A car chase too far: What SA film can’t learn from Hollywood
An American (played by Fast & Furious’s Paul Walker) picks up a rental car on arrival in South Africa. He drives through Johannesburg, which is as post-apocalyptic as a Mad Max movie, or District 9. A phone rings in his cubbyhole. He answers it. Shock! He has stumbled into some kind of intrigue. He’s picked up the wrong car. The voice on the phone is Afrikaans, and the speaker is clearly about to become his adversary. The back seat pops down and a black woman, tied and gagged, rolls out. There it is: this American will have to save the black South African from the white Afrikaner. There will be car chases, there will be poverty as backdrop, there might even be room for an interracial romance.
Thus runs the trailer for the post-colonial nightmare that is Vehicle 19, set for release in June. This B-grade roadkill would, perhaps, not be surprising had it come from American minds but Vehicle 19 is a South African product, and to examine its lineage is to see the false dichotomies and disingenuous representations that have been hampering the idea of cinema in South Africa since the National Film and Video Foundation’s (NFVF’s) development initiative, Sediba, was devised in 2005.
Vehicle 19 is produced by Ryan Haidarian and Eddie Mbalo is the executive producer. Both are formerly of the NFVF, which is the body tasked with film development in South Africa. Mbalo headed up the organisation from 2003. Haidarian first headed up the development division, and then the new ventures division. Both left in 2011 to start a new venture, Forefront Media Group. And both are the subject of an interesting interview conducted during their time at the NFVF for a 2010 University of Cape Town PhD thesis by Astrid Treffry-Goatley titled The representation and mediation of national identity in the production of post-apartheid South African cinema.
Treffry-Goatley’s thesis is a harrowing read on the state of cinema in South Africa. One of the main concerns she raises is the NFVF’s emphasis on “commercial success and economic sustainability, since as Haidarian notes, unlike the state system in France where the purpose is to develop culture, in South Africa, the state is investing in this sector of the economy because they think that this could be a real driver of the economy”.
She goes on to quote Mbalo as saying “it is good for filmmakers to pursue their aspirations [but] we need to find stories that can travel”. By “stories that can travel”, Mbalo means films that will be successful outside of South Africa.
South African bit-parts
Recently, the NFVF commissioned a report from Deloitte on the South African film industry, which outlines a number of positive developments. Much of the audited data in the report is taken from the department of trade and industry (DTI), which manages the rebates and incentives to the industry that are largely responsible for the fact that feature film production has quadrupled in the past four years. The report notes that the industry contributes around R3.5-billion to South Africa’s gross domestic product, that it created more than 15 000 jobs last year and that it has grown 14% a year over the past five years.
What the report doesn’t say is that many of the films produced locally are service films or co-productions, meaning that they either use South Africa as a backdrop or as a stand-in location, but are not creatively helmed by South Africans nor star them in principal roles — these include films such as the Denzel Washington vehicle Safe House, or Disgrace, starring John Malkovich.
It’s also worth noting that the Deloitte report makes mention of the success of M-Net’s Mzansi Magic channel’s films and Chicco Twala’s Bubblegum films, but there is no mention of the economic successes of the films that the NFVF has itself developed and supported. That the report is economics-centred, and more than once mentions the export market, seems to hold up the fact that the NFVF, under Mbalo and Haidairan’s successors, chief executive Zama Mkosi and head of development Clarence Hamilton, is still economically and export-driven.
In a statement regarding the NFVF’s trip to this year’s Cannes Festival to promote South Africa as a location, as well as to screen at the South African pavilion (and not in selection) the films Black South-Easter, Blitz Patrollie and Khumba, Mkosi said: “As we take our filmmakers and film projects there, our objective is very clear: we want to attract new markets and investments.” The NFVF spends 26% of its department of arts and culture- allocated R105-million (up from last year’s R86-million) budget on marketing, which includes visiting local and international festivals. Its allocation towards development is just 20%, and 27% is spent on production.
At the release of the report, Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile said, referring to the success of South African films abroad, that “it also indicates that the world wants to hear the South African story; a story of the triumph of the human spirit”. This statement presents problems to filmmakers who might feel that there are other South African stories.
How the NFVF develops South African stories is a bone of contention. On receiving a development grant from the NFVF the scriptwriter must work within the Sediba structural framework, which they must not only hang their story on, but which also determines the actions of the characters. Sediba employs a formula based on aggressor/victim roles and a three-act structure. Events must happen within set time frames, and there must be a predetermined number of “turning points”; the film must resolve itself, preferably with a message of hope. It is a closed system of storytelling, leaving little room for ambiguity.
While it is obvious that film, being a time-anchored art form, will have a beginning, middle and ending that can be extracted once completed, this does not mean that extrapolating a fixed structure from this is an effective method of writing films. Successful storytelling in any form, be it cinema, novels or theatre, is not just a structural skeleton to hang a series of interchangeable tropes on. It consists of dreams, visions, inconsistencies and fabula that speak to the author and the audience in indefinable ways.
