South African Film


Feature Films are the long format, fictional (non-factual) films you see in cinemas. They are called long format because they are longer than most other forms of film making - anything between 80 minutes and four hours, with 90 minutes being the average length. They are generally the most expensive kind of film to make, the most demanding, and the most prestigious. Directors of features like Steven Spielberg (USA) or Franco Zeferelli (Italy) are much more famous than people who direct commercials or documentaries for television. It takes hundreds of people to make a feature, and usually millions of Rand – although low budget features are possible, like South African Akin Omotso’s G-d is African (released in 2003).

Where have all the features gone?

A feature film usually has a dramatic story and identifiable characters. Different countries have developed different kinds of feature films: USA - the Hollywood blockbuster, India – the Bollywood musical melodrama, New Zealand – intense art-house films, Europe – the Dogme 95 movement. African film has also developed its own story-telling techniques, some of which derive from the continent’s rich tradition of oral history and indigenous modes of communication. Since the end of the colonial era, films have been produced which respond creatively to the ever shifting conditions and dilemmas the continent faces. This despite the fact that most African countries are poor (which means less money available to finance films) and they lack the necessary infrastructure (transport, film equipment and facilities).

Small West African countries like Ivory Coast, Burkino Faso and Senegal have produced (relative to the rest of Africa) a large number of path-breaking films, and important directors like Djibril Diop Mambety (from Senegal) and Idrissa Ouedraogo from Burkino Faso have made a name for themselves as African directors. Most of these films were co-productions with France, which often supplied the money to make them. They did reasonably well before African audiences, and before art-house audiences in Europe. Overall however, they failed to earn their makers and backers (the people who invested money in making the film) enough money to comfortably make more films. Thus even Africa’s top directors only manage to make one film every eight years or so. Other African directors never make more than one or two films. As two academics described it, many African films are stories that tell, rather than products that sell.This has been both a strength and a weakness.

Feature films tell dramatic stories in such a powerful way that they often shape how we see each other. How many of us modelled our kissing, or our idea of being “tough” on the way we saw it done “in the movies?” And how many of us have formed our ideas about what life is like in the USA based on the hundreds of American feature films and TV shows we have all been exposed to? When a country does not produce many feature films telling stories about the lives of its people, cinema audiences often find themselves watching films which do not satisfactorily reflect their own lives. Of course good stories all have a universal dimension, which is why we can relate to stories from other countries, but we can relate much more to films which wrestle with our own fears, hopes and struggles.

You might not have seen them on TV or in a cinema, but yes, South Africa does make its own feature films, telling stories about South Africans and reflecting the varied lives we lead here. Unfortunately, these films are few and far between, and even when they are made they're not always easy to get to see, especially if you don't live in a big city. That's why South African cinema-goers are more used to seeing Los Angeles or New York or London on the screen then they are to seeing Soweto, Jozi or Cape Town. It’s why we recognize Eddie Murphy more easily than we recognise local stars like John Kani. And it’s why we often know more about American history - or at least Hollywood's version of it - than we do about our own. Perhaps it is because there are so few uniquely South African feature films that SA cinema audiences are largely middle class and urban, while rural people, and people living in townships or informal settlements rarely find the opportunity – or reason – to visit the cinema.

Why do so few films - when compared not just with Hollywood (which dominates the film industry worldwide), but when compared also with other countries like Australia, Canada, Egypt and India - come out of South Africa?

Perhaps it’s not just a South African problem, but a pan-African one. South Africa is a part of Africa, and since the early 90’s increasingly connected to the rest of Africa, both culturally and economically.

"African films work in rhythm with the African economy" says 47 year old Pierre Yameogo, an established director from Burkino Faso. "It's almost impossible to produce feature films...we don't have the infrastructure." Perhaps. Yet SA does have a lot of the things needed to make films. More foreign films are made here than anywhere else in Africa, and South Africa assists in the making of more commercials than any other country outside of the US. The Western Cape - particularly Cape Town - accounts for 25% of SA's Rand 2 billion annual film industry. Durban is also becoming a sought after location.

The exchange rate (i.e. the fact that the Rand is a weaker currency than the Euro, Pound and Dollar), the beautiful locations , and the experience and professionalism of SA film crews, attract foreign companies here. More local television is consumed than anywhere else in Africa, and South Africa is the continent's leader in satellite distribution and interactive content. There are an estimated 25 000 people working in the SA film and video industry.

So if its not a lack of technical capacity, then what might it be? Here are a few possible reasons for our seeming inability to make good feature films and to distribute them widely.

