Hollywood Hears Africa’s call

Improved conditions, gripping tales fuel moviemaking boom

Film buffs may mark 2006 as the year the cinema world truly embraced Africa.

While lensing in the continent is nothing new for Hollywood studios — think 1985 Oscar-winner “Out of Africa” — the difference this time is that helmers are tackling a number of specifically African stories. “The Last King of Scotland,” “Catch a Fire,” “Blood Diamond” and “Babel,” all generating Oscar buzz, were filmed on location around the continent.

Conditions for filming in Africa have been improving, facilitating the growing project load. Thanks to a well-established infrastructure, South Africa offers shingles tax breaks worth up to $1 million (and boasts of co-production agreements with France, Germany, Italy and Canada). South Africa has long been a favored spot for Hollywood projects, such as 2004’s “Hotel Rwanda” (which shot there as well as Rwanda).

Meanwhile, countries such as Uganda (“Last King”), Mozambique and Sierra Leone (“Blood Diamond”), Namibia (“10,000 B.C.”) and Rwanda (“Shooting Dogs” and “Sometimes in April”) are keen to boost foreign lensing in their countries.

Kenya, for example, offers foreign production companies exemption from the VAT tax and, in some cases, the cost of local hire of equipment, providing they partner with a local production service that has been granted export processing zone (EPZ) status.

Still, the reasons for the seeming surge of interest in Africa are, as with so much in the vast continent, far from straightforward.

” ‘Hotel Rwanda’ was a breakthrough in my opinion,” says Kevin De La Noy, line producer on “Blood Diamond” and a veteran of African shoots. “It put Africa back on the map. It was a strong story, a quality product and made some money. It’s got nothing to do with infrastructure. I was in Zimbabwe in 1996 with ‘Ghosts of Darkness.’ They might have a few more trailers now but basically it’s about the scripts. There’s a lot of interest in African-related subjects.”

While the success of “Hotel Rwanda” does appear to have bolstered confidence both in Africa-set stories and shoots, that’s not a model that all helmers want to follow. The shingle behind “Last King” initially wanted to shoot in South Africa, only for helmer Kevin Macdonald to decide to shoot the Uganda-set pic in Uganda itself, despite the country having no film infrastructure.

“When I first told the financiers and producers I wanted to do it in Uganda, there was shock,” Macdonald says. “There was an assumption that we’d do it in South Africa. It would have been easier, cheaper and we’d probably have got more shooting days for your money, but I thought it would be worth the struggle and logistical problems.

“It turned out to be true. Forest (Whitaker) was able to draw on Ugandan culture every day. He had to pretend to be the leader of that country. It made him raise his game. To do it in South Africa, God knows where he would have gone with his performance. They filmed ‘Hotel Rwanda’ in South Africa, but to me it feels completely false visually. I didn’t want to do that.”

In the end, Macdonald’s team enlisted the support of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, who offered the crew the full use of his army, parliament and ministers.

While the desire for authenticity is one of the main motives for shooting in Africa, cost and expediency also play their role, particularly in South Africa.

“The location fees and cost of extras are relatively inexpensive compared to other places,” says “Catch a Fire” helmer Phillip Noyce. “The overwhelming majority of the cast and crew were South African, and you get something which money just can’t buy, which is enthusiasm and passion.

“Also, we could get permissions for locations that would have been no-go zones in most countries. This is the story of a black South African who attempts to sabotage the major oil refinery providing gasoline for the apartheid regime. We asked the refinery for permission to film on the actual location, and they said yes. If you did that in the U.S., you could expect a visit from Homeland Security.”

While the growing number of film crews dotted around the continent is helping swell local coffers, not everyone is happy about Hollywood’s sudden interest in Africa.

The anti-diamond-industry message of “Blood Diamond” has more than execs at De Beers worried. The president of Botswana, Festus Mogae, recently held a press conference to encourage consumers to keep buying the precious stones. “I want people who buy diamonds to know that they are doing a great deal of good for Africa,” Mogae said. “They are supporting education, health care, clean water and orphans.”

Looking ahead, the future looks bright for lensing across the continent from Morocco to South Africa and increasingly Eastern Africa.

One potentially significant development was the July announcement that the Nigerian Film Corp. was establishing a $40 million film fund to boost production. The Nigerian film industry, dubbed Nollywood on account of the slew of ultra-low-budget DTV pics released for the domestic market, could well become the next major location site for foreign film crews following the extra investment by the government-owned org, designed to help the local industry compete on an international level.

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