|In 1995, cinema in South Africa was exactly 100 years old. Early projection devices were frequented around the Johannesburg goldfields from 1895 on. The first cinema newsreels ever were filmed at the front during the Anglo-Boer War (1989-1902). The world's longest running weekly newsreel, African Mirror (1913-1984), was in the mid-1990s broadcast as history on national TV. The first narrative film was The Kimberley Diamond Robbery, made in 1910. |
Between 1916 and 1922, when IW Schlesinger produced 43 big budget high quality features, themes were rooted in the ideological outlook of the period, with Boer and Briton standing together under the flame of unity and civilization against barbaric hordes (eg. De Voortrekkers / Winning a Continent - 1916 and Symbol of Sacrifice - 1918). The magnitude of Symbol, with its 25 000 Zulu warrior extras, is an even more astonishing accomplishment. This film was recently reconstructed from off-cuts by archivist Mark Coglan, who works at the Pietermaritzburg Museum.
Films until the early '20s were based mainly on the writings of British authors like H Rider Haggard. Production declined after 1922 for, despite high technical standards, obtaining footholds in British and US markets proved difficult. De Voortrekkers, however, inspired The Covered Wagon (1923) in the USA. Foreign remakes such as Zulu (1966) and Zulu dawn (1980) of the British-Zulu Wars of 1879 followed Symbol of Sacrifice.
A 30 year lull was broken in the early 1950s by Jamie Uys (of the Gods Must be Crazy films) when he succeeded in attracting Afrikaner-dominated capital to establish independent production. He persuaded the government to provide a subsidy for the making of local films, which continued until the late 1980s. It was this subsidy which resulted in films supportive of the military such as Kaptein Caprivi (1972), made while the South African Police supported the white Rhodesian regime.
Uys was South Africa's most commercially-successful director. Key black commentators recognized a cultural authenticity in Dingaka's (1965) treatment of the conflict between Roman-Dutch and African Customary Law. The remote, unforgiving Bushmen in Lost in the Desert (1971), however, are very unlike the lovable sympathetic characters he constructed in his Gods Must Be Crazy films.
Cinema as the voice of the people is much younger than cinema the institution. That voice was facilitated by producers located elsewhere in films like Zoltan Korda's Cry the Beloved Country (1951 - based on Alan Paton's novel) and Lionel Rogosin's chilling Come Back Africa (1959), which reveals the brutality of apartheid structural violence. Euzhan Palcy's A Dry White Season (1989 - Andre Brink) and Richard Attenbourgh's Cry Freedom (1987) - Donald Woods and Steve Biko) were the first films to bring the horrors of apartheid to mass cinema audiences. Exiled Lionel Ngakane made his mark too with Jemina and Johnny (1966) and Vukani Awake (1964). Ngakane was an actor on Korda's version of Cry the Beloved Country and as technical consultant on A Dry White Season. Ngakane's influence on African cinema through FEPACI has been enormous. These films were complemented by the odd and unsuccessful domestic attempts (some by Afrikaans film makers) in the late 1960s and early '70s to challenge the dominant genres supportive of apartheid.
Between 1956 and 1978 genre films (especially in Afrikaans) earned higher returns than imported fare. Exceptions which interrogated apartheid exposed white South Africans to new critical styles. Amongst these were the expressionism of Jans Rautenbach's Jannie Totsiens (1970); neo-realism in Donald Swanson's African Jim (1949) and Magic Garden (1961) and the films of Athol Fugard and Ross Devenish such as Boesman and Lena (1973), The Guest (1978) and Marigolds in August (1980). Fugard's last film, Road to Mecca (1992), is his best yet. Its swirling camera which focuses on interpersonal relationships between an old eccentric white secluded artist and her hostile community, reveals the inner Fugard, an artist also alienated from society.
The first black-made film was Gibsen Kente's How Long (must we suffer ...? (1976). It was shot in the Eastern Cape during the Soweto uprising. How Long was briefly shown in the Transkei. Other films made by whites and aimed at blacks tended to be appallingly inept, exploitative and patronizing, such as Joe Bullet (1974). This marginalized sector of the industry literally consisted of butchers, bakers and candle stick makers. It emerged in 1974, milked the government subsidy pot dry, and collapsed at the end of the 1980s. Black director, Simon Sabela, employed by Heyns Films, however, injected a degree of cultural authenticity into the films he made, such as U-Deliwe (1975). It was only towards the end of the 1980s that it became known that Heyns Films had been infiltrated by the apartheid government which was responsible for funding Sabela's films. The contradictions are clear - even state sponsored films had a degree of integrity of content, in contrast to the awful racism of many of those films made by whites for the `black' market.
The years following 1986 saw the sustained development of a domestic anti-apartheid cinema financed by capital looking for tax breaks and international markets. Canon Films responded with explorer titles like King Solomon's Mines (1985). But Durban producer, Anant Singh, of Indian extraction, working with film graduate Darrell Roodt, developed from the low budget Place of Weeping (1986) and Jobman (1989) to blockbusters like Sarafina (1993) and the Cry the Beloved Country (1995) remake. Singh's activities extend to the USA, his most technically sophisticated film being The Mangler (1994), based on a Stephen King novel.
A `black' South African cinema has yet to occur. Many films have been made by progressive white directors about `black' stories, and multiracial teams have made films like Mapantsula (1988). For the first time South Africa now has a sustained and sophisticated examination of the full spectrum of South African history - Boer prisoners held by the British (Arende - The Earth - 1994), liberal opposition to apartheid in the 1960s (Cry the Beloved Country), the psychological impact of the wars waged against neighbors (The Stick 1987). The popular struggle of the 1980s was imaged in Mapantsula. Films critical of white racial attitudes and experiences were made by Manie van Rensburg (Taxi to Soweto - 1992). Historical origins and effects of apartheid are found in Elaine Procter's Friends (1994), Katinka Heyns's Feila's Child (1988), and Van Rensburg's The Fourth Reich (1990). Films like Andrew Worsdale's Shot Down (1990) and Fourth Reich (1990) reveal the inner turmoil of white South Africans of various races on apartheid.
Sven Persson's documentary, Land Apart (1974), which predicted the Soweto uprising of June '76, provided a benchmark for anti-apartheid documentaries made within South Africa, as did Nana Mahamo's Last Grave at Dimbaza (1973), shown clandestinely throughout South Africa. The 1980s in particular have seen many more: Jurgen Schaderburg's Have You Seen Drum Recently (1988), recreates the energetic days of Drum magazines of the '50s. Many others have contributed to a growing movement of critical and historically sensitive film and video makers.
The technical golden age of South African cinema epics occurred between 1916 and 1922. The period of sheer quantity at 30 films a year occurred between 1962 and 1980, the heydays of apartheid. But its political coming of age was signalled by a sustained movement towards historical interrogation which began in 1986. It continues to this day.
Blignaut, J. and Botha, M. (Eds). (1992). Movies - Moguls and Mavericks, South African cinema, 1979-1991. Cape Town: Showdata.
Gutsche, T. (1972). The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa, 1895-1940. Cape Town: Howard Timmins.
Tomaselli, K.G. (1988). The Cinema of Apartheid, Race and Class in South African Cinema. (New York: Smyrna Press).