By Nomali Cele
South African film has been going through a different stage in recent years and 2018 seems to have been a peaking moment. For two decades post-apartheid, a lot of our film storytelling focused on the atrocities of the apartheid period. This was a necessary and important undertaking. However, it seemed to shrink the pool and limit the kinds of stories we were allowed to tell.
The 2010s decade has been a turning point in that regard for South African film, showing that our stories can exist side-by-side; history and biopics on the same screens with stories that show who we are and where we are right now. 25 years into democracy, that’s a good change of lanes.
The decade before had a few feature films that were based in the present or, in the case of the 2009 film District 9, a reimagined, sci-fi past. But by large, the themes for the decade were historical films, crime dramas or HIV awareness projects. If something was light, it was a Leon Schuster slapstick production, such as Mr Bones or Mama Jack, which all came with a generous helping of blackface. Or it was an Afrikaans romantic comedy?
This period of our film industry makes sense and was necessary. We needed to tell stories about our history. We needed to make our people aware of HIV and work towards destroying stigma against the disease. But it sure is good, as a South African film consumer, to have an industry that isn’t just an awareness machine; an industry built to entertain me.
In the last two to three years, cinema-goers have had the opportunity to enjoy Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, adapted from the novel of the same name by author Cynthia Jele, Ayanda, Tell Me Sweet Something, Inxeba Kalushi, Catching Feelings, Five Fingers for Marseille, Looking For Love and many others. 2019 has added to the mix, the positively received Matwetwe from executive producer Black Coffee and writer-director Kagiso Lediga.
South Africa is a very young democracy and this it’s expected that as we learn who we are and the different values we have at each stage, so too will our arts reflect that. It can be argued that current, carefree films help create a profitable film industry. If the view is that “oh we know that story about x apartheid event”, viewers will opt to spend their money on something else; likely something international.
But when there are different kinds of local films available, then the audience is able to choose between three or more local films to watch at any given time. Variety also means that different kinds of audiences are catered for.
This is only a start for the South African film industry.