Movies from the beloved country

The first annual South African film festival in London is launched this weekend. Ivan Fallon reports on the emergence of a new film-making nation
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The Independent Culture

"People’s perceptions of a country are often defined by its cinema,” says the veteran film-maker John Irvin, the driving force behind the new South African Annual Film Festival which is launched at BAFTA this week-end. “Think of the American Western, musicals, comedies and gangster movies; think France and the Nouvelle Vague; think England's James Bond and the Ealing comedies. South Africa has a rich literary tradition and now is the time to promote its cinematic endeavour."

Until the past few years South Africa has been better known as a location for shooting foreign films rather than as a film-maker in its own right. The festival, which will take place in February, is aimed at show-casing an emerging generation of local film-makers who are beginning to make waves on the international scene.

Irvin, perhaps best known for his iconic TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - now very much back in fashion (“but without Alec Guinness”) - has been greatly impressed by the talent and creativity he has seen from both white and black South Africans. There is a serious crop of them, some of them entirely home-grown and others who went into exile during the apartheid years, learned their trade abroad, and are now returning home.

South Africa has 11 official languages and some of the best modern films have been made in African languages: Tsotsi, Gavin Hood’s Academy 2006 Award-winning drama about a young gangster in Soweto, is made in Sotho, the language spoken of the Johannesburg townships, and is all the more effective for it. The brilliant Xhosa-language U Carmen E Khayalitsha, which won the Golden Bear Award in Berlin and attracted rave reviews from the critics in London and New York, was made in Xhosa, the native tongue of Nelson Mandela and many of the old ANC leaders.

Of the 24 South African films and documentaries on show at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the most notable was Oliver Hermanus’s Skoonheid (Beauty), which had the distinction of being the first Afrikaans language film to make it into the festival. It also had the distinction of winning the Queer Palm 2011 (it is the story of a homosexual love affair), although it didn’t win the Un Certain Regard category for which it was one of the favourites.

Skoonheid was not the only South African film which caught the eyes of the judges and critics. Last year, Life Above All, the story of a young girl trying to cope with a family suffering from HIV/AIDs, was the talk of Cannes and this year there was an even better crop: Roepman, which is about a Durban railway community in the turbulent apartheid years; Otelo Burning, set in the troubled townships of 1989;  The Whale Caller, based on the book by the highly regarded author Zakes Mda; Spoon, a supernatural thriller produced by Sharlto Copley of District 9 fame; and Surfing Soweto, which involves the rather dangerous habit of “surfing” on the roofs of trains.

There are many more coming out of an increasingly self-confident and professional local film industry which is building on the giants of the past. Anant Singh, born and brought up in Durban, is of course the doyenne of the industry, for his highly-regarded anti-apartheid films including Sarafina! (Whoopi Goldberg), about the riots in Soweto, and Place of Weeping. But his masterpiece was Cry the Beloved Country, based on the book by Alan Paton with the screenplay written by another South African, (Sir) Ronald Harwood (winner of an Oscar for The Pianist); it remains the greatest South African film of its generation. As an aside, Harwood’s play, Collaboration, (about the relationship between Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig), opened in Paris to rave reviews last week, the best one from Canard Enchaîné which said: ‘Harwood is the most outstanding living British playwright.” He will be in attendance at the festival launch this week-end.

Because of the many big Hollywood films shot in South Africa over the years, Cape Town in particular has developed high quality studio facilities and well-trained technicians, essential for the development of the new indigenous industry. In 1994, at the end of apartheid, the industry employed 4,000 people. Today it employs 40,000, and the government has heaped money on it in the belief it can create even more in a country which features the highest level of unemployment in the world (over 35 per cent).

Among recent films which have been shot there was Blood Diamond , and there was great excitement in Cape Town when the filming of Invictus, based on the book written by John Carlin, the former South African correspondent of The Independent), brought Leonard diCaprio and Clint Eastwood into town. Denzil Washington, who played Steve Biko in the Richard Attenborough film, Cry Freedom, was back to make the blockbuster Safe House while the latest James Bond movie was being filmed a few miles away.

Nice as these are to have, the festival, which Irvin has put together with the documentary film-maker Claire Evans, will concentrate on the locally-made films. There were precious few in the apartheid era, and none that really met the needs of black South Africans such as Eugene Skeef, a former activist who drove Biko around the country (he was the artist who drew the iconic black-manacled fist breaking the chains, carried by many all anti-apartheid demonstrators). After Biko was arrested, Skeef went into exile in 1980 and has since become a leading musician, poet and educationalist in London (he is on the board of the LPO among many other arts and educational bodies).

“Like all black South Africans,” he says, “I come from a culture of story-telling where even the most mundane event is transformed, through the use of aphorisms, anecdotes and even poetry, into something far grander. Hollywood films we saw didn’t really touch us in the way they did westerners, or in the way our own stories do. So I think this festival is an incredible opportunity to tell our stories through the medium of film, which really combines all the other arts, in a dignified way.

Skeef is one of the judges of what are being cleverly called “the Golden Rhino Awards”, and will be performing at the launch event on Saturday, as will The Glasser Quartet with Pinise Saul, the South African vocalist. There will be a special screening of  “Cry the Beloved Country” which Ronnie Harwood.

The main festival, which will take place from February 5-12 in London, is sponsored by The Independent.