South Africa on celluloid

South African film scholarship has a few key texts, but more must be welcomed. There is so much talk about the state of our industry, and the meaning of our various movie productions, that historical and theoretical perspectives always come in handy. As new filmmakers emerge, they can only benefit from thoughtful hindsight on the movies already made in this country — an analytic view that three new books attempt to provide.

Marginal Lives and Painful Pasts: South African Cinema after Apartheid (Genugtig! Uitgewers), compiled by Martin Botha, is a disparate collection of essays on South African cinema. Indicating the essays’ divergent focuses and methods, Pieter J Fourie writes in the preface: ‘A regular theme in contemporary film theory is the need to move beyond grand theory such as semiotics (film as language), psychoanalysis (film as sub-consciousness), narratology (film as structured storytelling), Marxist criticism (film as ideology), and so on.”

Perhaps what Fourie should have said is that ‘grand theory” has broken down and recombined into a tissue of discursive and analytic options. Certainly Marginal Lives and Painful Pasts offers plenty of evidence of the uses of narratology, semiotics and particularly ‘film as ideology”, which is surely descended from Marxism. At any rate Fourie commends Ricardo Peach for making use of ‘Queer Theory” (so loudly capitalised) in his essay, without either he or Peach telling us what precisely queer theory is, why it’s different from gay or lesbian theory, how it interfaces with postmodernism and/or globalisation, and why it should be important for precisely the study of ‘identities” that this book claims to be about.

Unfortunately, such confusions extend into other aspects of the book’s production. I found myself stumbling into incomprehension in many places and mentally trying to rewrite not a few sentences. The book needed a more solid edit better typography and design and a more thorough proofreading (I circled one or two errors per page for the first 30 pages, then gave up). This kind of thing does not help students, in their own work, to take care and get it right. Names at least need to be accurate, for the sake of further research — to note just a minor couple of instances, Zackie Achmat has become ‘Zachi”, and the apostrophe that should be in Long Nights Journey into Day has escaped and is to be found squatting in the title of The God’s Must Be Crazy.

It all needed more care and more attention to the writing itself. Botha’s own overview of South African cinema from the 1890s to today is a bit of a shopping list, but I suppose that material is available elsewhere in more depth (his own previous compilations, for instance). The piece by Keyan Tomaselli, perhaps our leading film scholar, reads like a report to an NGO funder. That said, if you can tolerate the errors and infelicities, there is value in the book: special mention must go to the essays by Edwin Hees (‘Proteus and the Dialectics of History”), Adam Haupt (on John Fredericks’s hip-hop doccie Mr Devious the First), Luc Renders (‘Redemption Movies”) and Lesley Marx (on ‘narratives of trauma”).

Tomaselli’s own new book, Encountering Modernity: Twentieth-Century South African Cinemas (Unisa), offers much of the theory missing from Botha et al and usefully embeds it in a close textual study of South African film production (though it is not always as clear or explanatory as it could be). There is a chapter, which could have been longer, on the application of theory to the study of South African and African cinemas and Tomaselli engages in a fascinating self-reflection on his own evolving positions. The book combines and ‘re-theorises” essays written over many years, and forms a stimulating extension of Tomaselli’s earlier pioneering work in the field.

He organises his material thematically, in essays ranging through many a movie as he engages issues such as ‘blackness” in film, the expansion of the post-apartheid filmic repertoire, and the way cinema itself is an encounter with modernity. Cinema is, after all, perhaps the quintessential art form of the high-capitalist era. Apart from the fact that it costs so much money to make movies, and that their existence depends on expensive theatres and often elusive audiences, it produces images of nation and identity that speak directly or indirectly to those caught in the toils of the modern nation-state.

This is the central thread of Jacqueline Maingard’s book, South African National Cinema (Routledge), an excellent overview of our ‘national” cinema from its earliest days till now. This means, as it would for Tomaselli, not a naive understanding of ‘nation” as unified and monolithic, but in part as defined by its exclusions and inner contradictions. Thus De Voortrekkers (1916), the first major movie to be made in this country and a key work of Afrikaner nationalism (‘South Africa’s national epic”), very carefully showed common purpose between Boers and ‘Brits”, so important in the days of Union, while making sure indigenous peoples were shown as savages — and depicting Portuguese intriguers misleading King Dingane into murder.

‘Nation” is not a pre-existing category, but a site of struggle, as we used to say. In South Africa, particularly, given our history of oppression based on race, identity becomes a vital terrain in the battles around what it means to be a nation (or even if we can be one at all). If films such as De Voortrekkers and others, up to the 1980s’ ‘jeep operas” such as Boetie Gaan Border Toe, were engaged in particular ideological projects to a more or less obvious degree, movies such as Jim Comes to Jo’burg and Zonk! developed counter-ideologies, or at least representations that challenged state propaganda and hegemonic assumptions. Today, as Maingard brings her story up to date, a film like Zulu Love Letter (to which she gives especially detailed and fruitful attention) finds ways to negotiate new questions of nation, history and identity that we face.

Maingard’s book is an important introduction to South African film for students (and other interested parties), while Tomaselli’s will be of great interest to anyone who wants more detail, and more theory, on the themes and visions that haunt our filmic culture. If I were conducting a university course on South African film, I’d prescribe South African National Cinema for the undergraduates and Encountering Modernity for the post-grads, while advising them to approach Marginal Lives and Painful Pasts with caution.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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