The State of Things: Transition in South African Cinema

By Jeremy Nathan

“Life happens in colour, but black and white is more realistic.” – Sam Fuller in Wim WendersState of Things

South African cinema is an enigma: so possible yet so far away. Any indigenous filmmaking, whether it is mainstream or experimental in form, is marginalized. Because it is African, local distributors and broadcasters immediately perceive it as uncommercial and obscure. South African film-makers intent on reflecting their deeply divided society still have to rely on foreign broadcasters and funders to support their dreams.

mapansula-oliver-schmitz.jpgMapantsula, Oliver Schmitz

Since the beginning in 1896, with the first screening of a film to President Paul Kruger, the state has perpetually utilized the film industry for its own purposes, primarily to protect itself and promote its philosophies. This has been the case through successive eras: colonial capitalism, Afrikaner nationalism, the P.W. Botha period with the domination of the Israeli-American group, Cannon Films, and today – the new era of democracy.

This last period has seen the democratization of the broadcast airwaves, the massive restructuring of the media industries, the emergence of black filmmakers and the end of censorship. In 1994, film and television was placed under the Department of Arts and Culture, Science and Technology (DACST). Numerous policy documents were commissioned, the industry at large consulted, and reference made to the experiences of the Australian, French, Canadian, British and New Zealand industries.

In 1996, with the strategy and policy complete, government awarded R10m (1 million pounds) per year to the film industry in its entirety, a supposedly interim measure. In 1998, the National Film and Television Foundation (NFTF) was set up, tasked with representing all industry sectors and implementing government policies.

The stage was finally set for the emergence of a truly democratic and free film industry, one in which all South Africans had a stake, and one in which filmmakers could explore our wonderfully diverse cultures.

However, the cinematic Rainbow Nation has not materialized, and corruption dogs our every footstep. None of the broadcasters (SABC, M-NET and etv) commission feature films and documentaries are rare. The SABC has been plagued with corruption, and lurches through successive regimes, all placing moratoriums on commissioning.

The NFTF is the only source of hope for filmmakers. Of the R30m awarded over the last three years, 60% is not accounted for. Filmmakers have either absconded or not delivered their work. None of the planned tax incentives have materialized. The NFTF has been criticized as being merely a dole system, designed to keep the industry quiet, rather than a body energizing and stimulating a varied range of films. Of the approximately 270 projects supported by the NFTF over the last three years, less than 10% have any broadcaster commitment attached. None have had any distributor commitment.

a-portrait-of-a-young-man-drowning-teboho-mahlatsi.jpgA Portrait of a Young Man Drowning, Teboho Mahlatsi

Independent filmmakers, whether experimental or commercial in their outlook, are in the same boat, paddling upstream against currents of power that do not recognize the value of a diversity of local voices. Hollywood product amounts to 98% of all films exhibited, the balance coming from independent world cinema. Of the over 600 cinemas in South Africa, 90% are mall-based multiplexes. Apartheid has left its mark most effectively in this arena, with no cinemas in townships whatsoever. This problem of accessibility to an audience is probably the most vicious in the cinematic food chain.

What of the plethora of great African cinema which has already been produced, and would theoretically work well in South Africa? SABC 2 does indeed screen seasons of African features, but at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon, up against soccer and sport on all the other channels, and repeatedly gets the lowest Audience Ratings. A few African features have received theatrical distribution in the last few years, but have been box office disasters, generating less than R50 000 (£5 000) each.

The Americanisation of South Africans through the hegemonic domination of Hollywood fare on cinema and television screens has left very little room for indigenous voices, be they commercial or experimental. As a result, urban township and rural youth audiences are more conditioned and receptive towards blockbuster action movies and low budget Hong Kong kickboxer films than to anything else. Numerous mobile video distribution initiatives, both in the townships and rural areas have time and again had similar results – audiences want more action and less art.

The only South African films ever to reach wide audiences (and profitability) are the candid-camera Leon Schuster films, consisting of a series of hidden camera sketches, largely based on racist gags. Any film that challenges this genre is dubbed “art”, whether they use Hollywood mainstream techniques or whether they try to confront traditional western codes of storytelling. No attempt is made either by distributors or broadcasters to nurture a new audience.

The future really lies in harnessing the good will government has towards the industry, and in rooting out the corruption that has crept in. Broadcasters and distributors need to be made aware of the power of the large African audience that exists, and has never been catered for. Television is repeatedly showing that audiences want to see their own stories, albeit currently of low quality. Filmmakers need to fight for space both on cinema and television screens that allow a diverse range of voices. Cinemas must be built, harnessing the best in new technology, in townships, so providing access to a hitherto unreachable audience.

Digital technology is opening the door for all South African filmmakers to realize their films, at whatever low budgets they can muster. The NFVF is providing a small platform, and should be utilized as much as possible. We have to overcome that massive barrier, self-censorship, and free our minds.

We have to do what we can, with what we have, where we are. A luta continua!


Jeremy Nathan is an independent producer, responsible for some of South Africa’s most challenging films.