Andrew Worsdale gets the scoop on the upcoming Encounters Documentary Film Festival that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and, despite funding challenges, is more vibrant and funky than ever before.

�Flies on The Wall with Attitude� is the title of a 2001 article in the Austin Chronicle about famed documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, legendary non-fiction moviemaker and founder of �direct cinema�. In the piece he says: �I think it's inevitable that people will come to find the documentary a more compelling and more important kind of film than fiction. Just as in literature, as the taste has moved from fiction to non-fiction, I think it's going to happen in film as well. In a way you're on a serendipitous journey, a journey which is much more akin to the life experience. When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you're really engaged with a person going through real life experiences. So for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.�

The nature of documentary films has changed in the last twenty years from Maysles� concept of direct cinema � nowadays there�s more conscious intervention by the filmmaker, whether it�s Michael Moore and �Farenheit 9/11� or filmmaker Errol Morris, who incorporated stylised re-enactments as part of his ground-breaking movie �The Thin Blue Line�, about the murder of a Dallas police officer which allowed for multiple points of view in its investigation.

More recently the theatrical success of such films as �An Inconvenient Truth�, �Bowling For Columbine� and �Super Size Me� have heralded a re-birth, or at least a new vibrancy, in documentary filmmaking which goes beyond being respectably broadcast on a Sunday night.

When Steven Markovitz and Nodi Murphy initiated the idea of a documentary film festival in 1998 their main compulsion was to see non-fiction films being �screened in all their glory on the big screen, giving them the status they deserve.�

Things have changed considerably since that first festival, which was sponsored by the Swiss cultural organisation Pro Helvetia and screened 24 films. That year, the festival sold just over 2000 tickets, now they average 15-16 000 tickets a year. Way back then the audience was largely white, middle aged and affluent. Nowadays the Encounters audience is very diverse and crosses the racial and economic divide. Also in 1999 there were few local documentaries to choose from, now there�s a healthy amount of exciting local content and South African films are generally more popular than their foreign counterparts at the fest.

The festival is sent over 450 films a year from across the world and they choose about one in ten that they see. Festival director Mandisa Zitha says: �Our criteria is simple, we select challenging and entertaining films that we think will appeal to our local audience. This year we had a bit of an agenda as it is our 10th anniversary and we want to attract large audiences (hopefully some new ones as well) so we brought out the big guns. We recognise that SA is very diverse, so our films are diverse as well. The �plots� include strange relationships, beauty myths and ideals, famous authors, famous surfers, women judges, the making of a famous piano, love stories, graffiti culture around the world, the environment, the return of nuclear energy and the first female president in Africa, to name a few.�

In addition to the screenings the festival holds workshops, seminars, laboratories and has co-produced 37 films and 6 mobile documentaries from its Laboratory Workshop and the (new) Africa Shorts Project. Some of these films have been the most significant in South Africa�s new documentary landscape and include � �JG Strijdom is Very, Very Dead� by Pule Diphare, �Story of a Beautiful Country� by Khalo Matabane, �Men of Gold� by Vincent Moloi and �The Glow of White Women� by Yunus Vally.

The festival is always struggling to find sponsors and is usually forced to cut back on their ambitious plans. �International Documentary Festivals have very sexy corporate sponsors,� says Zitha. �We are not there yet. We need to keep growing our audiences, and to make documentaries as sexy as possible.�

But the festival�s growing success is something they can be proud of, especially considering the limited financial resources. Co-founder Markovitz says: �Documentaries are becoming as riveting, engaging and entertaining as feature films. Since 9/11 there has been an increased interest from the public in documentaries. People want to know what�s behind the news as they trust the news less than ever before.�

Zitha sums things up: �This year the main theme is �entertain� and it is surely reflected in our line-up. We have some special guests (subjects) from the films who are going to participate in Q&A�s. It�s a proven formula that worked well last year. The guests include a famous surfer and a famous survivor. The Festival is geared toward our �repeat offenders� and a new audience � that we hope will be converted.�

The festival runs from 19th �29th June in Johannesburg and from the 3rd�13th July in Cape Town. For more information on the movies, events, special guests, Q&A�s, Master Classes and workshops go to www.encounters.co.za