A lack of good scripts. South Africans have great stories to tell, but don’t have many people who can tell them in an entertaining way. There is also not enough funding for script development – the process in which a script gets rewritten and polished over and over again. We need to come up with good and saleable scripts which speak with a clear and unique South African voice...something, it seems, we have not yet accessed.

There is a lack of budget for marketing and distribution. It is not enough just to make a film. You also have to have the means to distribute it. This is the problem that African film has faced. The North American film industry tends to dominate global cinema, and has developed extremely effective marketing and distribution mechanisms to get its product out there.

In South Africa marketing budgets - the money made available to advertise a new film - are tiny. For example, about R80 000.00 was put aside to market Akin Omotso's feature film G-d is African. Compare this to budgets of R10 million and more made available to market Hollywood films. But its not just money which gives North American product its advantage. When Hollywood (or Vancouver, or Sydney for that matter) make a film, they supply distributors world wide with electronic press kits, posters, display stands and other items to help create public awareness of the film. South Africa needs to learn from the North American industry’s thoroughness and attention to detail. NGO's like Film Resources Unit (FRU) have been doing this to some extent. They put in an extra R300 000.00 to distribute the film Lumumba ( a French speaking film from the Democratic Republic of Congo, about assassinated leader Patrice Lumumba) in South Africa and the film did exceptionally well at the box office in 2002, despite there being only two prints of the film.

Lack of respect for intellectual copyright laws: Unfortunately there is much piracy in Africa. Let’s say a filmmaker gets R7 million from investors to make a film (a miniscule amount by Hollywood – and even Bollywood standards – but quite a lot for an SA film). They hope to earn this money back by box office sales (cinema tickets sold to the public), and more importantly by the sale of video and DVD copies of the film. However, the film is often illegally duplicated by people who want to make money quickly and exploit the hard work of others; they sell pirated copies cheaply and the filmmaker and investors receive nothing for the sale of these illegal copies. The filmmaker is unable to fund the making of future films, investors are scared off, and the whole film industry – a potential creator of jobs and prosperity is affected.

A lack of appropriate government intervention. Media globalization means country’s film industry is operating in a vacuum, or on some little island. South Africa is operating on an audio-visual playing field where – as large companies merge to form even larger ones - fewer and fewer people control production and distribution. It becomes harder and harder to make a film and even harder to penetrate the distribution barriers. Without assistance and intervention from those who can influence this playing field – The South African government and our own private sector - South African films do not stand a good chance in the global market. In countries like Australia and new Zealand, which have both built thriving film industries over the last 30 years, there is massive state assistance and intervention (via the Australian Film Commission and New Zealand Film Board) who help fund the distribution and marketing of their countries’ feature films.

It would be pleasing to end this discussion with the conclusion that the South African film community is successfully addressing the challenges listed above and is on the way to becoming a viable industry which will represent South Africa in the same way as the Australian, Senegalese and New Zealand industries have managed to do. We certainly have the capacity, talent and infrastructure to do as well as these countries, and bodies like FRU and the NFVF are certainly addressing the issues – successfully or not remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, however, the various elements have not yet come together, and the invisible something which divides between the “we did it” camp and the “we came so close to doing it” camp seems to be very much at play here. In 2003 The SA industry is at an absolute crossroads, and without the necessary interventions – and magic something - it will not make it as a contender amongst the world’s feature film heavyweights.

Who’s who in the Movie Zoo – a few terms explained

The producer usually finds the money to make the film. The producer also hires cast and crew and not only supervises the production process but the film's distribution and makes sure it gets into cinemas.

The scriptwriter, or screenwriter, develops original screenplays or adapts existing material such as books or plays. Sometimes a screenwriter is hired to write a script.

Director - The director breaks down the screenplay, visualizes how the film should be shot and works with cast and crew to carry out his vision. The director is a movie's main creative force.

DOP or Director of Photography - The DOP works closely with the director and is responsible for the photographic look of the picture. In small films or documentary films, the DP may operate his or her own camera and adjust light as well. In studio films, the DP instructs camera operators and gaffers (lighting technicians) on how to arrange shots and lighting.

Editor - The editor is responsible for putting together all the shots. The editor generally screens each day's film footage (called dailies or rushes) and edits while the picture is being shot. However, most of an editor's job occurs after all the filming has been completed, when he and the director sit together for weeks and put together the film in its final form. Music Com

Film market - a place where broadcasters, producers, directors, distributors and others come together to buy and sell films, film scripts, ideas for films and to find sources of finance for their film projects (via, for example, co-production deals.)

Location – the place where a scene from a film is shot. A feature film will typically use dozens of different locations. South Africa has superb locations, from deserts and bushveld to modern cities with stately homes.

Budget – the way the amount of money available to make and distribute a film is divided up.