South Africa’s film fever

2012-08-03 15:46

A big batch of local feature films premiered in Durban last week. CHARL BLIGNAUT looks at what they say about the industry South Africa’s film fever

When I told a foreign buyer at the Durban International Film Festival that I was there to take the temperature of local movies she laughed and said: “From what I’ve seen, you guys are running a fever.” Many of the films she liked were too violent to show overseas, she said.

It’s true that the art of falling apart was on display in Durban last week. Many new features are dark, even when they’re light.

There’s violence, corruption, psychological trauma and sexual abuse in our national story. No surprises there.

But I discovered that one should probably ignore the talk of finding “a South African film language”.

The only thing our filmmakers have in common is they’re up against challenging budgets.

It was, in fact, a hugely cheerful family film that lifted the best local feature award in the end.

Adventures in Zambezia, by Triggerfish Animation Studios in Cape Town, took seven years to develop and cost “less than $20 million”.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see it nominated for an Oscar next year.

The American films it competes with took longer than that and had a budget up to 10 times greater.

Just because it will be a hit doesn’t mean it wasn’t a risk. Only once the producers had completed the 3D film with local voices could they get buy-in from celebrity voice artists like Samuel L Jackson and Leonard Nimoy.

It means the songs may all be African, but the key voices are American – the price of international success.

Triggerfish is already finishing off their next one, Khumba, about an outcast zebra who must earn his stripes.

Cape Town attracts big bucks from foreign shoots. Hence local skills that can make a Zambezia.

Audiences for home-grown films are growing, but our box office tradition – paved by Afrikaans films – is that a hit on the local circuit can pay its own way if you keep the budget under R10 million, keep it commercial and keep it within established genres.

That’s a risk a new comedy like Blitz Patrollie is taking. Impressively handled by debut director Andrew Wessels, written by Kagiso Lediga and starring Joey Rasdien and David Kau, this buddy cop flick takes several low shots but plays into a unique local idiom.

It’s big and well-crafted but too busy, bursting with plot and comedians but sometimes forgetting its centre.

Playing it safer and cheaper, but also delivering plenty of laughs is Copposites with Rob van Vuuren.

It won’t go cult, but it should make some money.

Comedy stars are driving several new films – and lord knows we could use a star system around here to boost audience numbers.

On entirely the other end of the budget spectrum is Gog’ Helen, a shoot-em-up granny-and-prostitute comedy with Lillian Dube.

I found its violence unfunny at best, but KwaMashu audiences apparently went wild for it.

If Gog’ Helen can find a distribution system, it will make more money than the more expensive comedies.

It was rumoured to have been made on under R1 million, with a deferred payment scheme (everyone who worked on it will see decent wages once it starts showing returns).

It sets a tone needed in the industry.

It ignored government funding channels, was shot in 10 days and presents up-to-the-minute issues.

More of these and the industry will be ticking over.

Not that government should be sneezed at.

There is clearly the political will to grow the industry.

The Department of Trade and Industry’s rebate system (30% of your budget back on completion) is the oil in the machine that produced a record 16 new local features in Durban this year.

Newly created international co-production treaties will reap benefits. Fynbos, developed by a Greek-SA team, was one of the treasures in Durban this year.

The National Film and Video Foundation is transforming into a community player crucial to paying for scripts and development.

Provincial agencies are also helping and the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission was launched last week.

Elelwani and Uhlanga (The Mark) were an important development in terms of a national film agenda.

Both take tradition and weave a modern story from it.

Both play into indigenous beliefs and language to develop an African narrative.

Local production is up and all these factors are counting, along with the rise of Mzansi Magic and’s made-for-TV films.

The fall of the SABC and the emergence of strong film schools have also driven new talent into film.

International development funds continue to boost output. Rolie Nikiwe’s Inside Story is development-funded, yet is not at all issue heavy.

It’s a compelling HIV-education film disguised as a soccer drama with great graphics.

Accession, on the other hand, is a gruelling and original shocker by Michael J Rix that addresses HIV by exploring one man’s sexual activities.

Judging by the walk-outs, it’s dead in the water at home and will head for the international festival circuit.

It has the least to lose, having the lowest budget of the new SA films.

It proves clever ideas can drive home issues more powerfully than a polished work that discusses the issues rather than showing them.

Man on Ground, directed by Akin Omotoso with some stellar performances, is a thriller that relies more heavily on dialogue and art direction than on engaging the common man’s experience.

Barry Berk’s bleak and beautiful Sleeper’s Wake is not dissimilar.

It is so well made that I sometimes felt the shots were more important than the characters.

We are starting to make more accomplished, complete films.

But only time will tell if bigger budgets equal better cinematic ideas.

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