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South African Cinema: Hello Bafana

When South Africa made the quantum leap from apartheid to liberation, faced with the task of creating equal opportunities for a population of 40 million (the majority previously disenfranchised), the last moral and socioeconomic imperative was the film and television industry. Yet 20 years later, this sector is one of the fastest growing, and the country has an international reputation as one of the leading film destinations on the planet.

Credit here goes to government support, in the form of relatively rapid, robust and regularly revised incentives schemes established and managed by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which identified important areas for government intervention. Current incentives include:

» The Foreign Film & Television Production Incentive, which offers a 20% rebate on minimum (qualifying spend) of $1.2 million and 20% uncapped on spend after that, and if spend is post-production, the rebate can go up to 25%.

» The South African Film and Television Production and Co-production Incentive, which aims to assist local film producers in the production of local content, offers a 35% rebate up to first $600,000 of qualifying expenditure, and 25% uncapped thereafter.

Nelly Molokoane, DTI’s director of incentive administration, says, “These financial incentives are part of the South African government’s drive to enable the industry to compete aggressively in the global marketplace.”

According to government agency the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), “The biggest labor intensive expenditure is in the production of films, and that trend will continue. There is potential for growth in post-production and distribution in terms of players as well as revenue.”

Another source of funding comes via official co-production treaties — signed and administered by the NFVF — with the U.K., Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and, most recently, Ireland. Since signing its first treaty in 1997 (with Canada), more than 87 co-production projects have been produced in this scheme.

Contributing significantly to foreign spend are local service companies such as Moonlighting Films, Film Afrika Worldwide, Kalahari Pictures and Out of Africa — which have facilitated productions for major studios and nets. Recent production activity has included “Safe House,” “The Girl,” “The Familymoon,” “Strike Back” and “The Good Lie.”

Currently filming is Emmett/Furla’s “SAF3” series, while cameras are about to roll on Phillip Noyce’s “The Giver” and uber-South African helmer Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie.” The Michael Bay exec-produced pirate series “Black Sails” is soon returning to its spectacular set on the Cape Town Film Studios lot for a second season. Recently completed is Samuel L. Jackson starrer “Kite.”

For a producer seeking an offshore moviemaking destination, the country’s vast menu of benefits includes a fantastic climate (14 hours of daylight in summer) with a location for any narrative. Until a year ago the only missing link was a water tank, and this was fufilled with financial investment of the DTI at the Cape Town Film Studios for “Black Sails” — justified by that production’s massive investment in South Africa.

Added to this are world-class post-production and sound effects facilities and equipment; the government’s vital upgrade of infrastructure, with road and rail services updated to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup; and the skill and expertise of accomplished technical, creative and production personnel; not to mention critical budget savings due to the uncapped incentive, and an exchange rate of ten rands to USD$1.

There has been a marked recent growth in local productions, most prominently “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (screening at the Toronto fest) the largest-ever local production on the African continent. Other local productions include Mukunda Dewil’s “Vehicle 19” with Paul Walker, “Sleeper’s Wake,” Fanie Fourie’s “Lobola,” “How to Steal 2 Million,” “Little One,” and “Of Good Report.” Soon to hit the circuit are “Nothing for Mahala,” “iNumber Number” “Faan’s Train” and “Winnie,” but box office success is still led by South Africa’s king of comedy, Leon Schuster (“Mr. Bones”).

Apartheid-era segregation laws prohibited the majority of the population from access to cinemas and only recently, with the “born free” generation, has a real culture of local theatergoing started to emerge. Etana Film Guarantor’s Paul Raleigh, (co-producer of the Oscar-winning “Tsotsi”), says the growth in local movies has prominently been in the indigenous Afrikaans language. Harriet Gavshon, producer of the Donovan Marsh-helmed “iNumber Number” (screening at TIFF) says, “We are still grappling with our history in so many ways. We won’t really be able to develop a flourishing and sustainable industry until cinemas are where the majority of people are.”

Gavshon adds: “The fact that we have an enabling state is very helpful. Without significant state support, the NFVF, the IDC and the DTI rebate, we would not have made ‘iNumber Number.’”

Helmer Marsh adds, “I’m hoping that ‘iNumber Number’ will attract attention from international buyers and distributers at TIFF, allowing us to put the film into profit so that we can make the next ‘Class Act’ film as well as prove that South African films in vernacular can find a market overseas.”

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