Despite the constant cry that South Africans need to tell their stories, local movie-making has not had a history of huge success. Leon Schuster’s gross-out comedies such as Mr Bones head the list of the top money-spinners here, while serious movies such as Boesman and Lena with Danny Glover and Promised Land lag behind.
This week distributor Ster-Kinekor releases a South African movie that hopes to crack the mainstream market. Malunde, written and directed by Stephanie Sycholt, was completed in 2001 and has already travelled the world’s film-festival circuit, winning a German critics’ prize. It is not a movie that will be confined to art-house cinemas; this is a serious stab at mainstream success, and Ster-Kinekor has high hopes for it.
Malunde is a German/South African co-production with Ian Roberts and Kagiso Mtetwa as an Afrikaner and a street child respectively. Together they take an improbable but charming journey across South Africa to find the kid’s missing mom. In the process, of course, they find themselves.
Helen Kuun, local product manager at Ster-Kinekor, who is at the coalface of local distribution, says that ‘Malunde is not an art-house film so there is no sense in screening it at Cinema Nouveau. There is nothing arty about it whatsoever. It’s a fairly straight-forward and charming tale depicting quite a realistic version of South Africa, but without getting caught up with political chanting. The film is accessible and easy to understand. It aims to entertain and tell a story.
‘The strategy for release incorporates radio, TV and print advertising, premiere events in Cape Town and Johannesburg, talent-driven publicity, a stokvel and society club promotion, with a fair amount of screenings and activities around the raising of funds for charity organisations to benefit street children and so on.”
Kuun says this represents ‘a long-term commitment” to South African film. ‘We’ve been looking at ways of contributing to the growth of the industry for a while,” she says. ‘It has finally started with the release of pictures like Promised Land, God Is African, Hijack Stories and Malunde.”
Yet, says Kuun, ‘We cannot afford to buy into the guilt trips of the past whereby films were released purely because they were South African. Audiences do not go to the cinema purely because a South African film happens to be screening. Films like Promised Land and God Is African function on different levels, the one for an art-house audience the other for a contemporary black youth market.
‘The industry is moving in the right direction,” says Kuun. ‘The National Film and Video Foundation is doing amazing things — producers are coming up with innovative ways of financing and making films that are outside and within the traditional ways. We should look at novels written here and elsewhere, catchy and quirky stories that will resonate with the emotive in any human being, South African or not. Soon there will be a Big Fat Something-or-other Wedding or a Bend it like Beckham from South Africa that charms everyone.
Yet she does not see Ster-Kinekor Pictures (the distribution arm of the business) ‘specifically ever financing films. The margins on distribution are just too small. One has to remain realistic about this business and still hold on to your passion and enthusiasm for films. Our biggest asset is that we have the infrastructure and expertise to deliver any kind of film successfully. This in itself is worth money at the end of the day.”
Is the idea of the Great South African movie fallacious?
‘The South African film will happen — it is inevitable,” says Kuun. ‘We need to continue making films and training filmmakers in the process. Sooner or later one will jump out. We need as much funding as possible, which remains at the core of the painful process of filmmaking. Without this we will not produce a sufficient number of films to get to the breakout film. Making one or two films a year … is not enough to move the industry from limbo to where it wants to go. People always compare South Africa to Australia and question why we have not produced films that have travelled. It’s relevant here to understand that billions of dollars were invested in their industry for about 11 years before the first breakout title emerged. They were churning out a serious number of films annually to get to the hit.”