Employing a scriptwriting framework is often a useful way to test an idea, but the Sediba way raises the hackles of filmmakers such as myself, and may not be any more effective than any other system.
An infringement on creativity
An NFVF script editor, whose job it is to ensure that scriptwriters stay close to the Sediba guidelines, and who asked to remain unnamed, had this to say about the process of deciding what “works”: “I have known some of these script decisions to be simply wrong at times and at other times extremely simplistic and opinionated.”
Treffry-Goatley found that 71% of the filmmakers she interviewed were critical of Sediba, with “the programme being seen as an infringement on creativity”. One filmmaker is quoted as saying: “I’m trying to do something different, so I’m not interested in working with those clowns [the NFVF] any more.” Oscar nominee Darryl Roodt told her: “Faith’s Corner, where we tried to get money from them up front? They said ‘change the ending and, yes, we’ll give you money.’ Excuse me? It doesn’t make much sense to me. I think that I’ll make the movie. You fund it!”
It’s not only in academic papers that you will find criticism of the NFVF’s approach. In a 2011 interview with me, Oliver Hermanus, director of the internationally acclaimed, and non-NFVF-funded, Skoonheid said: “More importantly, the audience comes as long as you keep providing quality material, you develop an audience. But you can’t just then try and apply what you think your audience wants to watch. Which the NFVF assumes is Hollywood genre stuff.”
Another filmmaker who declined to be named, who had struggled through the NFVF feedback process and funding process for about six years, said: “Their approval basis is based on a Western-thinking mode and doesn’t take into account at all any local idioms that one is trying to tackle.”
While the use of Sediba is not a requirement for funding, spokesperson Neiloe Khunyeli for the NFVF said in an email that its use was “a direct result of the NFVF being inundated with script proposals in which the writers were able to articulate interesting ideas, but were insufficiently equipped to realise [them] as scripts”, adding that, “instead of simply rejecting these ideas, the NFVF carefully evaluated the potential of the writers to succeed if provided with training in the fundamental principles of story. When writers are selected for this training, a number of other additional factors were taken into account, eg they would have had to be engaged in the industry for some time in some capacity, should have had some training, preferably tertiary training at a film institution, and/or a very good idea for a story. In rare cases, newcomers with passion, commitment and a great idea may also be eligible.”
Avoidance of innovation
But it is the fundamental principles of story that are the sticking point. Director Sibs Shongwe-La Mer, part of a loose filmmaking collective based around a Jo’burg gallery called the Whitman Independent, says: “There seems to be this pre-established sentiment that the NFVF would never consider awarding adequate financial support to the kind of projects that interest real filmmakers. We have very interesting cinema in the galleries but the cinemas are ghost towns.”
‘This avoidance of innovation,” continues Treffry-Goatley’s thesis, “is evident in Haidarian’s discussion of an up-and-coming, NFVF-supported film, Violence, which is written and directed by the black South African filmmaker Khalo Matabane. He explains that, unlike Matabane’s previous film, Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon (2005), Matabane can’t go experimental. “This time,” Haidarian told Treffry-Goatley, “he needs a strong plot, a strong structure.” Maybe this accounts for the fact that when the film was released in 2012 as State of Violence it seemed as though Matabane’s voice had been strangled. The film was tightly controlled around a series of hackneyed and, in some places, nonsensical plot devices that limited Matabane’s previously evident free-ranging style.
This also goes some way towards explaining why the early hope of KwaZulu-Natal filmmaker Madoda Ncayiyana’s short film The Sky in Her Eyes, about two children’s journey on to the streets after their mother dies, became the trite 2008 film Izulu Lami — a travelogue of the tourist sites of Durban.
Another side effect of the Sediba ethos is that without NFVF buy-in on some level it makes it harder for local producers to find funding elsewhere. As a first-time filmmaker, without the NFVF one has very little chance of accessing funding from the DTI or Industrial Development Corporation; beyond that, international film funds seldom look at co-funding projects that do not have buy-in from their local funding body.
Approximately 96% to 98% of what’s in cinema in South Africa comes from one of the eight major Hollywood studios, with the remaining screen time shared with international “art house” cinema. According to a report given at the 2009 NFVF Indaba, of local films that generally cost between R9-million and R20-million to make, only 40% recoup between R100 000 and R4-million, with a further 22% making less than R100 000. This excludes international co-productions. This, however, leaves 38% of local product recouping over R4-million.
