On Saturday, my friend (and social media spirit guide) Raul Pacheco-Vega invited me to be his “+1” at the opening gala of the first-ever Vancouver South African Film Festival (VSAFF), and Vancouver’s first screening of the South African film “Skin“, directed by Anthony Fabian.
Obviously, I said yes (Thank you Raul!). When I arrived it seemed I would require a media pass to get in without a ticket (Raul had his own media pass) so the helpful VSAFF staff gave me one to use. The first one said “Colin” which I thought was great but it was nevertheless changed for the more gender appropriate “Basya”. Basya is a nifty name.
Attending the opening night of anything is always very exciting because it usually gives you the opportunity to learn more about the event. The more I learned about the VSAFF the more inspired I was. The VSAFF is a completely volunteer-driven event. All proceeds of the VSAFF went to the Canadian non-profit organization, Education Without Borders. EwB is an organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities, resources, and facilities in poorer communities of the world, primarily in South Africa. Not one VSAFF organizer or volunteer received a salary or stipend of any kind for the tremendous work they put into this two-day festival.
I enjoyed the film “Skin” in that it moved me, never bored me, and had unexpected moments of humour. For the most part the film is a struggle. “Skin” tells the true story of Sandra Laing, a daughter of white Afrikaners, who distinctly appears to be black. Her parents’ fight to have her classified as a white person (so that she will have access to the education, facilities, and rights the rest of her family enjoys), and Sandra’s own fight to be reclassified as black after having children with a black man (an illegal act for a white woman) is both tragic and riveting.
Aside from the beautiful cinematography and an amazing performance by the award-winning (and Oscar nominated) Sophie Okonedo (who plays Sandra), what struck me most about the film was how arbitrary apartheid society appeared. I knew about apartheid of course, the way I know about genocide in Rwanda and the war in former Yugoslavia but other than condemning it in my mind as an unjust thing I never really thought about it. Certainly it never occurred to me to describe it as “arbitrary”. But it was.
Sandra Laing is one person. The same person, from the beginning of her life right through to the end of the film. And yet, the way she was treated, and the world she could inhabit, depended entirely on whether she was considered to be a black person because she looked black, or a white person because her parents were white. What she could learn, where she could live, who she could love, all of this was determined by skin. Okonedo portrayed Sandra Laing with an almost unbearable shyness, as a person acutely uncomfortable in her own body, which, of course, you might be if you belonged not to one world or another but lived in the dangerous and lonely ground between.
With such an arbitrary and unjust system governing the lives of South African people, it is no wonder that so many of the characters in “Skin” developed strains of hardness, ignorance, and violence. Sandra herself, while always a sympathetic character, was forced to become hard and strong under the weight of the sorrow in her life. No character in the film was wholly good or wholly bad. Instead of hating Sandra’s father for his increasing pigheadedness and cruelty, I felt sorry for him and hated instead a situation that would force a loving father to become a slave to his pride and an enemy to his daughter. I respect a film that, while all about the differences between “black” and “white”, chose to reside in shades of grey rather than pass judgment on its characters.
I am delighted to report that the VSAFF had a full house for its opening night, and that there was wine, food, and Amarula a-plenty in the lobby for its guests. I believe the organizers were pleasantly surprised by the support from their community (according to their website, the VSAFF raised $14 000 for EwB!). I sincerely hope this festival returns next year. Not only do I relish chances to be exposed to art and culture outside the North American mainstream, but the enthusiasm of the organizers and their selfless mission of awareness and education was inspiring to witness.