Four years after Fools, a film by Ramadan Suleiman based on a novel by Njabulo Ndebele, a new South African feature film, Hijack Stories directed by Oliver Schmitz (a White South African of German origin) was released in Parisian cinemas in June 2000. The liberal filmmaker is the little known author of renowned South African film Mapantsula which came out in 1998 and was written with the black actor Thomas Mogotlane. It was the first South African film to discuss township life. Thirteen years and a revolution later, Hijack Stories would not have been made if it were not for German funding.
The situation is even more frustrating for black directors. Zola Maseko is not the only one wondering why the films coming out of South Africa are still so white. At the Grahamstown film festival, the annual rendez-vous for the South African arts, five South African films were presented this year. Two were feature films Chikin Bizniz (by a black director) and The King is Alive (by a white director). The three documentaries were all white even though they discussed black issues.
In Nelson Mandela’s homeland, where they are still waiting for the cinematographic fresco that producer Ananth singh (of Indian origin) is expected to paint of the former president’s life, the film industry is first and foremost American. For the two major distributors, Ster Kinekor and Nu Metro, money is the strongest reason to go American. « According to their logic, films directed by Blacks about Black life are only of interest to Blacks, » states Ramadan Suleiman. « Yet, there are few cinemas in the townships and the movie-going public is mostly white. »
The only major change in the last few years is the National Film and Video Foundation, a mixed organisation set up in 1999. The NFVF is both state and privately funded and aims to support creation, promote export, provide training and encourage information sharing. However, state funding channelled through the organisation since 2000 is still meagre. Annual funding 10 million Rands since 1998 will not get the South African film industry very far. Worse still, funding trickles through in 100,000-Rand (13,600) batches and is expected to feed hundreds of projects that very rarely ever actually see the light of day.
Despite these problems, South Africa still has the only veritable film industry in Sub-Saharan Africa. It employs 20,000 people and has an annual turnover of 1.5 billion Rands. Advertising and « Hollyveld » foreign films shot in South Africa on a low budget keeps the industry alive. The reason there is no non-white talent emerging is that access to the three national South African Broadcasting Corporation channels, which constitute the best means of making a name for one’s self, has been blocked.
The lack of political measures in favour of location production is compounded by corruption and nepotism. As determined as they may be, the SABC’s new black directors have not managed to dismantle the well-oiled machine. According to several filmmakers, your success depends on who you know and how many pay-offs you are prepared to make – the « commission » can be as high as 10% of the budget obtained. For this reason, many South African filmmakers have preferred to turn to foreign mostly European funding. French funding accounts for half of the seven million French Francs (1,067,143) budgeted for Ramadan Suleiman’s next feature film, Zulu Love Letter.
Also read an interview with Ramadan Suleiman and review of Fools in issue 1 of Africultures.///Article N° : 5524