S Africa film industry gaining acclaim

South Africa is carving out a film-making identity for itself, winning international acclaim for two recent art house films showcasing indigenous themes and languages.

    Darrell Roodt's film Yesterday was nominated for an Oscar

    With local productions such as U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (Carmen in Khayelitsha), a take on Georges Bizet's tragic opera in the Xhosa language, and the world's first Zulu movie, the Oscar-nominated Yesterday, a touching tale about Aids, there is no looking back.


    Emerging from years of oppression under apartheid and a dependency on Hollywood, the local film industry is starting to find itself 10 years into a new democracy with a flourishing economy.


    "Up until two years ago there was a service industry based on foreign commercials and mainly American feature films," said Mark Dornford-May, director of U-Carmen, which captured the Golden Bear for best picture at the 55th Berlin film festival last weekend.

    New opportunities


    The South Africa-based British scriptwriter thinks a strengthening of the local rand currency against the dollar saw foreign interest in cheap flim-making there wane, but forced South Africans to start making their own films.


    "People have been forced to look at creating their own industry. South Africa started to concentrate on its own

    "South Africa started to concentrate on its own stories, its own culture and its own languages"

    director of U-Carmen

    stories, its own culture and its own languages," Dornford-May said from the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha, the setting for U-Carmen.


    According to film professor Keyan Tomaselli of the University of Natal in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa "grew up in the ambit of Hollywood" and for a long time only produced "machine-gun movies" or shallow action films.


    "The beginning of the democratic era saw the establishment of the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), which has played an entrepreneurial role in facilitating productions and providing opportunities for directors to explore much more adventurous themes," he said.

    Lower costs

    Besides a developed infrastructure, South Africa offers production costs of up to 40% lower than in the United States and 20% lower than in Australia, attracting foreign scriptwriters such as Irishman Terry George, whose movie Hotel Rwanda has been nominated for three Oscars.


    The film on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, shot in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, is a co-production between South Africa, Italy and the United States, and was partly funded by the NFVF.


    The foundation, established in 1999 with an annual budget of 

    The movie Yesterday was
    nominated for an Oscar

    10 million rand ($1.7 million), which has since increased to 18 million rand, has funded 16 of 24 films produced in South Africa in 2003.


    "We are trying to encourage people to be as original as possible," foundation director Eddie Mbalo said.


    "If we want to find a niche for ourselves we need to try and find what is unique that will come out of South Africa," he told the state broadcaster SABC.

    Truly South African

    An example of a truly South African story is that of Yesterday, nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign movie category.


    Set in a rural village nestled in the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, it tells the story of a courageous HIV-positive woman with just one aim in life - to live long enough to see her young daughter go to school.


    "We hope that Yesterday's success will give impetus to the South African film industry and that we see more local stories being turned into films in indigenous languages," producer Anant Singh said in a statement released from Los Angeles.


    Dornford-May added: "Instead of trying to copy the rest of the world, with Yesterday and Carmen we are making particularly South African films, films that could not have been made anywhere else.


    "Something is definitely happening ... . People are starting to realise that South Africans are making films."



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