SA film signals new directions

South African scriptwriters and directors of the current crop of local movies have cast off the old subject shackles – apartheid, race relations, crime and corruption. Instead we’re seeing bold and refreshingly different films, which, despite some flaws, are signalling hopeful new directions.

The dance movie Hear Me Move is a high-energy teen-angst drama that showcases hot township dance styles such as sbujwa and reflects the experiences of today’s youth with irresistible pace and shine.

Described as “sweaty, sexy and aspirational”, this story of a dancer’s search for answers about his father’s death was produced by the three black men behind Coal Stove Pictures – director Scottnes L Smith, scriptwriter Fidel Namisi and actor Wandile Molebatsi. It’s been screened at Cannes and the London and Toronto festivals, and has been dubbed into Russian.

“Our greatest challenge was to get the balance right between local resonance and international appeal,” says Smith. “We wanted to stay true to our local core audience, while still giving international audiences enough to tell their friends about. The world is hungry for diverse content that reflects African excellence. Given the skill, determination and competitiveness of our local industry, the sky’s the limit.”

Ground-breakingly audacious, Necktie Youth also depicts youth in crisis but on a more affluent and nihilistic stretch of turf. Filmed in stark black-and-white, and set among the upper-class youth of both races in Sandton, it’s one long, hopeless, drug-fuelled joyride, kick-started by a young white girl live-streaming her suicide in the grounds of her northern suburbs mansion on June 16.

Writer, director and star, 23-year-old Sibs Shongwe-La Mer is familiar with this born-free territory. He’s the son of Barloworld’s Isaac Shongwe. Even so, getting the movie made was no walk in the park.

“People aren’t handing out millions to 21-year-old high school dropouts making a movie that hasn’t been tested or doesn’t fit to a form,” says Shongwe-La Mer. “We had to do it super-cheap and super-quick and, after a first-cut show in Switzerland, people started trusting a bit more.”

Producer Elias Ribeiro of Urucu Media says: “Sibs was a first-timer but one of the most talented people I know, and it was relatively easy to make people see value in what we were doing.”

Available on DStv’s Box Office channel, Necktie Youth has played to audiences at over 30 festivals worldwide.

“Three screenings per fest, with an average of 150 people per screening, works out that about 15?000 people internationally have seen the movie through fests so far,” says Ribeiro.

Local figures don’t measure up, however. In four weeks here, it sold less than 1?000 tickets. South Africa’s two past Oscar nominees for best foreign language film were Yesterday, an Aids drama (2004), and Tsotsi, the crime and redemption movie that won in 2005.

Fulu Mugovhani in Ayanda. 

The powerful piece submitted by South Africa this year, Ernest Nkosi’s Thina Sobabili: The Two of Us, has sibling bonds as a theme: an overly protective brother whose sister has found herself a not-kosher sugar daddy. We’ll know in January whether it’s been nominated.

Shot in a week on a shoestring budget, the film got no state funding but was sponsored by Vodacom and the Johannesburg advertising company Ireland/Davenport where Nkosi is a creative.

Nominated for best picture at Danny Glover’s Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles, it walked off with the prize of the night, the audience-choice award, and won itself distribution in the United States.

Two other acclaimed recent South African films with universal themes – in this case particular to women – are director Sara Blecher’s Ayanda and Dis Ek, Anna [It’s Me, Anna].

“South African filmmakers have chosen to emulate Hollywood rather than to explore our own voices,” says Blecher, who made the brooding black teen-surfer movie Otelo Burning three years ago.

“However, recently, a new group of filmmakers – many who honed our skills on the streets of violence-wracked townships and TV drama sets, and several who are women – are now telling our own stories in our own way.”

With Fulu Moguvhani in the title role as the Afro hipster determined to preserve her late father’s car repair shop, Ayanda is a fresh and authentic take on contemporary urban life. Produced by Tsotsi lead Terry Pheto and written by Trish Malone, it has had glowing overseas reviews and is available on DStv’s Box Office.

