Twenty years after signing a co-production treaty with Canada, its first as a nation under black-majority rule, South Africa is represented at Toronto this year with a strong slate of films, celebrating the anniversary of a partnership that marked a new era for a country emerging from the shadow of apartheid.
“The 20-year relationship between South Africa and Canada is profound,” says Zama Mkosi, CEO of the National Film & Video Foundation. “It has paved the way for fantastic film and television collaborations between the two countries.”
The collaboration is on display in Toronto this year with the documentary “Silas,” a South Africa-Canada-Kenya co-production about the Liberian activist Silas Siakor, directed by Canada’s Anjali Nayar (“Gun Runners”) and Kenya’s Hawa Essuman (“Soul Boy”).
Three South African features will also be having world premieres, a selection that “showcases the depth and talent coming from South Africa,” according to TIFF’s Africa and Middle East programmer, Kiva Reardon.
Veteran helmer Khalo Matabane (“Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me”) arrives with “The Number,” a hard-hitting jailhouse drama based on journalist Jonny Steinberg’s award-winning exploration of gangs in the South African prison system.
Michael Matthews’ debut feature, “Five Fingers for Marseilles,” is a Western-inspired thriller about an outlaw on the run who returns home to find a shot at redemption.
Finally, Jenna Bass (“Love the One You Love”) puts South African identity under the microscope in “High Fantasy,” about a group of young travelers who mysteriously swap bodies on a camping trip.
With their probing themes of injustice and inequality, the diverse selection reflects a nation at a turning point. More than two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa has been gripped by waves of protest that have called into question the belief that black-majority rule would bring about a more just and fair society.
For a generation of emerging South African filmmakers, many born in the dying days of white rule, those protests have offered fertile soil to explore both the promise and the disappointments of what Bass calls “the Rainbow Nation narrative.”
“I feel like breaking through that narrative…was step one of making [“High Fantasy”],” she says, pointing to a long-held post-apartheid illusion “that we all now understand the problems of the past, and now we’ve forgiven and everything is fine.
“It’s very obvious that things are not okay,” she says.
The national soul-searching has nonetheless been a boon for the film industry, buttressing stalwarts like Matabane and Akin Omotoso (“Vaya”), while giving rise to an eclectic and promising younger generation that includes Bass, Oliver Hermanus (“Skoonheid,” “The Endless River”), Sibs Shongwe-La Mer (“Necktie Youth”), Jahmil X.T. Qubeka (“Of Good Report”) and John Trengove (“The Wound”), among others.
The diversity of voices, says “Marseilles” writer Sean Drummond, has buoyed hopes that the emerging South African movement will mirror similar waves in countries that “found a voice and identity really quickly.”
“We’ve been talking about the “new wave” for a long time,” says Drummond, pointing to the genre-bending conventions of “Marseilles” as an example of a creative wellspring that is “very original, very South Africa.”
Yet while the industry’s auteur-driven pics have found a home on the festival circuit, local audiences remain an enigma. Through the first half of 2017, total B.O. for local films was just R30.1 million (around $2.2 million), down 31% from the same period last year. After peaking with 11% market share in 2012, South African films have accounted for just 5% of box office receipts so far this year.
Still, Drummond points to the success of Hollywood blockbusters like “Fast and Furious 8,” South Africa’s highest-grossing film of 2017, as proof that “there are people going to watch movies.”
“I think it’s about giving the audience something they want to see,” he says.