Making sense of chaos

2007-11-15 00:00

When Keyan Tomaselli, Senior Professor in Culture, Communication and Media Studies in the Faculty of Humanities, Development and Social Sciences at the Howard College campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, speaks and writes about South African cinema he wears two hats - under one he is a respected academic, under the other someone who has got his hands grubby actually working in the film industry.

His latest book Encountering Modernity - Twentieth Century South African Cinemas is in some respects a follow-up to his earlier The Cinema of Apartheid which looked at the “politics and economics of the industry during apartheid. It was concerned with the contradictions we were all having to negotiate at that time in a film industry trying to grow during apartheid”.

“Cinema of Apartheid didn't deal specifically with single film texts that emerged out of that time,” says Tomaselli, something that some literary scholars were critical of, preferring to see films as discrete entities. But anyone with any direct experience of working in the film industry will know that trying to make sense of it is like trying to make sense out of chaos.

“Making sense of chaos was precisely my point,” says Tomaselli. “Others were looking for clear coherent logical texts. True, they exist, but they also arise out of this chaos that effects everything.

“This latest book analyses the complexity of the local situation - it's a rearview reflection on the 20th century as a whole, via the perspective of individual texts.”The South African film industry has advanced considerably since the end of apartheid both as an industry and in its aesthetics. “The freedom of the transition to democracy has provided an opportunity for South African film makers to tell new, post-apartheid stories,” says Tomaselli.

Most of these films have centred on the retelling of history, the themes of Aids, forgiveness and reconciliation. Subject matter is no longer dictated. It was not always so. In one of his chapters Tomaselli examines films of the eighties that “engaged apartheid” - even if indirectly - such as My Country My Hat (1981), A Place of Weeping (1986), Jock of the Bushveld (1986), Saturday Night at the Palance (1987) Mapantsula (1988) and Shot Down (1990).

“In these films, characters are caught up in political structures they are rarely able to identify or contest directly,” says Tomaselli.

Tomaselli's explanation of how A Place of Weeping - not a particularly good film - became an important one in terms of South African cinema is something of a revelation. Produced by Anant Singh and directed by Darrell Roodt the film deals with a true incident where a white Afrikaans-speaking farmer beats a farm labourer to death after he complains about poor wages and steals a chicken to feed his family. The case goes unreported and justice is not even seen to be done. At the end of the film “four black guerillas” - their political allegiance is never mentioned - kill the farmer.

“That this ending was not banned or cut by the directorate of publications is indicative of the constantly shifting contradictions that beset apartheid during the eighties,” says Tomaselli, “something that Singh cleverly manipulated to his advantage.”

Singh's entry into the South African film industry changed the nature of the industry, says Tomaselli.

“There was no mucking about with ageing South African film directors, formulaic scriptwriters, conservative Afrikaner investment capital or the local offices of distributor-exhibitors. He did not appeal to traditional funding sources, such as capital that normally invested in South African cinema, or banks, which like to keep their images squeaky clean politically.

“He raised part of the budget from what the government called his ‘own' [Indian] community.”

And Singh, unlike his ultra cautious white compatriots, “was not uneasy in identifying suffering under apartheid as a saleable commodity - either to South African or American audiences”.

Cannily, Singh went directly to an American distributor, New World Films, bypassing the South African branch offices of the American majors and Ster-Kinekor. “By going to the American head office, Singh was able to bring pressure to bear on the local office to ensure more than a token South African distribution.”

Singh's strategy was applauded by the press and reviews of A Place of Weeping were kind. “Perhaps too kind,” notes Tomaselli. “The film received a remarkable amount of positive coverage, particularly in the anti-apartheid English newspapers.”

The years following 1986 and the successful release of A Place of Weeping saw the sustained development of a domestic anti-apartheid cinema financed by capital looking for tax breaks and international markets. Multiracial teams made films such as Mapantsula (1988), Fools (1997) and Chikin Biznis (1998).

“Productions like these for the first time gave South Africa a sustained and sophisticated examination of the full spectrum of South African history and everyday life.”

• Encountering Modernity - Twentieth Century South African Cinemas by Keyan G. Tomaselli is published by Rozenberg-Unisa press.

• Tomaselli also has an essay in Marginal Lives & Painful Pasts - South African Cinema After Apartheid compiled by Martin Botha and published by Genugtig

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