The resistance of informed audiences against locally made feature films is legendary. Melodramatic, sentimental, hackneyed, naïve and trite -most South African films stand condemned. Yet invariably they perform well at the box office, particularly in the smaller towns and country areas. This drive-in conditioned audience expects poor fare, pays willingly to see it and rejects anything sophisticated. So much so, that one production company upon receiving rave reviews in every newspaper in the country convened an emergency board meeting to discuss ways and means of countering this potentially deleterious situation. Where local film is concerned, anything the critics regard as above the average immediately encounters a resistance from this sector of the cinema going population. Such films, for example Jannie Totsiens (1970), Sarah (1975), The Guest/Die Besoeker (1977) and Diamant en die Dief (1978) etc., fail financially on three counts. Firstly, their rave reviews cause the average “snot en trane” audience to reject anything which suggests a suspicion of sophistication or even worse, art. They prefer “vrot” movies to quote a parliamentary description. Secondly, the cinematically informed urban Afrikaner refuses to be drawn to a local production because he cannot conceive that any South African made film, no matter how enthusiastic the reviews, can transcend the rules which govern the “vrot” type of movie genre. And finally, the English speaking population which votes Prog and says, “Thank God for the Nats”, is unable to comprehend that anything of value can be derived from an investigation of our own culture, social history and environment. Persuaded by advertising he might see films like Funny People and Beautiful People. He might be drawn by international stars like Antony Quinn in Tigers Don’t Cry or Richard Harris in Golden Rendezvous. Sometimes the English-speaking viewer does support Afrikaans movies. The youthful nostalgia of military life which is increasingly playing a greater part in South African social life is reflected in Die Winter 14 Julie and Forty Days. But where the film is either demanding or of a high standard, the “I don’t see South African movies” syndrome is immediately invoked.
Consequently, producers are forced, willingly or unwillingly, to cater for that segment of the cinema-going population which support “vrot” movies. The desire to make a better movie is strangled by financial exigencies, the demands of an unsophisticated audience, the conventional release patterns of the distributors and the problems encountered in the exhibiting of local product in the major urban areas. “We are demoralized with making films for the C-income group” complains producer Andre’ Scholtz. The result: yet another variation of the inevitable triangular love story starring Hans Strydom. The plot, story and characters remain the same, only names and places change. Such films include Sien Jou Môre , Môre Môre, ‘nSondag in September, Sonja, Iemand Soos Jy/Someone Like You, Nicolene, Eensame Vlug, etc etc andetc.
But this was not always the case. Every now and again the press critics pronounce that “South African Cinema has come of Age”, an observation most notably attributed to The Guest This is, however, wishful thinking. The golden age of local cinema has come and gone on two separate occasions. The first was between 1916 and 1920 when South Africa was at the forefront of the film making nations. De Voortrekkers (1916), Symbol of Sacrifice (1918), King Solomon’s Mines (1918) and Prester John (1920) reaped both critical and financial reward internationally. However South Africa could not compete with the Hollywood production line and its nascent film industry became dormant after 1920. It was revived during the 1960’s by the introduction of the State subsidy system. During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, South African Film, and more particularly Afrikaans Cinema came to terms with itself. Elmo de Witt burst upon the scene with Debbie in 1965. Emil Nofal and Jans Rautenbach further ripped apart the cardboard stereotype of the Afrikaner in Wild Season (1967), Die Kandidaat (1968) and Katrina (1969). Rautenbach’s Jannie Totsiens (1970) has been compared to the writings of “Die Sestigers” and Pappalap (1971) derives its imagery from the South African “dorp”. Raka (1968) based on a poem by N. P. van Wyk Louw and Breekpunt (1971) a taut thriller are above standard while Boesman en Lena (1973) and Land Apart (1974) show the “other” South Africa. Other films which have made their mark through the years include Jim Comes to Jo’burg (1949), Daar Doer in die Bosveld (1951), Magic Garden (1961), Seven Against the Sun (1964), Dingaka (1964), Zulu (1966), Springbok (1976), ‘n Beeld vir Jeannie (1976) and Kootjie Emmer (1977).
Where does the film industry stand today? The subsidy system has become a tremendous cause for dissatisfaction. It has neither placed the industry on a viable economic footing nor has it stimulated an artistic integrity in local film. Competition from TV has caused a fall off in cinema attendances. This, coupled with increasing production costs and limited exhibition venues for South African pictures suggests that a re-evaluation of local film is urgently necessary.