Long since accustomed to providing the backdrop to Hollywood epics, South Africa is finally finding its cinematic voice. Laury Jeanneret investigates our burgeoning film industry and talks to some of the country’s finest talent about the importance of telling our own stories
There is something peculiar in the air at the moment. The usually indifferent gaze of the Western world has shifted, and, for the last couple of years, has been focussed firmly in Africa’s direction. In recent times we have witnessed eight prominent statesmen gather in Scotland to discuss the “way forward” for Africa. A host of British recording artists make a Christmas record to aid refugees in Darfur, and a blue collar Irish rock star-turned-Lord orchestrate a global music event as a “consciousness building” exercise. Africa is high on the international agenda. It is in-vogue. Indeed, “Africa chic” is everywhere, and as a result, a whole industry has sprung up anxious to appeal to the “Live8 generation” – who, quite literally, wear their politics on their sleeves, in the form of plastic wristbands appealing to “make poverty history”.
The effect that such global interest has had on the international film industry has been dramatic; and a “cinema of conscience” has been born. Although cinematic interest in the continent is not new, from John Huston’s fifties classic African Queen to Sydney Pollacks Out of Africa, the West has long been fascinated with Africa’s diverse landscape. But whereas for decades it has provided dramatic, scenic backdrops to epic European and American tales, the focus in recent times has altered. Far from acting as the blank canvas upon which Western characters are projected, the West now wants to “do” Africa – to document its triumph and tragedy in glorious Technicolor, to tell its stories and record its history on celluloid.
In the past two years films such as Hotel Rwanda, In My Country, Sometimes in April, and The Constant Gardener have regaled and horrified Western audiences with depictions of some of the continents darkest hours. More recently, Michael Caton Jones’ Shooting Dogs has just been released in Britain, documenting the experiences of BBC news producer David Belton during the 1994 Rwandan conflict.
While Leonardo DiCaprio is currently on location in Port Edward filming The Blood Diamond, in which he plays a diamond smuggler in the midst of war-torn Sierra Leone. On one hand such films appear to be raising the international profile of issues faced by Africans, but, how authentic can any dramatic interpretation be, when told from a European or American perspective? And furthermore, what impact does the depiction of such uniquely African stories by wealthy Westerners have on the emerging cinematic voices of the continents own filmmakers, who often lack the resources to be heard?
Alongside the issue of making movie’s about Africa’s history is also the trend of casting European or American actors in key African roles, such as Steve Biko, who was played by Denzel Washington in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom. While American actor Don Cheadle played erstwhile Rwandan hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina in 2005’s Hotel Rwanda. And more recently, Dennis Haysbert, star of American cult TV show 24, has been cast in the role of Nelson Mandela in the upcoming movie Goodbye Bafana, due to be released this year.
On some levels such casting decisions would seem to make economic sense. Filmmaking is a profit driven industry, and directors need to ensure that their films are commercially viable. The reality of this is that big names sell films and provide healthier box-office returns. But the trade-off is often the compromise of the film’s integrity and the liberal interpretation of the content. Hotel Rwanda is a case in point, accused of “western reductionism” by its critics, and of “fueling the burgeoning Rwanda holocaust industry.” Phil Taylor, former investigator for the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (ICTR), has said of the film, “for anyone who followed closely the 1994 crisis in Rwanda, the highly touted film Hotel Rwanda is merely a propaganda statement interrupted by bouts of acting”.
In order to preserve the integrity and authenticity of African stories the answer would seem to be for Africans to develop the opportunity and means to narrate their own tales. South Africa at least, appears to have taken up the mantle from Zimbabwe, which until relatively recently was considered the most progressive African nation artistically. The recent success of Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi at the Oscars has buoyed the home grown market and has caused much enthusiasm among South African filmmakers.
Michael Auret, Chief Executive Officer and Festival Director of Sithengi, a non profit organisation working towards the promotion, development and trade of African film, is optimistic. “It is very important to tell our own stories and for the government to put money in place to enable such stories to be told”, he says.
“In reality we weren’t making more than one or two films a year before 2002. This number increased to 15 films in 2004 due to different sources of finance such as the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF). Through films like Tsotsi,” he continues, “we are now acquiring global audiences. We first raised the flag in 2004 with Zulu Love Letter, Drum and the Project 10 series of documentaries. But internationally people were still asking whether South African films could be commercially viable too. Tsotsi has answered that question.”
