Local cinema's low-brow blow
The National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), the institution that should be growing and supporting the local film industry, “has lost its vision”, says Johan Janse van Rensburg, the director of Intonga, the first feature film with dialogue entirely in isiXhosa.
At the preview of Intonga (an isiXhosa stick-fighting ritual) last week at the Nu Metro cinema at Hyde Park, about four people in the audience walked out. It’s not clear whether they found the film dull, which it was for long stretches, or whether they had other, more important engagements.
The following day, when I went for an interview at the Nu Metro offices, I saw one of the journalists who had walked out about to conclude an interview with director and veteran script writer Van Rensburg, producer Bonganjalo Marala and lead actor Mzukisi Ntantiso.
“It’s not a boxing movie,” Van Rensburg said of the film, which features more than five present or former boxers and the climax of which is a boxing match won by Siviwe (Ntantiso). “It’s a universal story, the struggle of every young man to find acceptance among his peers.”
It’s the story of Siviwe, a teenage boy who leaves Fort Beaufort following the death of his father, an amateur boxer. Siviwe and his mother move to Mdantsane, in Port Elizabeth, where he takes up boxing after being beaten up by thugs at his school.
This may be the problem with the film—its attempt to be a universal story. Mostly I prefer stories to be about something; they should be particular, but not in a linear, dogmatic way. A movie that seems to be about boxing should, at the very least, have the grit you expect from that genre (Van Rensburg assured me the sequel will be a boxing movie).
Some of the sequences weren’t done particularly well. For instance, there’s one sequence, shot at a school, where boys are playing football. Yet I hardly saw the legs and the ball, even though I could see people running around.
The originating idea of the film was City of Champions, a boxing documentary Marala and Van Rensburg made in 2005 for the SABC, celebrating Mdantsane’s boxers. Marala said that “using boxing as a canvas”, they have made a movie about “love, courage and belief in God”.
The movie is self-funded, and indeed it has the raw feel of an indie film, without the offbeat charm.
“We had no support from the institutions that should be supporting us,” Marala complained.
He singled out the NFVF, describing its “turnaround time as being not in sync” with the way filmmakers work.
Van Rensburg, who has worked in the industry for years and who also teaches film at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, said that when they asked for funding from the foundation, he was told to go on a five-month scriptwriting course.
“Who will pay for the time that I am away?” he asked.
He said the conception and writing of the script for Intonga took six weeks, pre-production took a month or so and the movie was shot in 10 days.
Ntantisi said the acting role presented a two-fold challenge: linguistic and physical. The latter was to do with getting boxing fit. As a fitness enthusiast, it was not difficult to prepare physically, but “boxing requires a different kind of fitness”.
He had to familiarise himself with being in a boxing ring and he also had to speak in pure isiXhosa about things that, ordinarily, most young Africans would rather say in English.
Marala said that the use of isiXhosa was a conscious decision—his idea was to “preserve, transcend and elevate. Our languages are being eroded by American toxic waste, which we see on the big screen.”
It wasn’t an easy choice, especially for Van Rensburg, who says he was “thinking in Afrikaans, writing a script in English about Xhosa people”.
There was no commercial advantage, Van Rensburg said, because by having the movie exclusively in isi-Xhosa “we are limiting it to a certain audience”.
But it fits snugly into what is written in Marala’s bio. It says he wants to make “films that portray and help safeguard the rich heritage of the Xhosa culture and tradition”.
Responding to the filmmakers’ claims, Clarence Hamilton of the NFVF said: “The filmmaker is free to use the NFVF’s appeal process to air his dissatisfaction with his failure to obtain funding for his project and to interrogate our recommendation that his team enrol in our Sediba Spark program[me].
“We will not debate these matters in the media [because] confidential information is involved while our funding criteria [are] available on the website.
“As for the slow turnaround, all applicants know that applications are processed and finalised within approximately three months and are tied into the quarterly meetings of the NFVF council.”