Blecher’s acclaimed Dis Ek, Anna is very different – a harrowing story of sexual abuse, based on the fictionalised biography of Anchien Troskie. “In a country like ours, with such a horrific history of violence against women, having female perspectives represented on screen is not a luxury, but a necessity,” says Blecher.

Marius Weyers and Charlene Brouwer in Dis Ek, Anna.

An equally original young female voice on the movie scene is that of Jenna Cato Bass (28), whose Love the One You Love, produced by Steven Markovitz, is unlike any love story you’ve seen. In this alternative portrait of modern Cape Town, the up-and-down relationship of a phone sex operator (Chiedza Mhende) and an animal-shelter worker (Andile Nebulane) is interrupted when a computer technician (Louw Venter) pining for his lost girlfriend calls the sex line.

The director says: “I had no finance, no support and no script, and yet I knew the only way to launch my career as a filmmaker was to make a film on my own.

“I realised I’d need to use what I had: some wonderful actor friends for whom I could write characters, and the whole of Cape Town as my set. I stuck to the notion that you don’t need big budgets or tons of resources to create cinema’s two most important gifts: beauty and emotion. With that in mind we set about making the best possible film we could.”

The film has been well received at festivals as far afield as South Korea and Finland. One British reviewer says it signals “a new wave of South African filmmaking with its own distinctive aesthetic”.

Another love story, Tell Me Sweet Something, is an upbeat departure for director Akin Omotoso, who describes it as “an affirmation of African love”. It has Maps Maponyane and Nomzamo Mbatha getting passionate against beautifully filmed backdrops of Jozi.

Tell Me Sweet Something is on DStv’s Box Office and has been released in Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, grossing R2.8-million so far.

Meanwhile, the landmark gay and lesbian movie While You Weren’t Looking – produced by Out in Africa’s Nodi Murphy, who ran gay and lesbian film festivals across South Africa for 21 years – has succeeded in defying several industry conventions.

Film festivals don’t normally raise finance and produce feature films, which makes this Out in Africa project a first. So is the movie’s unflinching approach to what remains tricky territory in a country where men still practise corrective rape – and murder – on lesbians.

While You Weren’t Looking doesn’t get bogged down in that blood-soaked turf but it’s a movie that takes no prisoners, created by an indomitable team that included Matthew Krouse, the writer and actor involved in South Africa’s uncompromising 1987 subversive white-leftie classic Shot Down.

Petronella Tshuma and Thishiwe Ziqubu in While You Weren’t Looking

Beautifully shot and imaginatively directed by industry stalwart Catherine Stewart, While You Weren’t Looking creates an authentic tapestry of contemporary South African life, its intertwining tales covering class, race, age and gender in all their conflicting aspects: an ageing gay academic tries to hook up again with his former freedom fighter lover who has since married and become a New South African power player, while across town an affluent mixed-race lesbian couple unravel as they watch their adopted teenage daughter – a conflicted poster child – fall for a Khayelitsha Tommy Boy, a butch lesbian.

“There’s a dearth of material reflecting the lives and experiences of Africans,” Murphy says, “so when the National Lotteries Commission put out a call that included the funding of films, we made our application. Two years later we were advised we’d been awarded R6-million.” The film also received funding from the Other Foundation and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Murphy says the public response was “mild to great. We got fabulous press but that doesn’t translate into bums on seats.” The movie had a longish run with Ster-Kinekor and limited runs with the Labia and the Bioscope.

It will be on at the Rapid Lion Film Festival in Johannesburg in March. Having screened at about 50 international gay and lesbian festivals, it won two audience awards in Zurich and Bremen, best feature in Long Beach, California, and best director in Tampa Bay, Florida.

“Now we’re on New York’s African diaspora circuit, so we’ll reach a whole new audience,” says Murphy. “We’ve been selected for the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January, which is on Hollywood’s doorstep, so it has star pull and can raise a film’s profile. Now to travel up Africa.”

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