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Sci-fi energizes South African films

After 'District 9,' genre remains much in demand worldwide

CAPE TOWN — With the success of 2009’s “District 9” still fresh in their minds, producers are cherry-picking South African sci-fi properties, making it one of hottest genres this side of Swedish crime fiction. Two high-profile book adaptations and a host of other science fiction and fantasy fiction features are in development on the continent.

South African producer Helena Spring (“Yesterday”) has just bought the film rights to “Zoo City,” Lauren Beukes’ 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award winner,. a gritty urban noir fantasy about a woman who carries a sloth on her back, writes email scam letters, and has an ability to find lost things. When she’s hired by a reclusive music producer to track down a missing pop star, she hopes it’s her ticket out of the slum she calls home.

American producer Kisha Cameron-Dingle, director of the Focus Features Africa First Short Film Program who also has a first-look deal with the studio, has scooped up the rights to Nigerian author Nneki Okorafor’s 2011 World Fantasy Award winner “Who Fears Death?,” a coming-of-age fantasy story, set in a rural Africa far in the future, where a female sorcerer reshapes the dystopian desert landscape — Cameron-Dingle described it as “?’Lord of the Rings’ in Africa.”

Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu (“From a Whisper,” “Pumzi”) is slated to write and direct Who Fears Death?” while Beukes, an experienced TV writer, has first look to adapt the “Zoo City” screenplay.

Cameron-Dingle and South African producer David Horler are also developing “Tok Tokkie,” a futuristic Cape Town ghost thriller written by Jenna Bass, a graduate of both Africa First and Story Camp, Focus Features’ invitation-only laboratory and workshop for projects under $1 million. “Tok Tokkie” won the 2010 Durban FilmMart, taking home the Hubert Bals Fund Award of €5,000 ($6,700) for the most promising African project.

Told from the POV of a ghost, “Tok Tokkie” is the furthest along of the three projects: it has local production funding from the National Film and Video Foundation, and is looking for additional money to shoot in 2012, with Bass directing.

A number of other South African genre projects are also under way. The first to shoot is likely to be Etienne Fourie’s “The Windmill,” a love story about a small group of aging friends who discover that the water pumped into a pond by an old windmill restores youth, but only temporarily, and with unexpected consequences. ZenHQ Films produces.

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