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The Rise of South African Cinema beyond Western Narratives

Trends and Insight 268 Add to collection

LBB’s Zoe Antonov explores the history and changes in South African cinema, and speaks to the directors that believe a new wave of SA filmmaking is underway, shattering Western hegemony and giving young voices new breath

The Rise of South African Cinema beyond Western Narratives

South African storytelling and by association, film directing has gone through a number of hurdles since as early as the 19th century to today. As a melting pot of cultures, South Africa should naturally be a breeding ground for some of the world’s most special storytelling and narratives, however, historical context also gets in the way of the development of film in the country. 

Before the start of the Apartheid regime, South Africa was well on track when it comes to innovation in creativity. In fact, as early as 1895 sound motion pictures became available for viewing in Durban, making the country one of the first countries ever to have the technology available. Soon after followed the first South African-produced full-length drama, The Great Kimberly Diamond Robbery in 1910 and Africa’s first film production studio – Africa Film Productions Ltd., established in Johannesburg in 1915. 
During the ‘30s South Africa saw the production of the first sound film about Black traditional life, In the Land of the Zulus, but also saw the establishment of the South African Censor Board, allowing government control over the public’s access to film content.

Following the start of the Apartheid and legalisation of racial hierarchy, the Censor Board was replaced by the Publications Control Board, which aimed to keep anti-Apartheid messaging out of media and cashflow was funnelled directly to white filmmakers to further exclude Black citizens from the industry. The nature of South African cinema quickly became fully imperialistic and a wide divide was drawn between the films created specifically for Black audiences, lacking in funding, venues and support (as well as anti-Apartheid films, as part of an alternative film industry) and the generally better funded imperialist cinema. 

Understandably, following the end of the Apartheid regime in 1994, South African storytelling has struggled to mend the divides that were so firmly established, as well as reverse the imperialist narratives in storytelling. As with most of the third and the transitioning world, Hollywood penetrated the film industries and completely took over film sets all over the world, providing American and generally Western narratives instead of leaving space for growth in places where it is needed most. In the same way that, say, ex-satellite states struggled to regain their own voice in creativity and storytelling after the fall of the Soviet Union, still echoing the narratives that were pushed onto them, South Africa has been slowly waking up to the sound of its own voice after Apartheid. 

With access to anything but American films still being an issue, as well as the incredibly high prices regarding data and internet, the country has been taking its first shaky steps (back) into the world of true South African cinema, to reflect the plethora of backgrounds, cultures and perspectives that make up the fabric of SA society. That bulking of narratives and the thick shadow of the global North hanging over the global South in every aspect of culture is nothing new or shocking. Lebogang Rasethaba, director at Egg Films reminds us that “since the invention of filmmaking, film economies were organised around personalities, archetypes, individuals. From the time Hollywood transitioned from being a property company to the opening of its first film studios its agenda was clear: create heroes that can be used to imagine a new society around.” 
To Lebogang, Hollywood is a ladder for heteronormative ideals and in the 1920s, in a time of war, the great depression, “it was a failed society.” Because America needed those heroes, archetypes such as Humphrey Bogart, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and the like became the icons and “gave us individuals to attach our hopes, our dreams and aspirations to.”

But what does the movement away from these idols and the phantasmagoria of the Western film industry look like and where is it headed in South Africa today? Samantha Nell, director at Gentlemen Films explains: “The new wave of cinema that is emerging on the continent, not just in South Africa, isn’t just deeply interested in defining genre norms. But in shattering Western ideas and representations of the continent and its people.” The work Samantha refers to is driven by deep narrative exploration seen in films such as Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s ‘This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection’ (2019) as well as Rungano Nyoni’s ‘I Am Not a Witch’ (2017). 

Hallie Haller, director at Rudeboy Collective, echoes the sentiment. “It’s a natural thing for emerging industries to mimic pathways of success that they’ve seen before,” she says. “So we tried to mimic Hollywood genre films because we know that that audience exists. We tried to make images of ourselves, the way Hollywood sees us, because we know that market exists,” But she, too, believes that African narratives are changing this in new and exciting ways.