The IDC to which Auret refers has committed R500 million to film projects in the past five years, of this, says Moses Silinda, who heads the unit, “R330 million has been drawn”, with the balance still available for future projects. Akin to this, SABC have recently announced allocation of a R45 million feature film fund and the DTI have begun making long awaited rebate payments. The Cape Film Commission (CFC) meanwhile is busy positioning itself and the Western Cape as a “winning brand” and first choice destination for filmmakers, and through monthly local film screenings aims to cultivate interest amongst local audiences.
While the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) is striving to put South African film on the map with research into “skills transfer” projects with international filmmakers. “The Department is looking into various possibilities to make sure it is a requisite for international filmmakers to impart skills and share knowledge with our people,” says Sandile Memela, spokesperson for the DAC. “The film industry has the potential to create employment opportunities and make a significant contribution to this country,” he continues, “but to realise this dream we have to empower our own people through skills transfer.”
“This can only happen when local filmmakers are taught know-how by their international counterparts who have been at it longer than our own talent.” Memela is clear about the significance that the film industry has on South Africa’s psyche, “movies are a magical form of expression that not only teach us about our history but also help us to define our identity,” he says. “They capture and reflect our soul as a people. We are a society that is undergoing a transition, thus it is important to tell our own stories, in the way that we understand ourselves, so that we can be responsible for the way the world sees us.”
This is one sentiment that insurance giant and patron of the arts Dick Enthoven wholeheartedly supports. Enthoven has invested heavily in South African film through the Spier Arts Trust, which he established in 1996. Approaching Mark Dornford-May and Charles Hazlewood, Enthoven invited the pair to form an ensemble company in Cape Town and Dimpho Di Kopane (DDK) was born. Advertising through township choir networks, informal auditions were held in church halls across the country’s townships in order to put together the forty-strong ensemble cast.
The phenomenal success of the stage productions, which received worldwide critical acclaim, resulted in DDK’s progression to film. Their first offering U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, a re-telling of Bizet’s Carmen transported to modern day Khayelitsha, won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin International Film Festival (BIFF) in 2005. While 2006’s Son of Man, which contemporises the story of Christ, won the Festival Award for Best Feature at the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) in Los Angeles this year.
Speaking about DDK’s success, Enthoven grins enthusiastically: “All these films help to break the preconceptions that exist about Africa, and the view of it as a basket case,” he says. “Bob Geldof has done a great job in highlighting Africa’s problems and raising awareness, but the arts can boost the brand and make people reconsider the conception that the continent’s problems are all there is to Africa. The more film becomes accessible,” he continues, “the more artistic impact it can have in helping to change Africa’s profile. It presents the other side of Live8. The arts are the most important calling card that South Africa has and we need to play on them.”
Enthoven, who promotes a fluid approach to the organisational and creative structure of DDK, goes on to add “I am a great believer in the fusion of artistic energies and the open trade of ideas. I enjoy the interface with creative people. The only brief we had when making Carmen was ‘to make something that we were all proud of.’ I will always value integrity over commercial success. I believe if you do not strive for excellence then it is a waste of time.”
And excellence is something that both Carmen and Son of Man have achieved with what has become a trademark panache. Speaking about the decision to set both films in contemporary Africa, Director Mark Dornford-May says: “We set the films in Africa because this is where we are. It wasn’t a marketing concept; most of the company lives in Khayelitsha. It was just a given”. Dornford-May sought inspiration through research on Steve Biko for his depiction of Christ in Son of Man, and adds; “I drew parallels with Steve Biko and used him as a key focus because [like Christ] he was a revolutionary thinker that was also murdered by the authorities. But also because he was a South African”.
Like Enthoven, he is enthusiastic about the future of South African film, but goes on to say, “if our film industry is to go forward then we must tell our own stories as seen through a South African prism. We’ve got to make films that are first and foremost South African. It is vital to have a national voice. Government support is crucial, as are tax breaks and production treaties with other countries.”
Both Dornford-May and Enthoven acknowledge though that there is a very real problem with distribution in South Africa, whereby the majority of the country’s population is unable to view films due to the high cost and inaccessibility of cinema locations. “Distribution is a huge problem which requires a radical solution,” Enthoven says emphatically. “Spier is in the process of helping to set up initiatives to counter this problem through the investigation of various international models.”
The models to which he refers are Belgium’s practise of installing outdoor digital screens and Nigeria’s custom of selling DVDs and videos on the streets, which has been successful enough to earn the Nigerian film industry the affectionate moniker of “Nollywood”. “The film industry is very rigid and needs to think outside the box,” he continues, “it is possible to change things but it is problematic. Spier are engaging with this problem and, for instance, with Carmen adopted a screening initiative, which premiered the film in Khayelitsha. This was hugely successful and even non residents attended the event, so there is also an element of it acting as an ‘integrator’ across the different layers of society.”
