Friday, June 23, 2006

Xenophobia features at DIFF

Xenophobia has emerged as a significant theme at the Durban International Film Festival, writes Niren Tolsi

In August 1999, Fod Tounkora (15) and Yaguine Kota (14) prepared for their aeroplane trip from the Guinean capital, Conakry, to Brussels in Belgium.

For protection against the cold they both wore several layers of clothing, yet kept their plastic sandals on. On arrival they were found dead in the plane�s landing gear. They had frozen as the plane scaled heights twice that of Mount Everest and temperatures had dropped to -55 �C.

A note on one of them read: "Excellencies, gentlemen -- members of those responsible in Europe, it is your solidarity and generosity that we appeal for your help in Africa [sic]. If you see that we have sacrificed ourselves and lost our lives, it is because we suffer too much in Africa and need your help to struggle against poverty and war ... Please excuse us very much for writing this letter."

Refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, illegal immigrants, illegal aliens -- the world has many names for the desperate people searching for new lives on routes that are sometimes deadly, and destinations that are generally callous to their plight.

According to filmmaker Makela Pulula, 800 refugees from around Africa enter Cape Town every month.

Pulula's documentary, A Shadow of Hope, is one of several films at the Durban International Film Festival to examine and interrogate issues of migration, displacement and asylum-seeking.

"South Africans aren't talking about refugees and immigrants. They don�t want to accept the reality, because they don't want to see themselves in the mirror," said the 41-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

That this country's national discourse will have to pay more attention to foreigners and their assimilation into South Africa is also evident in Khalo Matabane's feature film, Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon. Centred on a young South African, Keniloe (Tony Kgoroge) and his search for Fatima (Fatima Hersi), a Somali woman who he meets one day in the park, it is a vision of Johannesburg inflected with French and Swahili voices far removed from the Mzansi-centric bloated buppie-burbs characteristic of the generally accepted portrayal of the city growing into the post-apartheid dispensation.

Combining documentary and drama, the camera journeys through Johannesburg meeting and interacting with Kenyans, Somalis, Congolese, a Palestinian and a streetwalker from the former Yugoslavia.

While South Africa has only begun to grapple with the issue of migration, it is an international one.

Guinean director Gahit Fofana was moved to make the melancholically beautiful Un Matin Bonne Heure (Early in the Morning) after reading the story of Tounkora and Kota's deadly journey.

Fofana says there is no political instability (just political inefficiency) or poverty in Guinea, that "whatever you want to eat you can grow in the rich earth" and that the northward gaze is a new development: "For the past 10 years, it has been changing. The youth are attracted to these new things on television and radio and all these images from the world are compelling for them," he says.

The lure of the promised land, for whatever reason, will always compel people to move. Yet, in a globalised village that is, paradoxically, driven by increasingly controlled national borders, those stories are haunting.

Escape doesn't always provide respite. In Matabane's Conversations, his protagonist asks a European woman, "Is the war over [in the former Yugoslavia]?" She replies: "It is, but I don't know if the war is over in my head."


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