Chipo Zhou

Chipo Zhou is the Artistic Director of the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF). She is also the African representative on the Board of the Short Film Conference and former Board member of Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe. She coordinated and hosted the South African Communications Association (SACOMM) conference. Chipo Zhou is media consultant for DERT-SA, an NGO working for human rights and education in South Africa. She has served on the juries for the My City Film Project in Cape Town and the Simon Sabela Awards in Durban, and assesses graduation projects from film students at AFDA. Zhou has also spoken about the situation of African cinema on various panels at numerous film festivals both in South Africa and abroad. She was recently on the Talents Durban and Realness Projects selection panels, and is committed to the cause of women in film.

Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Winterthur International Short Film Festival, where she was on the International Jury.




How did you get into film?

Chipo Zhou: Getting into film was always inevitable for me, I think. I started performing on stage in primary school and continued right through high school and soon after leaving school, started acting professionally in a local Zimbabwean soap opera. I then during this time, heard about the International Images Film Festival for Women, where I volunteered and officially fell in love with the craft, working there for almost five years before going to film school, where I majored in Producing and Scriptwriting.

Can you talk about the Durban International Film Festival and its founding? How has the festival evolved since its inception?

C.Z.: The Durban International Film Festival  has been in existence for forty consecutive years now and has evolved in so many different ways over the years. Of significance over the last few years is the deliberate effort to include females in what has been and still is a predominantly male dominated field. We signed this year the 50/50 by 2020 pledge and 2020 is the next edition, so this should be interesting for us – to see how we can live up to the challenge. We have also committed to showcasing more African talent in a bid to encourage excellence and collaboration within the continent. In 2018, we officially branded and launched the Isiphethu, a space for emerging, local filmmakers to develop their craft and this has grown this year to include our first IsiZulu Scriptwriting Residency, which was a partnership with the Mellon Foundation and the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission.

What is the best thing about the Durban International Film Festival?

C.Z.: Everything about Durban is amazing! I can’t pick one! From the film selections, to the location itself. We host the event on the Durban beachfront in July, when it is not too hot or too cold. We have a large industry program, where local and international players converge, making it the perfect place to be for film. Productive meetings, interactive panels and breathtaking views to boot, with our rich culture and decadent cuisine, what’s not to like?

What is the selection process like? What do you look for when selecting a film?

C.Z.: We usually have a call out in November and close in February. We have a pre-selection team that watches the films and recommends the best films to the programmers who then watch the films and make their final recommendations, which I, in turn, watch for the final list. We consider films relevant to our current context, films that will resonate with the audiences in Durban and are of an international standard. Films that have the potential to create engagement and conversation beyond the screenings, that we can bring into our industry program are also very well considered.

Do you operate quotas in your selection? Are you mindful of the presence of female filmmakers in your selection?

C.Z.: Historically, we have looked at the merits of the films alone, but have, over the last few years, been deliberately inclusive of female-led productions as well as films made by Africans – this includes not only those on the continent, but the diaspora and of African descent. We have signed the 50/50 by 2020 for female-led films and we would also like to achieve the same in terms of African content. Our opening films, since I took over in 2017, have been either directed or produced by a female, in addition to being traditionally South African. This is the most prestigious and sought out screening evening of the festival and it has been an honor to note that females have taken up this space. In 2018, we reached an unprecedented over 40% for both female-led and African content and we are continually working to improve these figures. As one of the oldest and arguable longest running film festivals on the continent, I feel it is our duty to be the frontrunner in the showcase and celebration of our African content to the world. This is not to say quality is not of importance, even with the quotas we implement, we try to maintain the highest quality of programming.

When you select films do you/can you exclude your personal tastes? If so, to what extent?

C.Z.: To a great extent, film/art is subjective and it is difficult to exclude personal tastes, which is why having different sets of eyes on the selection panel is helpful. A lot of the selections take a great many factors into consideration, and although I have final say on which films get to screen in the end, there is a rubric that is followed in order to make the process more objective. I am also mindful of the fact that I am a temporary custodian of this great institution, and that it isn’t about me, but about the filmmakers that bring the craft to life as well as the audiences that get to indulge in these films.

What is a good film, according to you?

C.Z.: For me, a good film is one that achieves what it sets out to do and connects with its intended audience.  It should be relevant as well as engaging with exceptional technical and production quality. I’m a big fan of compelling narratives, and I often find a well-crafted script makes the best film.

How would you define the Durban International Film Festival and its artistic direction? How has it evolved over time?

C.Z.: The Durban International Film Festival is re-imagining African cinema as we recognize Durban as a place that opens the space to discover new and established film voices beyond the mainstream. We celebrate the disruption of the entrenched film centers internationally and position the Durban International Film Festival as the African hub where innovative film voices are discovered and born, and the industry hub where they are nurtured and unleashed onto the world stage – this is the onward journey of the Durban International Film Festival.

The future for the Durban International Film Festival is about seeking out films that have answers to questions not yet asked and about developing meaningful connections with the different stakeholders that all work together to see the success of the festival. We are in uncharted territory, an exhilarating age where the fusion of technologies has begun to blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres. It is an exciting time to be a part of this evolution of being, which brings forth endless possibilities of inspiration and creativity. As a festival, the Durban International Film Festival is looking to the future with enthusiasm as new opportunities to converge with different partners and technological platforms emerge.

How do you make sure the program is appealing to both audiences and filmmakers?