She points to the rise of streaming platforms and community film screening networks like Isipethu result in a broader demographic spectrum of South Africans being able to access film, which feeds audience’s appetite for novelty and beautifully genuine storytelling. “Series like Yellowbone’s ‘Blood Psalms’ demand that we question everything we thought we knew about African audiences,” she explains. “The appetite for a fetishized ‘African cinema’ has been gross and tropey, but it’s let new filmmakers into the room. And this SA New Wave are doing a lot with that opportunity.”

Hallie points to Tebogo Malebogo’s ‘Heaven Reaches Down to Earth’, which “breathes in a new temporality to what we’ve seen from local filmmakers,” as well as Jabu Newman’s ‘The Dream That Refused Me,’ that so blatantly mocks the Western gaze of Africa, while still “being exalted on many of the platforms that have a tendency to exoticize African film.”

And those opportunities that have arisen expose an entirely new playing field of experimentation and storytelling. Samantha thinks that that playing field will not carve one singular definition of South African identity, but will instead act as the catalyst to fracture and complicate that identity. “We are complex individuals, as opposed to the unified mass that Western media paints us as,” she says. 

That’s exactly what Lebogang also believes. “In South Africa, we have 11 official languages,” he reminds us. “And while English dominates public consciousness, we have a beautifully diverse range of voices and perspectives. The systems created by Hollywood mean that when we look for trends in filmmaking, we look for them according to pre-existing patterns, and most of them can be outdated. We run the risk of completely missing the nuances of filmmaking on the continent if we use older models of analysis.” To him, South Africa should be looking at a completely new aesthetic in terms of a wave and the new voices part of that wave will focus less on the question of “who” in an individualistic way, but rather how the collective is ushering a new way of existing as filmmakers, with the “key ingredient that is diversity.”

Jessie Zinn, director at Giant Films also emphasises on the multiplicity of the South African identity and narrative. “South Africa is a complex melting pot, brimming with diversity and people coming from different perspectives. I always try to work from a place of truth. If it’s a South African story, I give my best to honour that truth in a way that doesn’t only tick boxes for a Western audience.” To Jessie, the important part is to not slip into the lazy and easy narrative tropes that Western audiences find ‘accessible,’ in order to escape the ‘Tyranny of Story,’ which still persists. 

“Europe and America are still the control houses of the ways that stories and films circulate. Any story from the West (no matter how banal) holds weight and cultural significance,” she explains. This allows Western storytellers to tell their everyday stories, without fighting for their existence or place in the industry, or having to prove ‘relevancy.’ According to Jessie, the main takeaway is to fight against the ‘Tyranny of Story’ and “quite literally fight for the right to tell everyday stories in South Africa – quieter stories that may not scream as loudly as the West would want them to, but speak volumes about the people who we are telling these stories with and, ultimately, for.”

Hallie is equally excited for that fight and specifically the period of expansion filmmaking is in right now. She points to the multiplicity of creative skills found in South Africa (since before conversations like these were even happening) and multidisciplinary artists like Dani Kyengo, Carla Fonseca and Natalie Penang, reimagining audio-visual experiences, as well as people like Kudi Maradzika and Gcobisa Yako and their genre-bending projects. These are the new models of filmmaking that reveal “new audiences” and help establish communities where communities weren’t found before.

“My feeling is that this moment of filmmaking is allowing us to step outside of mimicry and step into our own hallucinations,” Hallie says. “Bring them to the screen, play in audio-visual manifestations of our own delirium. And that excites me, because we’re dictating the parameters of our own culture. It’s starting to happen in film, so I know that commercials will follow. Let us out of the gate. Let us build worlds for your brands to live in. Let’s play in abstraction and surrealism, sink into the weird theatricality of life shown on screen, escape to fantasy. That’s the kind of work I’m excited to make.”

When these ‘hallucinations’ become reality and the fantasy realm blends with the real world of storytelling, Hallie remarks: “The best place to be a filmmaker? Maybe here. Very soon.” 

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 23 Mar 2022 17:05:00 GMT