The myths – and maths – of local film

2012-08-17 13:17

SA film: Celebrated director of Cannes-winning Skoonheid, Oliver Hermanus, shares his thoughts on the boom in the number of local films that premiered at the Durban International Film Festival this year. We have a crisis with our directors, he says.

I recently got to spend time, as one does each year, with our local film industry and its movers and shakers. We all descended on the Durban beachfront, iPhones and Blackberrys in hand, to christen the 33rd Durban International Film Festival. I was invited to be on the feature film jury.

I quietly got to see more films in nine days than I’ve seen in a long time and did not have to tell anyone save my three co-jurors what I thought.

Since the previous year’s pilgrimage to Durban, the industry has made 66 feature films, our highest annual output ever. This is indeed something to be proud of – until one realises that we have made 66 potentially brainless films.

In all honesty, three strong films a year are always better than 60 weak ones.

The films I saw in Durban prove that our crews, technical and creative, have come of age and that a product made at under the R3 million mark can still look and sound pretty good.

They also demonstrated a range of new acting talent, instead of the demonstration of theatre-acting tendencies that used to emerge in the wake of feeble directing.

The talk at the all the Durban parties was of the mathematics of the new SA film audience. We can now pretty much all agree that if you are spending R5 million or more on your film it just won’t make a return at the local box office unless your name is Leon Schuster.

Everything over R5 million is drunk driving at best. Semi-Soet, made for just under that and officially in the hall of fame of higher-grossing local films with a R9.2 million box office run, is only due to hit paydirt when it goes on DVD sale.

If that’s what the best looks like, let’s not consider the woes of the worst.

The Afrikaans market ie Tannie and Oom Almal who have given rise to the “Afrikaans New Wave” can only take so much wine, and let’s not forget that even if every single self-proclaimed Afrikaner in the land went to see the latest, made-for-nostalgia-Semi-Soet-blend movie we are still only taking about 4.5 million people out of a possible 50 million.

Something’s gotta give.

We may be making more films, but they are burdened with the pressure of having to be hits – at a price tag that will render them poor and half-baked if they show too much creative imagination.

Does more films minus more money still mean we are growing? Could this “growth spurt” in South African film simply be a bubble that will burst once those film enthusiasts who are investing in films discover that the audience is still fairly unchanged and continually unaware of most of the products we make?

I would say that R5 million is more than enough cash to give to a director for their first outing. This is a business built on doing more for less, and film directing is all about innovation and creative problem-solving.

But here, perhaps, is our major festering wound: directors.

Just because someone says that they want to be a filmmaker does not mean that they should be one – just like saying you want to be a rocket scientist doesn’t mean you are one. The major deduction I could make from the local films I saw in Durban (and this is bound to get me into trouble) was we don’t have great directors … yet.

All the films sounded great, looked great, they were all in focus, the production designer got the colours right, the costumers’ interpretation of character was pitch perfect, but the direction was horrid. Finally, our apparently prolific film industry is subtweeting a major reality: We are not training strong filmmakers.

Our crews have been cutting their teeth on big service work (thanks Hollywood) and are now willing and able to skip that dull Tinseltown gig, take a pay cut and do a “local is lekker” film. Our directors, in a country of first-time filmmakers, are coming up short.

The National Film and Video Foundation, set up by government, were essentially mandated with finding new filmmakers, but after more than a decade their talent-scouting efforts have been poor to say the least.

What does a potentially strong filmmaker look like? Most South African film producers have no idea, although they pretend to, so why would the band of failed filmmakers that took up desks at the National Film and Video Foundation be any better at spotting them?

I don’t have the answers.

I was that kid who wanted to be a filmmaker ever since my dad took me to see The Bear.

I then spent the next 10 years of my life hustling to get a foot in the door. I quickly realised that if I wanted to make a good film I would have to dedicate my whole life to working at it.

I got my major lucky break when Hollywood film director Roland Emmerich took me under his wing and swiftly sent me off to film school in England. In my summers I worked in his office, making him coffee and doing pretty much anything to be near him and watch him work.

He quickly made me aware of a simple and unmovable fact: you can only hope to be a good filmmaker if you learn from those who have come before you.

At film school I spent all my time catching up. I realised at the age of 23 that I had seen nothing of great cinema. Suddenly I was faced with Ford, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Bergman, Kubrick, Fellini, Truffaut, Pasolini, Lang, Wilder.

Yes, I may have heard their names and seen one or two of their films, but I had not consumed them.

I had not studied them and forced myself, at first, to sit through all of their work until I found myself enjoying them, seeing them for what they are: works of art that have met an audience and generated commerce.

We talk about making more films each year but our filmmakers are still braindead. No great novelist doesn’t read, no great painter doesn’t go to an art gallery. We think we are learning because we go to the movies, but we live in a country that only gets the biggest, baddest and silliest films shown in our multiplexes.

Our aspiring filmmakers are being force-fed derivative DIY filmmaking methodology in workshops and at overpriced private film schools run on a simple maths equation: Young people want to make films, so let’s charge them a ton to learn the very little that we know.

Directing students begin to see how their friends in cinematography and acting class are learning worthy skills, while they try to decipher what exactly a director’s “skill” is. No one in the room knows.

How can we expect a generation of frustrated-never-were filmmakers to find, grow and nurture new voices in cinema?

It is, I am afraid, a case of the blind leading the blind. Until we, as the South African film business, realise that filmmaking is a language and only when one truly masters the language can you hope to speak and communicate in it, we will be making more and more films that say absolutely nothing.

Forget making loads of cash and being a thriving film business. You must remember that a great film, whether great in social resonance, commercial success or artistic excellence, requires a storyteller. The loud, clear voice that is communicating with that collective subconscious in a darkened theatre.

I think that Stephen Frears put it best when he came and spoke at my school one day and had to answer that eternal question: What does a film director do?

He cleared his throat and simply said that the job of a film director is to think. When you are on a film set everyone else has something to do, all you have to do is think. 

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