Cape Town & SA film: take one

29 July 2002

Cape Town is many cities – and, indeed, many countries. Sometimes it is San Francisco, lights twinkling with the sea in the background; sometimes it is New Orleans, with the old lacy balconies of Long Street tarted up to resemble that steamy city of the American South; sometimes it is a French street scene; sometimes a German landscape.

Or it can present itself simply as an anonymous but breathtaking backdrop – a swathe of green mountainside, a gorgeous beach, a cool, dark forest.

South Africa’s oldest city is her newest high-profile actress. Cape Town is starring in commercials and feature films from all round the world, and has become a favoured location for filmmakers keen to make use of the city and its environs’ natural beauty as well as to employ a technically advanced film industry that can compete with that of Europe or the US for skills and savvy.

Cape winelands

Renowned for some of the world’s finest wines, the vast fertile valleys of the Cape winelands could be mistaken for similar locations anywhere on earth. (Photo: Moonlighting Film Production Services)

It also helps that when Northern European or American filmmakers translate their dollars or euros into rands, their budgets suddenly seem to have grown tenfold.

South African film: looking back
The film industry in this country goes back a long way. The first newsreels ever were shot in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War at the turn of the previous century. The weekly cinema newsreel African Mirror was launched in 1913 and ran until the 1980s.

In 1916, the magnate IW Schlesinger set up Killarney Studios and began an extraordinary run of productions (43 movies until 1922) that included De Voortrekkers, a piece of Afrikaner nationalist propaganda celebrating the Great Trek from the British colony of the Cape to new pastures further north, and Symbol of Sacrifice, about the Anglo-Zulu wars.

As leading South African cinema academic Keyan Tomaselli put it, these movies “were rooted in the ideological outlook of the present, with Boer and Briton standing together under the flame of unity and civilisation against barbaric hordes”.

Schlesinger’s production line declined in the Twenties, access to international markets having become limited. What Tomaselli calls a “30-year lull” began, broken by the beginnings of Afrikaner establishment investment in the film industry in the 1950s.

What emerged then, and continued into the 1970s, was a plethora of state-funded light entertainment for Afrikaans-speaking whites starring the likes of singer Ge Korsten and comedian Al Debbo.

A prominent genre of the time, too, was ‘the border film’, in which South African soldiers fended off the perceived communist-inspired threat on the country’s borders. There was also the international success of Jamie Uys’s politically suspect comedy The Gods Must be Crazy in 1980, but that was a bit of a one-off.

South Africa has yet to produce a movie to match it for fame around the world, which is rather embarrassing.

In the meantime, though, anti-apartheid cinema had grown as the Afrikaner-dominated state entrenched itself. Lionel Rogosin made the semi-documentary Come Back Africa in 1959, using real denizens of the vibrant and soon-to-be-demolished Sophiatown area in his tale of how the new regime was warping life in this country. Exiled filmmaker Lionel Ngakane contributed to this genre with Vukani Awake in 1964 and 1966.

In the 1970s, movies critical of apartheid were made within South Africa by a first wave of true independents. They included Jans Rautenbach’s Jannie Totsiens and the series of films Ross Devenish made with playwright Athol Fugard. Another playwright to move into cinema, though briefly, was township troupe-leader Gibson Kente, though his How Long Must We Suffer? received only a very limited release.

In the 1980s, the state funded low-budget feature films specifically for black audiences, and gave tax breaks to foreign companies wanting to churn out cheap product for the straight-to-video market. Some people made money, and many learned new skills, but few of these movies were worth seeing.

The real cinema of South Africa was semi-underground, being made by mavericks with low budgets: Darrell Roodt’s Place of Weeping and Jobman, Oliver Schmitz’s Mapantsula, Manie van Rensburg’s The Fourth Reich, Katinka Heyns’s Die Storie van Klara Viljee, and Andrew Worsdale’s Shot Down.

In the new post-apartheid era, the South African film industry is still struggling to find its feet when it comes to the kind of feature films seen on screens around the world. Neal Sundstrom’s Inside Out was a pleasant comedy playing with South African stereotypes, and Gavin Hood’s A Reasonable Man is a serious study of tradition versus modernity that has been seen at festivals around the world.