There are two types of locally produced films that do reliably profit at the box office. The first kind are “Hartiwood” films such as Bakgat, Semi-Soet and Liefling, which are made in Afrikaans, feature middle-class Afrikaans stories and are shot around Hartbeesport Dam. These films tend to be made for around R3-million and often double or triple their money. Bakgat made a total gross of about R7-million, including box office, DVD and television sales. Liefling made about R13-million. Hartiwood films are made for a local audience, in their own language and they’re screened in cinemas close to where that audience lives.
The other type are films starring Leon Schuster. It might have escaped the Sediba acolyte’s attention, but Schuster does not strictly follow a three-act structure; Mr Bones 2 recouped R32-million at the local box office, roughly three times more than District 9.
Similarly the micro-budget, Nollywood-influenced direct-to-DVD Bubblegum films produced by Chicco Twala, are made with a local audience in mind. Through a unique combination of spaza shops and direct marketing, they frequently make substantial profits, as do the direct-to-DVD Venda films of Khathutshelo Mamphodo and Tshidino Ndou. These strategies are now being emulated by director Philani Sithebe and the emerging Durban micro-funded film scene.
In order to look at the box office of NFVF films a distinction must be made between NFVF-funded films and NFVF films developed through Sediba. NFVF-funded films include Tsotsi, which brought in just over R8-million locally, and the highly successful children’s film Zambezia, which earned R8-million. A successful film that has passed through Sediba development is Spud, which cleared R18-million. But other Sediba-based films haven’t fared as well; 31 Million Reasons brought in R874 644, Izulu Lami made R377 677, Matabane’s State of Violence returned R58 200, and Otelo Burning, a script edited by Hamilton himself, made only R216 470. This is not to say that the Bubblegum or Hartiwood films are “better” than the NFVF’s Sediba product — they are just, in general, more successful at the box office.
As Shongwe-La Mer says: “I feel that South African audiences are far too sophisticated to be sold the regurgitation of Americana we repackage as South African realities in our cinema. The nation’s reaction to our cinema seems generally intelligent to me.”
The Hartiwood and micro-budget direct-to-DVD models work, according to Henk Pretorius, producer of the Bakgat series, because of “our understanding of this specific segment and the themes they deal with [while] not overestimating their spending power”. The factor that separates consistently successful local product and NFVF product is that Hartiwood, Bubblegum and Vendawood films are not made for export and do not depend on international recognition to make their money back.
They focus on stories that are post-nationalistic, that are nontriumphalist, that are, essentially, stories that could happen to your neighbour. Within this framework, local film is financially successful.
Other ways of getting first features made are emerging. M-Net’s Mzansi Magic initiative has been commissioning feature films and developing young talent. But it’s not the only forward-thinking game in town. The Durban Film Office has started holding workshops on no-budget filmmaking and distribution in Umlazi, which are headed up by Shaft Moropane, director of a Mzansi Magic feature, as well as two eTV Ekasi films. And, according to the Deloitte report, the Gauteng Film Commission is also in the process of developing a grant-making programme.
One of the reasons enmity is directed toward the NFVF is that for so long it has been the only game in town. But now the game is changing. And rightly so. As Mkosi said in a statement related to the Deloitte report: “We believe that, in order to unlock the industry growth, we need to see [the] private sector coming on board and investing in the industry.”
Indications are that this is starting to happen, with service companies like Moonlighting turning to servicing production of locally created films such as its recent release Retribution, and projects from Forgiveness director Ian Gabriel (whose film is partially NFVF funded), and fast rising talent Oliver Hermanus.
What the NFVF does in many instances is vital to the health and development of the local film industry, but with so many voices accusing it of stifling creativity it may be time to assess the effectiveness of Sediba and its ability to give “support in the pursuit of freedom of expression”.
As Shongwe-La Mer says: “We need to stop being so damn scared of who we are. We all gotta throw the TV out the window and cry and love and hurt. If we aren’t willing to get adolescent we aren’t going to find ourselves.”
As globalisation advances, the Australian, South Korean, Mexican and Nigerian lessons bear out that one route to success is to focus on regional uniqueness, and to deliver this to an audience that has a desire to see themselves, at a price they can afford. The Hartiwood, Vendawood and Bubblegum films seem to indicate that cinema in South Africa is not a hostage, tied up in a boot, waiting to be rescued, after all.
The central irony is that our new filmmakers will, to some degree, follow Hollywood conventions, because it is what they have grown up on. But they will do so in their own way, because the one thing the NFVF may have failed to grasp, and what other countries, film-development strategies have proven, is that the economically and critically successful small-budget films are the ones made with love; for love provides authenticity. And there is no quicker way to remove a filmmaker’s love for a project than to tell them that they don’t know how to make films.
Full disclosure: Roger Young was once removed from his NFVF development project about survivor’s guilt associated with the Westdene Dam bus crash for refusing to insert a car chase, an Afrikaner villain, an interracial love story and a role for Charlize Theron
A previous version of this story stated that Zambezia was a Sediba film. This has been corrected.