South African short films leave New Yorkers speechless


Channel24’s Rozanne Els attended the screening of the South African short film slate at the African Film Festival in New York.

New York – From stories about contemporary dance in South Africa to deeply moving and tragic tales about love, resentment, anger, and redemption – this year’s South African short film slate at the African Film Festival in New York (NYAFF) entrenched itself in history.

The same is true of South African actor Atandwa Kani’s performance as Philemon in The Suit, one of the five short films to be showcased this year. Kani, speaking to a packed theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) where the second leg of the festival took place, shared a deeply personal story that he says helped him give life to Philemon.

“As an actor, I walked into this film having raised twin boys that I found out after four years weren’t mine,” he said, referring to his relationship with Thembisa Mdoda. Like Philemon, he had resentment in his heart and says the film was not an easy process for him.

The Suit, written by the prolific journalist Can Themba, and originally published in 1963, was adapted as a play and performed at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1994. Later it headed to BAM’s own Harvey Theatre. Director Jarryd Coetsee is the first to adapt Themba’s story into a film. The story is set against the backdrop of Sophiatown in the 1950s shortly before the apartheid regime started its forced removals. After Philemon discovers his wife’s (played by Phuthi Nakene) affair, he forces her to treat the suit her lover left behind as a person.

The feelings of betrayal of resentment that Philemon grapples with is something that Kani relates to. “I was constantly in a state of aggravation, of being irritable, of being heartbroken. This man is heartbroken,” he says of Philemon.

“He isn’t necessarily angry and he doesn’t know what to do or how to act, so he does what he thinks is best and acts out.” It does break you down from the inside, and as hate starts to eat away at you, resentment grows, he continued. And then, just like the tragic end of Themba’s story, “you start to resent yourself.”


While Coetsee and his cast unpacked Themba’s story with great grace and care, Zwelethu Radebe told a different story of anger and resentment in The Hangman. The audience was visibly jolted after The Hangman’s screening.

Some could not bring themselves to speak for some time. The story revolves around Khetha, a prison warder in The Gallows’ death-row prison in Pretoria in 1989. His father is brought to the prison to be executed and Khetha’s anger about his fatherless childhood nearly overwhelms him.


While there were different categories of short films at the festival, South Africa was the only country to feature its own dedicated program.

Meokgo and the Stick Figure by Teboho Mahlatsi, which tells the story of a recluse stick fighter that lives in the Lesotho mountains and saves a woman that has been captured by an evil horseman, also formed part of the program.

It also included two documentaries about South African dance by Mark Freeman that coincided with BAM’s DanceAfrica Festival. The dance festival, like Freeman’s shorts, focused on social justice and freedom with a special acknowledgement of Nelson Mandela’s critical role and many sacrifices in the struggle against apartheid as his 100th birthday approaches.

Freeman, a San Diego native who visited South Africa as a Fulbright scholar at Rhodes University last year, has made documentaries about social and political issues and the intersection of these issues with art, specifically dance, for most of his career.

His two films that screened at NYAFF were both filmed during his stint at Rhodes. dancedance/RE♦VOLUTION and Conquest and Prison both address the contemporary dance movement in South Africa and how choreographers and dancers confront issues of race, gender, and discrimination. Of the dancers that he worked with, Freeman says that “while the past is never past for any of us, younger choreographers are making their own history.”


The third leg of the NYAFF runs from 7 June through 10 June at Harlem’s Maysles Cinema. 

Channel 24


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