South African filmmakers are beginning a new chapter as they look ahead to a strong showing at the Cannes Film Festival.
The country has had a growing presence at the fest in recent years, and this edition will be no different, with four market screenings, three co-production forums and a better than hundred-strong delegation expected to showcase the country’s increasing diversity onscreen.
“We’re going to go for a very fresh look,” declares Carla Dias of South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation. “Our image this year is very different from anything you guys have seen before.”
Among the highlights will be “Miners Shot Down,” veteran helmer Rehad Desai’s blistering criticism of the government’s deadly response to striking miners in 2012. The story made headlines worldwide, and Dias says the doc reflects the growing spirit and conviction of South African filmmakers who are “not worried about criticizing our own government.”
“They’re not scared to tell (this story),” she says.
Bizzers are hopeful that a South African voice is finally emerging onscreen. The past year has seen some notable successes, with gritty dramas like Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s “Of Good Report,” Donovan Marsh’s “iNumber Number” and Ian Gabriel’s “Four Corners” (South Africa’s 2013 selection for foreign-language Oscar) gaining traction on the festival circuit, along with veteran helmer Roberta Durrant’s feel-good family pic “Felix!” and the toon pic “Khumba” by Triggerfish Animation Studios.
The greater challenge is figuring out how to grow the industry domestically. Sluggish B.O. returns have plagued the South African biz for years, with audience numbers dwindling, Hollywood pics outperforming local competition by a considerable margin and most of the country’s 40 million-strong black population underserved by plexes.
Just two of the country’s top 10 B.O. earners last year were locally made: comic kingpin Leon Schuster’s “Schuks! Your Country Needs You,” which grossed $2.5 million; and the much-hyped Mandela biopic “Long Walk to Freedom,” which was a critical and commercial letdown, earning just $2.1 million in local theaters.
Government support for the industry is strong, but the private sector has been slow to come to the table. That’s unlikely to change with local films consistently struggling to turn a profit. With fewer than 30 local films being released each year, there’s not a lot of room for failure.
“We don’t have a big industry that can invest in hundreds of scripts before we make two,” says David Wicht of Film Afrika.
Despite the government support, budgets are typically well under $1 million, resulting only in “small South African films,” according to Michael Auret of Spier Films.
Co-productions with more established industries have opened up new avenues for financing, but the strings attached by foreign partners — which often include a foreign director and foreign leads — end up diluting South African product.
“It’s hard for us to tell our own stories in an international way,” he says.
Still, the fact that foreign co-producers are showing interest in South African scripts is a huge step forward for the industry. “More and more we find ourselves co-producing in South Africa, instead of just servicing foreign films,” says Lance Samuels of Out of Africa Entertainment. And even the low-budget pics to come out of the local pipeline, like “Of Good Report” and “Miners Shot Down,” reflect a willingness by South African helmers to look at their young democracy in a new and challenging way.
“Look how far we’ve come and we can still make films like this,’” says Dias of the National Film and Video Foundation. “That for me is freedom.”