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Dismantling imaginative monopolies; Sheetal Magan and the radical new generation of South African filmmakers

Sheetal Magan is part of a new generation of South African filmmakers, immersed in a young context that is already reinventing itself through its own complex honesty and the rejection of a stoic condescension towards emerging voices. These pioneers of the industry are subverting hierarchical and patriarchal monopolies on the imagination, as well as one-dimensional cultural confessionals, seizing their own permission to be genuinely aspirational in terms of thinking outside the limitations and refusing to let those lines-of-sight settle. As an up-and-coming filmmaker, Magan’s repertoire already speaks to an immense and unhindered curiosity, willing to boldly submerse itself in the subconscious grit of multifarious worlds, in refracted layers of consciousness and evocative atmospheres moving well-beyond the zones of complacent satisfaction.

In God Dank vir Klank (2011), Magan was already experimenting with genre through documentary-fiction, interrogating conversational currents around Zef culture and issues of appropriation, and incorporating visible failure as a strategy towards demystification. Magan is emerging as a tenacious risk-taker, immediately destabilising stereotypical confines through her lack of fear for navigating foreign landscapes. Despite a low-budget, in City of Ashes (2014), Magan took-on dystopian speculative-fiction, channelling current South African anxieties through the vision of ground-zero Johannesburg in the year 2024, disordering secular structure and invoking the phantasmagoric layers of history and experience that resonate within the city. The Fall of Ganesh (2015), which premiered at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), coalesced from a palpable personal encounter, that for Magan, really exploded illusions of ‘social-cohesion’ in South Africa and stuck in her body as an involuntary shake, well-after a mob riled against her family during a particular Diwali celebration. Can a sense of disorienting displacement seep through the grounding of rituals? Who defines our rites of passage and what relationships are we allowed to articulate?

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The Fall of Ganesh is a tactile reflection of Magan’s ability to subtly weave together multiple threads that resonate with the intricacies of non-linear emotion and the mysteries of human experience. Her work is beginning to reflect a powerful, untold undercurrent and it’s being recognised through her inclusion in prestigious platforms such as DIFF’s Talents Durban Doc Station, Urucu Media’s Realness South African screenwriters’ residency, and the Cannes South African Film Factory, through which the short film Paraya (2016) was created. Paraya premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is also set to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival and the upcoming Jozi Film Festival. Magan’s first feature film, The Day and Night of Brahma is currently in development and she is also currently working on an eight part mini- series entitled the Acts of Man. 

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When I spoke to Magan about her navigations within Indian culture, I couldn’t help but think of Marji in Persepolis donning her ‘punk is not ded’ jacket and it made me incredibly excited for the potential of South African cinema- I imagined, through the perspectives that Magan related, a South African Asghar Farhadi and Hindu metaphysical intuition bleeding through the aesthetic of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. Could there be a kind of South African Tarkovskian texture, infused with honey and ghee, merging with contemporary, digitally-diasporic dispersions? Magan is throwing punches at being boxed-in and the strength of her unique visual language, before even releasing her first feature film, stretches the imagination towards the realisation of such radically new possibilities.

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