/ 15 September 2023

New directions in South African film

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In writing our new book Richard Green in South African Film: Forging Creative New Directions (2023, BestRed), we — Green and I — started with the supposition that “academics write far too much film theory and that practitioners write far too little of it”.

Anyone who has been in the film industry in South Africa for more than five minutes knows the name of Richard Green. As Janet van Eeden, who is a scriptwriter and dean of the Afda film school campus in Durban, observes: “Those who’ve put in the hard yards on movie sets over the past decades refer to him as ‘the legendary Richard Green’.” 

Van Eeden adds, “Not only is Green the most experienced film producer of our time, he also facilitated the transition from an all-white film industry into the post-democratic multicultural industry it is today through his groundbreaking work on M-Net’s New Directions.” 

It was a 1990s development programme that trained emergent, previously marginalised film-makers, producing 30 short films and two features. 

In jointly writing the book we thus aimed to bridge the divide between theory and practice and explain producing from the bottom up, the actual doing in making films.

Anti-apartheid film organisations during the late 1980s and 1990s generated many manifestos, policies and frameworks. These were presented at meetings, indabas and conferences.

Sadly, however, very little documentation was archived. This made writing the history of the period even more urgent. We also realised that our own, and other people’s, memories of their experiences would be crucial to recovering an increasingly forgotten narrative that coincided with a unique decade.

I knew that he had a story to tell. But, initially, he did not himself realise just how unique and compelling it was to be. As his master’s in fine arts supervisor I wanted to hear it and connect it to the body of pre-existing published knowledge on South African film.

During the seven years of his master’s work, and for three years thereafter, Green eventually came to appreciate that he is not just another producer who has nothing of significance to say. Producers, of all film crew members, are notoriously close-mouthed when talking to academics, journalists or anyone else.

Green excavated via auto-ethnography the relationship between his traumatic childhood experiences and his later film script and aesthetic choices, his production methods and his nurturing of a whole new generation of film and TV practitioners, actors and producers. 

He began to appreciate that his corpus was not just a series of discrete films. In fact, his script choices had significantly shaped the direction of South African film, connecting narratives both during late apartheid and well beyond. That was the fascinating story that we aimed to bring to the surface.

The film-makers he trained while managing the New Directions short film project took M-Net into the continent via the All Africa M-Net Film Awards as both producer and broadcaster. 

Like Elon Musk, Green was bullied at school, but unlike the Big Tech titan, he did not become a bully. Both have, in their respective ways, changed entire industries. As film director and critic Andrew Worsdale observes, Green’s life, as with so many, has been horrific, sad, heart-warming — but very constructive.  

According to the beneficiaries of the New Directions short-film training, Green, aided by co-producer Letebele Masemola-Jones, Bongani Selane and others such as M-Net’s John Badenhorst, shone a light on the darkness, and brought us into the sunrise. This was not the false dawn of Ramaphoria.

Green found resonance in Carl Jung’s psychology of the collective unconscious which explains how human beings are connected to each other through shared experiences. 

This theory is intuitively applied in his self-reflexive analysis of his zero-budget feature film Tokoloshe (2020). That is, we explain, how creators make meaning in addition to how that meaning is interpreted by viewers.

Green witnessed appalling acts of racism both against him (Afrikaner-English, British-South African English) and white-black, but also heart-warming acts of kindness and conscientisation. Such a coming to consciousness emerged during our writing because of his relationship with the extraordinarily talented director of The Fourth Reich and other interrogations of apartheid, Manie van Rensburg. 

Van Rensburg is the shadow archetype in our analysis, Green’s alter ego. But they were also in a yin and yang relationship, until Van Rensburg lost his way after being shunned by the industry for meeting the ANC in exile in Dakar in 1987. He committed suicide at the age of 48. 

Van Rensburg sits with the great self-reflective dissident Afrikaners such as Athol Fugard, Beyers Naudé and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, for whom pain was a condition of consciousness, as Eugene Marais explained in his book, The Soul of the White Ant

Green was exposed to key figures and moments, even as a young child, such as Afrikaner communist and anti-apartheid leader Bram Fischer. 

At the age of five, he had accompanied his mother’s security policeman boyfriend on a stakeout of Fischer’s home. 

He was also privy to another policeman’s story, also one of his mother’s boyfriends, about how the cops aimed at the women first during the Sharpeville massacre as they were egging on the male protestors. 

Such experiences left inevitable scars, creatively exorcised in the films he later made and produced.

Green’s alienation from his British heritage, and his contesting of the heritages he found in South Africa, underpinned his personal signature as a producer.

Working in shadow economies to earn a living, we realised, has some surprising outcomes, such as how the Bantustans became a contradictory factor in opposing — and not just extending — apartheid. Behaviours made illegal in white SA were legally on sale at the casino-hotel complexes built in these remote areas. 

Censorship became a joke with the mischievous chief censor Kobus van Rooyen, the Appeal Board’s court jester, who was fracturing censorship from the inside, to enable a creeping dismantling of state restrictions on cultural expression.

These experiences came together in the first New Directions series, and then Tokoloshe, and in all the bread and butter “penny ’orribles” on which Green worked in between with actors such as Bo Derek, Michael Dudikoff and Robert Mitchum.

In recovering, through 10 years of extended dialogue, the deeper recesses of Green’s memory in relation to my own, and those of our many informants, we began to see the need for a revisionist history of the South African media. 

We thus explain:

• How M-Net, which started in a caravan in Randburg in Johannesburg, broke the SABC’s monopoly.

• How the homelands helped to break apartheid.

• How activist civil-society film organisations broke with the externally imposed cultural boycott and empowered homegrown movements. 

• How the New Directions series broke with the by now passé struggle stories.

•  How liberation liberated the New Directions narratives to face the future rather than just tediously rehabilitating victimologies of the past.

• How Green’s childhood experiences, films and production practices resulted in a new auteurist theory of film psychology, composed not by a text-based academic, but by a practising producer-director. 

They all cohere in this one man’s work. 

As Van Eeden suggests, “Richard’s experiences alongside once-in-a-lifetime director Manie van Rensburg and so many other international names, including Tom Hooper, his reach into Africa to nurture nascent talent through New Directions, his initiation of one of South Africa’s first production services companies, Moonlighting, and many other groundbreaking strides makes for fascinating storytelling. 

“Not only is this book the product of a life which has been dedicated to the art of film-making, it’s a fascinating and informative archive of the growth of the South African film industry.” 

To conclude, as our colleague, media professor Lauren Dyll, observes: “In the call for curriculum transformation, lecturers endeavour to provide relevant local and indigenous content. Richard Green in South African Film provides a treasure trove of just that. 

“It offers a unique combination of a close reflection on the industry, but with equal importance placed on the theoretical component, helpfully (politically) historicised. 

“Not only will readers journey into new directions of the South African film industry but the past is not forgotten with an exciting revisioning of classic genres like the horror that are opened up to new and de-centred narrative considerations.”

Keyan Tomaselli works from the Dean’s Office, University of Johannesburg. He is author of Encountering Modernity: 20th Century South African Cinemas (2007, Unisa Press). Both he and Green were recipients of the Simon “Mbhunu” Sabela Film Awards in the Heroes and Legends category.