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New from South Africa's Apollo Film Festival

Cutting edge, inimitably South African films have travelled abroad to win Oscars, Golden and Silver Bears and a golden Stallion. But nothing makes a film more relevant or poignant than seeing the flickering images of South Africa’s contemporary reality reflected in the eyes of local residents from the sleepy hamlet of Victoria West.

Deep in the heart of the Karoo lies a little gem of tranquillity. Set to the rhythms of Merino sheep grazing, the dorp of Victoria West is definitely the place where time has stood still. Yet, every year, as the edge of winter’s chill fades into recent memory, the inhabitants of this sleepy hollow subject themselves to a cultural onslaught. They invite anyone interested in the very latest offerings from South Africa’s burgeoning film industry to come and plunge themselves deep into four days of cinematic heaven.

Established during the 1890’s as a stop over between Cape Town and Kimberley for intrepid diamond seekers during the Diamond Rush, Victoria West is the home to the historic Apollo Theatre. Situated in Church Street, the Apollo is the last intact Art Deco cinema in South Africa and a heritage site. A Greek immigrant Andrew Basil Aristides built the theatre in 1923. But by the 1950s, Victoria West’s heydays had passed and from then until the 1970s the theatre closed down as the population dwindled and those that were left, feasted their eyes on the height of technology: television.

In the 1990s David and Gail Robbins reopened the theatre and, under the auspices of the newly formed Apollo Development Association, a community project aimed at youth and economic development through culture and tourism, they held the first Apollo Film Festival, dedicated to African cinema, in 2000. Eight years later, and now dedicated to screening the best of South African cinema, the festival is still standing as strong as the glowing cross on top of the mountain behind the village. It’s continued existence, as a regular feature on the annual film industry calendar remains a beacon of hope to the local people and to all South African filmmakers.

This year, the Apollo line up includes 9 features, 14 documentaries and 24 short films. Raising topical subjects that are particularly pertinent to South Africa, but have universal appeal, the films individually touch on crime, gambling, love against the odds, the rise to the underdog, the results of violence, a dark look at a dark past, the trepidations of match-fixing, the inspirational influence of football, horses and surfing and the choices that will make up tomorrow.

Judging this eclectic mix is world-renowned filmmaker Khalo Matabane and award-winning producer/director Bridget Pickering, and film journalist Theresa Smith. Filmmaking guests include the local award-winning talents of Junaid Ahmed, Tiny Mungwe, Dylan Valley, Tendeka Matatu, Rina Jooste, Asivhanzi Mathaba, Frans Cronjé, Meg Rickards and Michel J. Rix.

But film, and lots of it, is not the only thing that you will get when you visit Victoria West. Everything that you could possibly need is in walking distance from a chat with the locals (who still call each other Tannie, Sis and Oom in the tradition) at the pub, to a walk in the depth of the Karoo under the starlight. And if you’re too tired to walk, there are donkey rides from the guesthouses to the Theatre. Victoria West offers unfettered enthusiasm and friendship from the villagers, delicious mouthfuls of succulent lamb, and lashings of atmosphere.

Who knows why the Apollo Film Festival endures. Maybe it’s because the latest filmic offerings take on a special meaning in this place that is such a part of South Africa. And yet by being located deep in the Karoo it forces you to step out of ourselves, to stop and reflect.

Oh, what a pleasure.

The Apollo Film Festival is sponsored by the NFVF and implemented by Encounters Documentary Festival, with the support of the Apollo Development Association, Apollo Theatre, Durban International Film Festival, Northern Cape Tourism, and the Tourism Enterprise Programme.

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