Distribution is also an issue close to Capetonian filmmaker Martina Della Togna’s heart. Della Togna, who founded Rainbow Circle Films (RCF) in 1999 with fellow filmmaker Vaughan Giose, specialises in documentaries and is adamant about the importance of community access to the big screen. “Local films need to be screened in their local communities,” she says. “Molweni Township Film Festival ran for four years in Cape Town but was discontinued after the funding for it was withdrawn. As filmmakers, our objective is first and foremost to raise awareness of this. There are monopolies on home video and cinema distribution, which is why government investment is vital. It is critical for locals to have a forum for their own stories.”
Along with acclaimed Capetonian Director John Fredericks, RCF have recently finished production on Mr Devious -My Life, which premiered in March in Mitchell’s Plain and has already received interest from four continents. The documentary celebrates the life and work of rising Capetonian hip hop MC Mario van Rooy, aka Mr. Devious, who was tragically murdered in the Cape Flats in 2004. The remarkable film, which tells the story of the young MC who strove to educate and influence township youth through his music, is an evocative example of the impact that local stories as told from an insider’s perspective can have.
“The film is much more than a tribute,” says the enigmatic Fredericks. “It portrays much of the hardship suffered by marginalised youth all over the world, but particularly that experienced by juveniles in South Africa’s prisons. [Mario] inspired the young to raise their voices above the sound of gunfire in our communities without dreams. He managed to reach out to so many, showing them that there are alternatives to crime and violence. He gave his life to what he believed was right and for me, as a storyteller and close friend, I believed his story should be told.”
“I have a big problem with the West telling our stories,” continues Fredericks. “As a writer who was born and bred in the ghettoes, recognition was a scarce commodity and it angered me that foreigners could come with their fat wallets and equipment, stand a hundred metres from the townships and write our stories and film our people. They never felt the heartbeat or the pulse of the township like we did.”
But, he acknowledges, the process of documentary making is not always pain free, “I shed a lot of tears [making this film],” he says quietly when describing the process of siphoning through hours of archive footage of van Rooy. “[It has been painful] watching this talented young man at work and then dying at the hands of the very same youngsters that he dedicated his life to rehabilitating.” Despite the heartache however, the depiction of the urban poet from the Cape Flats has received widespread support from the bereaved community that knew him, illustrating the importance, says Fredericks, of “telling it like it is, from the ghetto, for the ghetto”.
Mr Devious is a powerful testament to the important role of documentary film making alongside that of feature film production. This is a view which the CFC also subscribe to, says CFC Marketing Manager Bianca Mpahlaza, who describes the craft as a “means by which South African stories [can be] told with a uniquely local lens.” And Della Togna remains equally firm about the medium’s place in the market, “Tsotsi’s success is very positive,” she says, “but it is a fiction film. People do not take documentaries seriously despite the fact that a viable audience for them clearly exists. I contest the idea that documentaries do not attract advertisers or investors or engage audiences”.
Much of the problem, she claims, lies with broadcasting schedules, “[Networks] show documentaries very late at night, sandwiching them in graveyard slots. There is a space for documentary filmmaking, but it is about prioritising human development over capital through identifying local people with potential to address the issues that affect us. All over the world fringe kids are revolting in an attempt to be heard because they have nothing else to lose. We place our stories within this space, because as filmmakers we are interpreting contemporary history for future generations. Filmmaker’s voices need to be heard as an outlet for expressing dissent and celebrating local talent. We are exporting a product linked to raising the profile of South African issues. Films such as [Brazil’s] City of God and [Australia’s] Rabbit Proof Fence are great examples of the positive effect that this can have on a country”.
From Darryl Roodt’s 2005 Oscar nomination for Yesterday to Tsotsi’s 2006 victory. Carmen at the BIFF, Dornford-May’s Son of Man and Donovan Marsh’s Dollars and White Pipes at the PAFF and Tom Hooper’s recent BAFTA nomination for Red Dust. South Africa, it seems, has launched the battle cry and thrown down the gauntlet to the watching world. As Gerry Hill of the Namibia Economist commented so aptly recently: “We make films on the smell of an oil rag, with infinitely small budgets, so this makes the triumph of Tsotsi over the European masters even more memorable. They are not our masters anymore.”
© Laury Jeanneret, The Big Issue South Africa, 2006.