at Encounters.

Els wants audiences to walk away from the festival with “new experiences”.

“The Bioscope was a very creative space to experiment and introduce audiences to films that was never on their radar,” says Els.

“It showed that audiences want what they know but they also want to discover. If you went to the Bioscope you saw things that you never saw. It’s important to have that independent spirit.

“I see Encounters as an expanded view of non-fiction storytelling. The programme has moved beyond the cinema screen.

“This year we have interactive web documentaries, an electronic music band from the UK, a live documentary event that has poetry, live music and spoken word. Documentary films can often fit into any shape and form.”

Con-currently, Encounters wants to remain relevant to filmmakers in Africa. It wants to be a meeting place and a space where the filmmaking business grows.

For a local industry that struggles to find money to make films and with a national broadcaster that mostly fails its storytellers, independent film festivals can be a lifeline.

Actually, it gives filmmakers hope. It is a platform to connect with audiences and your industry.

“I’m always talking to filmmakers about the role that Encounters can play. We have created constructive spaces for conversation at the festival,” says Els.

Among these “frank discussions” will be case studies of African financial models of filmmaking.

Encounters will this year also see international film deal announcements, filmmaking master classes and, according to Els, “time for reflection on where the industry is at”.

“It’s all about the role that a film festival plays in an eco-system. Encounters has been around for 18 years. There’s a wonderful infrastructure to build on,” says Els.

Encounters is a ten-day documentary film festival that runs June 2 to 12 at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront as well as The Labia cinema in Gardens.



Encounters will have a number of events apart from film screenings. It hosts Virtual Encounters, an exhibition of new forms of documentary storytelling. This will include Virtual Reality, web docs and games. It takes place in the American Corner at the Central Library in Cape Town and is free to attend. It runs from June 2 to 4.

There’s also a merging of audio documentary, electronic music and political statement from British contemporary pop band Dark Star on June 12 at The Assembly in central Cape Town.

Dark Star duo Aiden Whalley and James Young will transpose the central concept of the album, Foam Island, to a South African setting, recording the voices and experiences of young people for two live shows in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

African Space: The Live Documentary is meanwhile a live documentary storytelling in collaboration on June 8 at the Cape Town Science Centre in Observatory.

Danish journalist Rasmus Bitsch uses audio recordings, original interviews, live music and poetry to present a stage performance with renowned astronomers and townspeople of the Karoo.

More info on



Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore’s ‘Where to Invade Next’ will be screened for the first time in South Africa.

‘The Shadow World’, an international feature documentary on the arms trade based on the former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein’s controversial book.

‘Maya Angelou and Still I Rise’, a heart-breaking portrait of the achingly meaningful story that created one of America’s finest writers.

South African director Nadine Cloete’s poignant debut feature documentary on anti-apartheid student activist Ashley Kriel.

‘Strike A Pose’, a provocative documentary on the off-stage antics of the seven handsome back-up dancers who accompanied pop star Madonna on her Blonde Ambition World Tour in 1990.

‘Requiem for an American Dream’, the last full-length interview by one of the world’s most important intellectuals, Noam Chomsky, who gives a definitive and thought-provoking account of global inequality and how wealth and power has come to rest in the hands of the select few.

‘A Syrian Love Story’, which is a portrait of love against a tumultuous political backdrop. It’s the story of one man, the people he loves and the country that hates him. An intimate family portrait shows all is not fair in love or war.


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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