C.Z.: As with all things, finding a balance is very important and lot of research goes into finding out what audiences are watching as well as what filmmakers are making and talking about. I’m not sure we always get it right, but we do have a great team that works to ensure that we do satisfy both needs.

What is the audience response to Durban International Film Festival?

C.Z.: Our numbers increase steadily over the years, which I think is a sign that there is still a lot of confidence in the festival.

Do you work with other festivals in the world?

C.Z.: We have over the years developed various partnerships with festivals for our different programs. We host the Berlinale Talents in partnership with the Berlinale Film Festival, we have the Caribbean Tales (Canada) partnership to develop and support female filmmakers as well as a partnership with the Africa International Film Festival in Nigeria where we share expertise and add value to our respective programs. There are a few more partnerships for 2020 that are in the works and we hope to announce them sometime in April.

Can you talk about the African and South African film industry? What part does the Durban International Film Festival play in its development?

C.Z.: We are definitely seeing a growth in the number of films being made and a diversity in the filmmakers making these films in South Africa. As more films are being made, the experience gained is highlighted in the quality of productions. We had about three hundred South African Films submitted to the Durban International Film Festival this year, that were produced between 2018 and 2019, this is including shorts, a significant jump from about under fifty last year, and in 2017 as well. The number of commercial films made in the country that are going to the cinemas has also increased, it tells a story of an industry upwardly mobile. I find that filmmakers are now more boldly experimenting with genres and telling home grown stories that are universally accessible. In the last three years, over ten new film festivals that I know of started across the country, which tells us that there is a market and a hunger for film. Streaming sites have also exponentially increased the chances of films actually making it beyond their local festivals or mainstream cinemas and have opened up opportunities for the industry to grow. I can only see an upward trajectory of the industry as we know it.

I like to think of the Durban International Film Festival as the international representative of South Africa on the global stage and as such, as a country we’re looking to break down the margins created in Berlin that separated us as a people and defined who we are as people of color globally. This is particularly so with the African Diaspora and directors of color across the globe. The Durban International Film Festival has over the years been a space that seeks to showcase stories by marginalized voices. I have a specific goal to leave a legacy of the inclusion of female-led productions in the industry and so the development and coverage of exceptional female talent is at the core of my mandate.

We are a part of a global renaissance within the gender movement and I’d like the generations to come to see the Durban International Film Festival take a lead role in this undertaking, a disruption of the embedded canonical film centers. The festival is also one of two Oscar-qualifying festivals as of last year and we would like to emphasize and celebrate this achievement. The recently launched Isiphethu program ran an IsiZulu scriptwriting residency for the first time ever as part of the reimaging of our outreach program, which has included the brand identity that was the birth of its name and the development of a more substantive local program that we hope will start to breed a new generation of filmmakers who would have otherwise never had an opportunity to develop their work, a celebration of our own.

There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in the film industry in the past two years. What is your take on the matter? Where do you position yourself and how is it in South Africa?

C.Z.: Women have started demanding and taking a seat at the table they were denied for so long and I am impressed at the strides that are being made and more so the spirit of global collaboration that the movement has grown in. I am a big supporter of women in film; I’m not much of a talker so you won’t see me say much, but I do use the platform that I currently head up and any places I find myself in to action the support and development of the female filmmaker. South Africa has been very open to bringing in women to the fore and in large part thanks to Sisters Working in Film and Television (SWIFT), an organization that was birthed at the Durban International Film Festival and that continues to work closely with the festival and of which I am also a member currently. Government has also supported a lot of initiatives brought forward by SWIFT and it is encouraging to see women finally starting to receive the recognition they deserve. Of course, the journey has only just begun; I am, however, highly optimistic of what the future holds.

In that sense, you have served on the board of women filmmakers of Zimbabwe and you support women in film. Can you talk about that?

C.Z.: This was where I was “born” in a sense. I suppose everything I have done within this space has been as a result of my experience during this time. There were a lot of initiatives, particularly with girls high schools and the women’s university where we made great strides in raising awareness around stories made by, for and about women as well as what it could mean if more of our voices could participate in the film industry. There was no government support to speak of, so it was all done by passionate women who felt a desire to see the world change through women. I think we could have accomplished a lot more with the required support, but I am proud to have been a part of the undertaking. It was around this time that the gender forum hosted by UNDP in Zimbabwe was formed, bringing together various women’s organizations together where I learnt of the power collaboration with likeminded partners.

Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And your favorite film by a female filmmaker?

C.Z.: To be honest, that’s a very difficult question. Every year, I see some amazing work by females and my favorite changes. The bar is constantly and consistently raised. Ava Duvernay stands out for me not only as a director, but as an inspiring female of color supporting Africans in film from a grassroots level. If I have to pick one, I’d say she is an all-rounder, a practitioner, a teacher, an advocate and so much more. I would also say Dee Rees is a great inspiration, definitely one of my favorites and one to watch out for. I’m looking forward to her next project. Mati Diop’s Atlantiques is my current favorite. In 2018, it was Madeline’s Madeline by Josephine Decker and Flatland by Jenna Cato Bass, also a powerhouse of a woman in film.

You are also the representative at the Short Film Conference. What do you think of the situation of the short form today?

C.Z.: I think the short form, particularly on the African continent, has been taken for granted, or seen as merely a stepping stone to making a feature film. I think that this is the time when this form will thrive and in no small part thanks to the advancement of technologies and the growth of the social media space. The short attention spans and the need to convey messages in the shortest time possible means more and more money will be pumped into the short form.



This interview was conducted at the 2019 Winterthur International Film Festival. 

Photo credits: DIFF.

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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