Out of South Africa

Surging film biz is no longer a world apartheid

JOHANNESBURG – The lights are on, the cameras are in place and South Africa’s film industry is ready for action.

Dramatic developments in recent months have revitalized the industry and given filmmakers hope that at last the country can emerge as a cinematic force not only on the continent, but also internationally.

The good news includes:

* the announcement of the imminent establishment of a Film and Video Foundation, which will be partly government-funded but entirely independent;

* the allocation by the government of 10 million rand ($2.2 million) in the current financial year for film development;

* a change by broadcaster SABC in its policy on commissioning films, which in the past favored white Afrikaners;

* the imminent signing by South Africa of separate film co-production treaties with France, Canada, India and Australia;

* the establishment of a non-racial professional body to oversee the industry;

* a sharp decrease in the value of the rand, giving foreign production companies more incentive to choose South Africa, with its varied and largely unfilmed locations;

* and the launch of an independent free-to-air television channel that will be entertainment-driven.

South Africa turned out 944 feature films, 998 documentaries and 1,002 television productions between 1979 and 1991, but few of these productions are known outside the country.

Afrikaners dominated

During that period, the former apartheid government had introduced tax breaks that favored, and were ruthlessly exploited by, some white Afrikaner filmmakers to make cheap and crass product.

Left-leaning white independents were overlooked by the SABC when it came to handing out commissions. Blacks, meanwhile, didn’t even get a chance, ensuring that an entire generation of potential filmmakers was excluded from the process.

Ramadan Suleman, for one, left Johannesburg for London’s Intl. Film School 10 years ago because he realized he had no future in his own country.

He returned this year to make his first movie on African soil; “Fools” is a $1.2 million project shot with money from film funding bodies of the European Community, France, the SABC and South African pay TV station M-Net.

While he was pleased to have finally worked at home, he left the country disappointed that changes were slow in coming.

Change comes slowly

“It could have been better,” Suleman says. “South African technicians tend to work the American way. They only want to work for money. The passion is missing. It is difficult to work with people who don’t dream with you. I didn’t feel any passion from them.”

Suleman, 40, says he believes it is important for South Africans to tell their stories, but that the white stranglehold of the industry meant this was not being done.

“Whites have had all the opportunities but they have wasted them,” he says. “They could have done so much more.”

Carl Fischer, one of the country’s leading producers, who headed the now-defunct professional body the SA Film and Television Institute, takes Suleman’s point but says changes were never going to happen overnight.

“Forty years of social engineering (apartheid) cannot be undone in just two years,” he says. “But we have made a start,” he adds. “I believe we will soon see quality indigenous product emerging.”

Mandela credited

Fischer believes President Nelson Mandela’s government, which has been instrumental in setting up the film and video foundation, is making all the difference.

Deputy arts and culture minister Brigitte Mabandla summed up the new thinking:

“Historically,” she said at the inaugural Southern African Intl. Film and Television Market in Cape Town, which bowed Nov. 13, “the independent film industry has been treated rather shabbily. Apartheid policies of racial inequality shaped the South African film industry.”

National consciousness

Now, according to Mabandla, the state aims to create a strong and dynamic indigenous film industry. “Film has a vital role in forging of national consciousness as well as in the process of democratization.”

A new thinking is also abroad at the SABC, which, according to CEO Zwelakhe Sisulu, has committed itself to boosting the local film industry.

“The local content programming is the future of the SABC,” he said at the film fair. “We are committed to improving local content on the SABC … and we are looking for co-productions for ourselves and for others.”

The film foundation, to be based on the Australian and Canadian models, will, Fischer believes, set South Africa on an entirely new path.

Already the country’s industry has started to change shape with the arrival on the scene of Anant Singh, an Indian filmmaker who under apartheid was stifled but who is now beginning to blossom, with movies like “Sarafina” and “Cry, the Beloved Country” to his credit.

Another sign of the new times is the formation during the Cape Town film and TV fair of the Independent Producers Organization (IPO), a professional body representative of all sectors of the industry and also of the racial makeup of society at large.

Fischer believes the emergence of the IPO alone is cause for optimism. “Our expectations are great,” he says.

Co-production an issue

Lack of cash, however, will continue to hamper the industry and some producers, like Philo Pieterse – whose company has produced 18 international films in the past 30 months – believes co-productions are the answer.

Other filmmakers are not so sure of the co-production route, saying it leaves the creative energy in foreign hands and, as a result, South Africa lacking in visionary directors.

Co-productions, however, have certainly given South Africans crews good experience and have earned them high reputations.

Currently there are four feature films and four TV series in development; two feature films in pre-production; four TV series -including U.S.-backed “Sinbad” and “Tarzan,” in production; and five feature films and three TV series in post-production.

With democracy firmly taking root in South Africa, the days of the anti-apartheid movie are over and serious filmmakers are turning their attention to creative but non-political projects.

With the locations, stories, expertise and a little cash around, the race is on to produce the Great South African Film.

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