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New Docs on South Africa Abound, But Local Network Can’t Air Them

With the death of Nelson Mandela still fresh in the minds of millions, and the nation celebrating the 20th anniversary since the end of apartheid, South Africa has spent much of 2014 in a reflective mood. So it seems only fitting that a wave of local docs is putting a microscope to the complex reality of life in the Rainbow Nation.

South African helmers have showcased a range of styles and subjects in recent releases, giving voice to both personal and political struggles in a young nation still looking to find its democratic footing. Still, many believe that sources of funding, while growing in number, are insufficient to offset a lack of support from local TV.

As the broader South African film industry has come into its own in the past decade, longtime helmer and producer Don Edkins sees a maturity in local docs as well. “There have been more sophisticated films coming out,” he says. “It’s all about finding the right stories.”

The anti-apartheid struggle has been in the foreground of many films, such as Khalo Matabane’s “Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me,” as well as Nic Rossier’s “The Other Man,” about F.W. de Klerk.

In other documentaries, such as Rehad Desai’s “Miners Shot Down,” the hopefulness of the era of struggle is used as a backdrop for the disillusionment of South Africans today. In different ways, local helmers are struggling to come to terms with apartheid’s lingering legacy. Annalet Steenkamp’s intimate family portrait of farm life, “I, Afrikaner,”  explores issues of race, class and violence.

The government has been supportive of filmmakers, even as it frequently finds itself at loggerheads with its critics. Helmers are able to tap into coin from a number of government bodies, including the National Film & Video Foundation and the Dept. of Trade and Industry. The provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal offer regional funding.

Still, it’s hard to finance a complete documentary with local coin, says helmer Pascal Schmitz. And the turmoil at pubcaster SABC, which has been plagued by mismanagement for years, robs filmmakers of funding and of an important distribution outlet.

Desai, who has been vocal in his criticism of the SABC’s refusal to air “Miners Shot Down,” says that the crisis at the pubcaster is indicative of a broader exhibition challenge. “There’s no space for docs; there’s no space for TV hours,” he says.

Exhibition opportunities are limited in a country dominated by risk-averse corporate plexes, says Darryl Els of the Bioscope, Johannesburg’s only indie theater.

But Els points to the success of the Encounters Documentary Festival, which features sold-out screenings in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, as a sign of growing demand. “There is a greater market for local documentaries,” he says, “and greater box office potential were these films to receive wider release.”

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