Shining a light on South Africa's screen dream

Curator Trevor Steele Taylor’s vision for the season of South African film, currently running at London’s British Film Institute (BFI), involves “a wider context for South Africa, a country always defined by apartheid”.

The BFI is holding the retrospective until May 27 with a look back at the creative output of the country—50 years of fiction and documentary filmmaking. Works range from the short film, Penny Whistle Boys, made in 1960, to recent features such as Jerusalema and District 9.

Many of the films made at the height of apartheid did not reach audiences beyond South Africa. Others were not released, even inside the country. They were either banned by state censors or were horribly mutilated—this was the fate of Land Apart by Swedish director Sven Persson, made in 1974, which dealt with South Africa’s isolation from the world. Some films were made surreptitiously; these included Lionel Rogosin’s 1960 Sophiatown masterpiece, Come Back Africa.

Steele Taylor has decided to include groundbreaking Afrikaans works in his selection. Jans Rautenbach’s Jannie Totsiens, made in 1970 and set in a zany mental asylum, has “essentially got nothing to do with apartheid”, says Steele Taylor. “It comes from a very intellectual interior space, although there are references to race issues and the issue of the Afrikaner.”

Dirk de Villers’s Seventies sexploitation B-grade movie, Snake Dancer, about the scandalous stripper Glenda Kemp, is set in a Hillbrow oddly devoid of people of colour. At some stage one gets a glimpse of a flower seller, but he is totally obscured by shadow. Steele Taylor dismisses local filmmakers of the period saying that an objective of the BFI selection has been “to show white South Africa ‘having fun’”.

The short work, Summer is Forever, about two hippies in the Seventies travelling across South Africa while taking LSD, is another whites-only film. “Despite the political policies, life went on in all manner of ways,” Steele Taylor says. “I wanted to show that there was this side to white South Africa.”

Yet there was a period between about 1987 and 1990 when, according to Taylor, “it suddenly became possible to make films which were extremely critical of the regime and the status quo.”

In 1988 Oliver Schmitz made Mapantsula, about a petty thief dragged into politics, and Paul Slabolepszy’s Saturday Night at the Palace (directed by Robert Davies in 1987) looked at the seamy side of race politics in a fast-changing city. Andrew Worsdale’s 1988 work, Shot Down, about disaffected alternative white youth, was banned for its scathing line: “Fucking Dutchman, fuck you!”—as well as others.

“In many cases the movies were made under a tax-shelter scheme, so that they were easy to finance,” Steele Taylor says. Most of these he recalls were “horrifically bad”.

Saturday Night at the Palace is, however, a different story. It had disappeared from memory and “I thought it was ripe for rediscovery”, he says.

For the contemporary selection, Steele Taylor has picked a trio of films about those who live on the edge in the city: Aryan Kaganof’s SMS Sugar Man, Savo Tufegdzic’s Crime and the Zentropa and Claire Angelique’s My Black Little Heart. These, he says, are promising examples of what independent filmmakers are doing outside the pressure to gain approval from the National Film and Video Foundation. The season also includes Michael Raeburn’s uncompromising look at low-life whites in Triomf.

The Cinema of South Africa under apartheid runs at the British Film Institute until May 27 and all showings take place at the National Film Theatre. For schedules and synopses go to

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