A new black cinema has shown signs of coming into being: Ntshaveni wa Luruli’s Chikin Biznis launched the genre of township comedy, and Ramadan Suleman translated Njabulo Ndebele’s short story Fools to the big screen.

But the biggest recent commercial success has been Leon Schuster’s excremental comedy Mr Bones, which is now among SA’s top-grossing films in this market, and is making some headway in markets abroad. It seems to be reaching the “lowest common denominator”, if nothing else.

Signs of a rapidly maturing industry
Yet the industry is rapidly growing toward maturity. Infrastructure is expanding all the time, and our industry is networking itself all over the world.

Cape Town is the host of Sithengi, the annual Southern African International Film and Television Market, now in its seventh year. Taking place every September, it is attended by some 1 000 delegates from this country and all over the world.

About the same number attended the International Public Television Conference, in the same city, this year – the first time the event has taken place outside Europe or the US.

A new international festival is also on the cards for Gauteng, when the Jozi Summit Film Festival takes place alongside the World Summit on Sustainable Development in August 2002. There will be workshops and training sessions, with the participation of leading industry players, as well as a host of screenings (more than 600 showings of some 100 movies) at venues ranging from commercial cinemas in shopping centres to township locations.

Ongoing festivals such as the Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival have a long history, and many foreign countries have annual festivals in South Africa showcasing the best of their national product to an appreciative audience.

The audience is there, certainly, as are the technical skills and the lauded locations. As far as the growth of a homegrown movie industry is concerned, more development needs to take place in the realm of scriptwriting and directorial skills, but workshops such as Scrawl, as well as programmes at universities and other educational institutions, are filling the gaps.

The potential is huge, as filmmakers have realised. Investment in basic infrastructure is growing fast: the large Sasani Studio has sprung up at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, while the same city’s Longkloof Studios are being upgraded to the tune of R20-million. German equipment-rental company CineLicht has established a subsidiary in Cape Town, and British lighting company AFM now has a base in Johannesburg.

And movies are being made. Cape Town, once again, stars in several: The Piano Player, featuring Christopher Lambert and Dennis Hopper, recently finished shooting there, as did Manhunt, with SA-born Mummy star Arnold Vosloo; Borderline, starting Sean Patrick Flannery, is in production.

Co-productions based on South African subject matter, with international backing, to be shot somewhere in South Africa, are in the works: pre-production work is well advanced on producer Anant Singh’s version of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and JM Coetzee’s controversial and acclaimed Booker Prize-winning novel, Disgrace, is now casting, to be directed by British director Charles Sturridge.

Movies based on the story of Amy Biehl, the young American slain in a Cape township, and that of the “Bang Bang Club” of Eighties news photographers, are in development. Not to mention the slate of German TV movies and the Scandinavian reality TV show The Fear Factor.

World-class commercials
But the biggest, fastest, most lucrative part of the film industry in this country, the part that really gets international filmmakers enthusiastic, is the commercials industry. Over the past few years the number of foreign commercials being shot in South Africa, particularly Cape Town, has just grown and grown.

French, German, British, American, Israeli, Belgian, Italian, Scandinavian and even Turkish commercials have been shot in Cape Town, all contributing to the estimated R2-billion total worth of the industry in this country.

Cape Town has the looks, and she’s definitely our cover girl, but Gauteng also has considerable resources at its disposal, and accounts for a very substantial portion of local film industry revenue. Cape Town may have the locations, but Gauteng has the sophisticated studios and the editing suites.

Between these two centres, and with the whole of a diversely beautiful country waiting for its close-up, it’s hard not to believe that filmmaking in South Africa can only continue to burgeon. We are becoming ever more a part of the international film, television and commercials industry, and soon we’ll be making masterpieces of our own.

Shaun de Waal, twice-winner of the Pringle Award for best movie critic in South Africa and former arts and books editor of the Mail & Guardian, is the author of several books and a graphic novel.

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