Grahamstown Part I: The National Arts Festival

The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape is considered one the largest arts events in the world. It features theater, dance and music performances on main and fringe stages, as well as visual art exhibitions, lectures, craft markets and even a giant puppet parade.

We were there just for the final three days of the festival.

National Arts Festival

After sort-of figuring out where the numerous venues spread throughout the town were, walking up several steep hills – everything in Grahamstown, it seems, is uphill – and poring over the schedule, here are a few of the more notable events I managed to squeeze in during the time I wasn’t drinking beer at the Rat and Parrot, sipping wine at Red’s Café or contemplating the giant jars of booze at the House of Pirates:

• “District 9” •

I love sci-fi social/political commentary. There are things you can say with aliens – like, real outer-space aliens – that you can’t say with humans because too much of our shared humanness gets in the way. But with aliens, especially gross cockroach-looking aliens, you can get away with a lot more –cruelty and bigotry — while also making the audience question their … well, shared humanness.

“District 9” came out in U.S. theatres in 2009, but I’d only seen part of it late one night on DVD. I’d always meant to get around to watching the whole thing.

Now, after spending three months studying South African history and spending a month actually in South Africa, it felt strangely satisfying to be watching the film in a theatre in South Africa. The references to the SABC, Nigerian criminals and the main character’s Afrikaner-ness made all that much more sense.

Clearly, with a name like “District 9” the film is drawing parallels to the treatment of the “prawns” in the film to the treatment of blacks under apartheid. But it’s not a straight parallel; it bends into its own narrative. That’s what really makes the story strong, is that it is its own story. Obviously, black South Africans were not trying to find a way to leave the country, let a lone the planet, quite the opposite. But they, I suppose, were trying to reclaim “home.”

The successful remake of the TV series “Battlestar Galactica” was praised for its commentary on politics and religion, but it was never direct. Neither is “District 9.”

It’s funny and clever but also subtle and brutal (Peter Jackson produced it and if you’ve ever seen “Dead Alive” you shouldn’t be surprised by the amount of gore in “District 9.”)

Of course, this was a film I could have – and started to – see in the U.S., so the next day I decided to see a South African film …

• “Long Street” •

I went into this film figuring it’d be either fairly good or really bad.

It was neither.

In a case of art just copying life, “Long Street” is perhaps a father-filmmaker’s apology to his estranged daughter. Maybe it’s a launching pad for her music career (hey, Lilith Fair’s back in business). Or maybe, writer-director Revel Fox just couldn’t think up another story other than his own.

The film is named for Long Street, a popular Cape Town thoroughfare lined with restaurants, bars and boutique stores. We don’t see much of it, as far as I could tell, in the film, though.

Instead, we follow the longer-than-it-should-be story of Fox’s daughter Sia (real name: Sannie Fox, played by herself), a self-centered teenager with an annoying drug habit and an acoustic guitar she uses to craft angsty songs, ala Ani DiFranco, only sans something to say.

The story starts with Sia getting kicked out of yet another rehab center after sneaking her boyfriend in for some contraband coitious. Sia moves back in with her mother Maria (played by her real mother Roberta Fox), who’s the only somewhat fleshed-out and likable character in the film.

They fight, then make up, then fight again and eventually discover a tiny bit about each other. Occasionally, the estranged father (not played but Revel Fox, but actor David Butler who I accidentally ended up sitting behind at the screening) shows up, or storms out of a poetry reading because he’s suffering writer’s block.

Dude, just write what you know … oh, wait.

• “Mbeki and other Nightmares” •

This was by far my favorite show of the festival. It’s a smartly written piece of biting contemporary political commentary — the Julius Malema monologue is a standout scene — that was blessed with having a young and talented cast playing multiple roles. Writer-director Tsepo wa Mamatu plays the title character.

“Mbeki and other Nightmares”

• Chris Harvie: Do NOT Take This Road to El-Karama •

(one of the Think!Fest lectures)

Chris Harvie is a writer and hotel owner who in May 2006, along with several traveling companions, set off on a three-and-a-half month, 28,000 kilometer trip up the east side of Africa.

Chris Harvie

Harvie and his friends — two of which dropped out the trip and are no longer his friends — didn’t have a particular route, but instead “certain Meccas” they wanted to see, such as Mt. Kilimanjaro. “We never climbed it but we spent a week talking to people who did.”

His adventures along the way became a Sunday Times series and eventually the book, “Do NOT Take This Road to El-Karama.”

Here he is talking about how he tuned his travels into a book:

***     ***     ***

This year the National Arts Festival was extended from 10 to 15 days in hopes of cashing in on … err, attracting World Cup attendees. It seemed to have worked. There was an 8.47 percent increase in attendance compared to 2009, but I’m not sure it that takes into account the extra days.

Year     Total Attendance   % Change

2005    139,100                    5.18%
2006    140,960                    1.32%
2007    143,403                    1.70%
2008    147,574                    2.83%
2009    170, 045                   13.21%
2010    185,776                    8.47%

“We’ve shown that our artists can hold their own at a time when audience attention is being fragmented and distraction levels are high,” festival CEO Tony Lankester said in a news release. “The FIFA World Cup is a massive event and South Africa is doing a great job getting behind it. The Festival has managed to draw on that national pride and stage work that delivered a ‘World Cup of the Arts.’”

***     ***     ***

• Guy Buttery •

Acoustic guitarist Guy Buttrey was not on my list of things to see at the National Arts Festival, but a couple of friends were going to catch his evening set so in being indecisive about what I was going to go see, I decided to tag along with them.

I’m glad I did.

Buttrey is a pretty amazing instrumental musician from Kwazi Nuttall who uses a looping pedal so well — some people make such a show of it — that you don’t even realize he’s been sampling himself until his hands stop strumming and the music continues. Plus, he also played a handsaw and did a Joanna Newsom cover.

Guy Buttery


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Filed under Arts & Culture, Photo Galleries, South Africa, Travel

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