A year of African cinema

It’s been a good year for African and South African film, with filmmakers winning international awards and even serious South African dramas receiving the sort of mainstream release and publicity usually reserved for Leon Schuster shlock comedies.

There was nothing to match the international hype that surrounded last year’s District 9, but it seems that the South African film industry is still benefitting from that film’s success, with audiences feeling more positive about local releases.

Here are some of the releases that made an impact this year, and what M&G film critic Shaun de Waal had to say about them.

Skoonheid
Shaun de Waal suggested Skoonheid was the best South African film of the year, and its international acclaim seems to confirm this. It won the Queer Palm award, a prize that acknowledges movies that deal with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues, at the Cannes Film Festival. The film, written and directed by Oliver Hermanus, tells the story of a conservative, married Afrikaans man who becomes attracted to, and obsessed with, a young man he meets at his daughter’s wedding. The film is not easy to watch, featuring scenes that depict violent sexuality and rape, but is a fascinating study of issues that are seldom addressed in conservative society. The Cannes judges described the film as “a true cinema film, a quite unpleasant one at first sight, and very disturbing, hard-hitting, radical”. In his review, de Waal said: ” It is not entertaining in a conventional way, no; but I found Skoonheid riveting, with the severities of its story held in balance by the beauty of its composition.”

Viva Riva
Viva Riva is the first feature film made in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 25 years, and has been the most successful non-SA African film ever shown in South Africa. Directed by Djo Tunda wa Munga, it explores Kinshasa’s violent underworld, and breaks new ground for African film in its gritty depictions of violence and city life. De Waal emphasised the “local” elements of the film, and its relevance to South Africans, who would find the attitudes and behaviours of its lead characters, with all the ambition and desperation that leads them to live the dangerous lives they do, familiar. He described the film as “powerful”, and said it is a film that “should be seen, especially by South Africans”.

Retribution
Local thriller Retribution, directed by Mukunda Michael Dewil, was hyped as “South Africa’s first thriller”, but was modelled on American films such as Primal Fear. De Waal wrote that the film was “not exactly a case of telling our own stories” in the straightforward way that South African filmmakers are told they are supposed to do”, and suggested that, there was nothing intrinsically South African about the film. The film featured SA acting greats Jeremy Crutchley and Joe Mafela, and was a well-crafted psychological thriller about a man seeking revenge. De Waal also noted that the film was “a very post-apartheid movie. The judge may be black and the hiker may be white, but that racial polarity is irrelevant to what happens in the narrative.”

How to Steal 2 Million
Similarly, crime drama How to Steal 2 Million was also a genre film that did not focus on its “South African-ness” in any particular way. In the review, de Waal said this approach makes commercial sense in a country where American films dominate the local box office, and that ensuring financial success may, temporarily at least, be more important to the SA film industry than creativity and artistic innovation. And when it comes to action and tense drama, the film certainly succeeded. De Waal described the film as being “entirely gripping and well put-together”.

A State of Violence
By contrast, A State of Violence tells a very South African story, and explores the lives of black South Africans today, and the way apartheid continue to haunt people on a personal level. It features excellent performances from the cast, led by Fana Mokoena. De Waal described the film as telling its story “very well, tightly gripping the viewer and dragging him or her almost unwillingly into this nexus of pain and anger”.

View more highlights of the year that was in our special report.

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