Beyond Third Cinema

How do you get 100 local filmmakers to meet on a Friday night?

Invite them to:

    1. Dinner at a fancy restaurant.

    2. A cultural cocktail at Pallo’s residence.

    3.
    A panel discussion in a university lecture theatre.

    4. The premiere of the latest Harry Potter movie at a smart cinema complex.

The surprising answer is 3. All but a handful of South Africa’s most famous movie directors unexpectedly turned up at Afda in Jo’burg last Friday for what had been billed, in a low-key way (through e-mails and a single mention on the Internet), as “The Great Debate”.

Their attendance proved the concern local filmmakers feel about the reception and critical response to their work. Although Drum and Zulu Love Letter were supposedly the meat of the topic, the organiser, independent filmmaker Rehad Desai, made it clear from the start the discussion would embrace other aspects of emerging cinema. Filmmakers, cinema groups, critics, broadcasters, academics and cultural commentators took part in the discussion.

It was hardly the sort of function that could have been expected to raise eyebrows, let alone a fascinated and interactive crowd. But the intensity and level of concentration of those in the full lecture theatre were so great that only one person protested about the sensitivity of the local industry to criticism when the critic Andrew Worsdale—himself a frustrated filmmaker—was escorted out for drunken but meek heckling.

The debate was never “great”, as promised, but it was as thought-provoking and as speedy as Worsdale’s undignified exit. Everyone in the room wanted to talk and there was not enough time to hear all the voices. Issues included:

  • Why, when some of the latest South African films are getting international awards, do they continue to get such lousy reception at home?
  • Are our films good, bad or misunderstood?
  • Is our production of cinema commensurate with our cultural pocket?
  • If locally produced TV dramas such as Yizo Yizo can pull an audience of two million, why is it that the 18 movies made in South Africa in the past five years collectively only pulled audiences of 500 000?
  • Is the SABC actually getting something right some of the time in relation to local audiences from which Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro could take their cue; and
  • Can white film critics, who have been in the same job for 20 years, be trusted enough to understand and translate emerging black and independent films being made in response to mass-market dictates and with low budgets? How persuasive are critics such as the Sunday Times’s Barry Ronge and the Mail & Guardian‘s Shaun de Waal? Can they kill a local movie before it has even hit the circuit?

The memory of Zulu Love Letter, slated by De Waal as “Not the Movie of the Week” the day it premiered, dangled like a fetish that will always provide the flash-bulb memory for this event, although the debate was actually scheduled before the movie opened or De Waal’s review.

Zulu Love Letter is unsettling but visionary, evidence that South African filmmakers are capable of delivering movies that speak to culture and popular versus official memory, without rainbow-nation lullabies. Yet De Waal got so derailed by some obscure M&G politics he thought he spotted that he wrote off the entire movie as overplayed drama. He makes an aside about the “kwaito” score.

Yet what stands out about this movie—and incidentally the score begins with jazz, not kwaito—is that it is minimal, barely there, thus reflecting the silences experienced by the central deaf character Mangi (Mpumi Malatsi).

So it is obvious why the “power of the critic” is an issue for filmmakers. How can readers trust the word of sour old tarts who hear kwaito when they see black characters in a locally produced film? If our film critics are going to be with us for life, should we not think about forcing them to go on regular upgrade programmes? There must be a way to make them keep in touch. Post-Hollywood cinema, post the 1980s European auteur cinema, there are other lesser known filmic horizons being skillfully navigated by, among others, South African filmmakers.

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