From black and white to full colour

2012-03-20 00:00

THE South African film industry is one of the oldest in the world. The first films were projected in May 1896 at the Empire­ Palace of Varieties in Johannesburg managed by Edgar Hyman who, from 1896 to 1899, shot several short non-fiction films, frequently images of Johannesburg shot from the front of a tram, with titles such as A Rickshaw Ride in Commissioner Street and The Cyanide Plant on the Crown Deep. He also filmed Paul Kruger leaving his home and would go on to shoot footage during the Anglo Boer War.

The first permanent cinema was built in 1909 in Durban where, in the same year, another was opened for “non-white” audiences. A racial fracture that extended throughout the 20th century and provides an inevitable context for any history of South African film.

Martin Botha’s South African Cinema 1896-2010 is the first since Thelma Gut sche’s pioneering 1972 study The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa: 1895-1940 to attempt an overview of South African cinema. It’s a huge subject and Botha admits to a particular bias. “The book is slanted toward film-makers who were more liberal and progressive,” says Botha, who is associate professor in the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town. “I’ve tried to engage with the more innovative forms within genre and give space to new voices.”

As well as tracking the feature film industry through the years, Botha also examines documentary films, the boom in short films, attempts to create a national film commission and the various trends and themes explored in post-apartheid cinema, but there is no escaping the predominance of Afrikaans films over the century and more of film-making in South Africa. “Afrikaans dominated thanks to the subsidy scheme introduced in 1956,” says Botha. “This was done to promote the Afrikaans language and the subsidy was initially higher for Afrikaans­ films than English.”

According to one estimate, between 1935 and 2008 as many as 275 Afrikaans-language films were made, the majority shot in the sixties and seventies thanks to the subsidy scheme. “The subsidy system only rewarded box office successes,” says Botha. “Only when a film had earned a specific amount of money at the box office did it qualify­ for subsidy, which paid back a percentage of the costs.

“The white Afrikaans audience for this local­ cinema was relatively large and very stable, guaranteeing nearly every Afrikaans-language film a long enough run to break even as long as it provided light entertainment, basically escapism, and dealt with Afrikaner reality and beliefs in an idealist way ... characterised by an attachment to the past, to ideals of linguistic and racial purity and to religious and moral norms.”

Occasional talents blossomed within this framework and Botha singles out Pierre de Wet and Jamie Uys, but his real focus are the creative pioneers such as Jans Rautenbach, Ross Devenish and Manie van Rensburg. Rautenbach “made ground-breaking films [Die Kandidaat, Katrina, Jannie Totsiens] during a time when South African cinema hardly reflected the sociopolitical realities of the country,” says Botha.

Devenish made three internationally well-received films, Boesman and Lena, The Guest and Marigolds in August — all scripted by Athol Fugard, the first based on his acclaimed stage play. Devenish was born in Polokwane (then Pietersburg) in 1939. He studied film in London and went on to shoot documentaries in war zones, including the Congo and Vietnam. He made two award-winning documentaries Now that the Buffalo­’s Gone and Goal!, on the 1966 Football­ World Cup.

Finding it near impossible to fund his work in South Africa, Devenish went into self-imposed exile and worked for British television. He returned to South Africa in 2002 but, says Botha, found himself once again “faced by a funding climate, which thus far has not been supportive of his film projects”. His screenplay adaptation of Zakes­ Mda’s novel Ways of Dying has been rejected twice by the National Film and Video­ Foundation because it deviates from the received wisdom that films must have a three-act structure. He also had his directing credit removed from a screen adaptation of John Kani’s play Nothing But the Truth because of interference.

When a Film and Allied Worker’s Organisation representative telephoned Van Rensburg and asked him why he had not submitted his script on Taxi to Soweto for approval his answer was unprintable according to Botha. “He did not need anyone’s seal of approval, from the right or the left. He was too honest to take an approved political point of view and too independent to leave artistic and political judgment to others.”

Van Rensburg’s films and television series cut against the grain of the conventional, comforting portrayal of Afrikaners to explore issues of Afrikaner nationalism. “Die Square caused a stir by depicting Afrikaners as hypocrites. Verspeelde Lente upset Afrikanerdom with its images of poor, lower class Afrikaners,” says Botha. “Later, examinations of racism and anti-Semitism became important themes in his work, such as The Native Who Caused All the Trouble, Heroes and especially The Fourth Reich [which] examined the destruction caused by power, racism and anti-Semitism.

“If his work has a common theme, it is the conflict between the outsider and communal acceptance, an aspect he experienced in real life. His trip to Dakar during the repressive days of State President P. W. Botha got wide, somewhat hysterical publicity in Afrikaans newspapers and meant an effective end to his career in the local mainstream film industry and unofficial blacklisting by the SABC.”

Van Rensburg committed suicide in 1993 aged 48. A retrospective of his work was held in 1996. Sadly, it was in Belgium, not South Africa.


Cinemas were desegregated in 1985. But although audiences might be mixed where were the black voices in South African cinema­?

In the seventies attempts were made to cultivate a cinema “dealing with black themes and geared for black audiences, but with dismal results”. These were made under a new government subsidy system that enable white film-makers, often of dubious competence, to produce low-budget films in indigenous languages.

“The result was a large number of shoddy films in ethnic languages that were screened in churches, schools and community and beer halls,” says Botha. Over 200 of these films were made which, in accordance with apartheid dictates, showed urbanisation as “uniformly negative and homeland life as more fitting”.

Films by black film-makers such a Gibson Kente’s How Long and Nana Mahomo’s documentary­ Last Grave at Dimbaza were immediately banned. Kente and Mahomo along with Simon Sabela, also a popular actor, were among the few black film directors active during the seventies. Sabela directed uDeliwe, Inkedama, Isivuemelwano and Ngaka.

The past decade has seen the emergence of black film-makers such as Zola Maseko (The Life and Times of Sara Baartman), Ntshavheni­ (Chikin Biz’nis — The Whole Story), Akin Omotoso (God is African), Teboho­ Mahlatsi (Portrait of a Young Man Drowning), Dumisani Phakati (Christmas with Granny) and Norman Maake (Home Sweet Home).

These are the talents that will shape the future of South African cinema according to Botha, but if there was a pivotal moment when South African cinema began to change it was the years 1986 and 1987. “Only­ then did several feature films begin to examine critically the South African milieu­ as well as apartheid and colonial history­,” says Botha who devotes a chapter to “the oppositional film-making in the eighties”, a decade that saw the the early films of Darrell Roodt, A Place of Weeping, The Stick, Jobman, Andrew Worsdale’s Shotdown and Oliver Schmitz’s ground-breaking international hit, Mapantsula.

Post-2000 South African films have gained a wider international profile, Katinka­ Heyns’s Paljas and Roodt’s Yesterday were both nominated for Oscars with Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi finally bringing one home. But such films remain relatively few and far between, and the South African film industry, as Botha points out, remains a fragile one, especially in the face of globalisation.

What Botha’s book makes clear is that a handful of tenacious talents, past and present, took that fragility as a challenge.

“I’ve tried to look at films made against all odds, including political and funding restraints,” he says. “But at the same time I didn’t want to promote elitist notion of film in the book.” So, just in case you were wondering, Leon Schuster does get a mention.

• South African Cinema 1896-2010 by Martin Botha is published by Intellect.

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