Twenty years ago, an official delegation of South African filmmakers arrived in Cannes for the first time, showcasing the dynamic voices emerging from their young democracy just three years after the historic election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president.
Since then, South Africa has used its robust locations industry to become a global player while successfully branding itself as the gateway to the continent. This year, the country will try to build on that success by highlighting a dynamic range of cinematic voices in its pavilion at the Cannes Film Market.
“The South African showcase is a display of our country’s offering to the world and is evidence of the potential we have as a country to be valuable contributors to the international film industry,” says Zama Mkosi, CEO of the National Film & Video Foundation (NFVF).
It’s a promising mix of old and new for the South African delegation this year, as emerging talents share the spotlight with renowned veterans to showcase what Mkosi calls “the diversity in our storytelling.”
Acclaimed helmer Khalo Matabane (“Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me”) returns to the big screen with “The Number,” a hard-hitting look at the origins of the ruthless gangs operating in the South African prison system, based on the award-winning book by journalist Jonny Steinberg.
Oscar nominee Darrell Roodt (“Yesterday,” “Sarafina!”) and renowned playwright Mbongeni Ngema have paired up to direct the big screen adaptation of “Asinamali!,” the iconic anti-apartheid musical written by Ngema.
Director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, whose powerful 2013 effort “Of Good Report” was banned by South Africa’s censorship board ahead of its world premiere, will unveil his latest feature, “Sew the Winter to My Skin.”
Producer-director Lineo Sekeleoane arrives in Cannes with “Zulu Wedding,” the latest in a growing trend of South African romantic comedies, which features U.S. actor Darrin Dewitt Henson as the romantic lead.
And newcomer Gersh Kgamedi will unveil “She Is King,” a feel-good musical about a talented singer from the Zulu heartlands hoping to make it big in Johannesburg.
For a country unaccustomed to B.O. success in the global market, the genre-spanning selection has fueled hopes that South African filmmakers can find their commercial mark with foreign auds.
Such optimism has been buoyed by the recent success of breakout hits like “Vir Altyd” and “Happiness Is a Four-Letter Word,” rom-coms that topped the local box office in 2016, with another, “Keeping Up With the Kandasamys,” cracking the $1 million barrier this year.
With the total B.O. crossing the billion-rand (around $73.4 million) threshold for two years running, local bizzers are hoping they’ve finally found a formula for box office success. Yet even Sekeleoane, of “Zulu Wedding,” points to the uncertainty of whether that success can “translate to an international audience.”
For “She Is King” producer Nicola Rauch, the musical’s catchy beats offer what she describes as “a vehicle to entice [foreign] audiences,” adding, “the music is a language that everyone can understand.”
She also notes that the growing number of South African crowd-pleasers are a sign that local filmmakers are pushing back against the lingering perception that they’re best at producing sober apartheid dramas for festival crowds.
“We’re not taking [“She Is King”] to festivals,” she says, “we’re taking it to markets.”
The potential benefits for the local industry in Cannes loom large. For Sekeleoane, the market offers a chance to lure prospective co-prod partners and showcase South Africa’s diverse locations, such as the rugged backdrop of KwaZulu-Natal used in “Zulu Wedding.”
More importantly, she hopes the international spotlight will help audiences discover a new side of her country. “The film is an opportunity for people to get to know us in a different way,” she says.