AFRICAN FILM MAKERS GAIN TRACTION

By on July 1, 2011 in Africa, Photography

Out of Africa

Africa’s cinematic images have certainly changed.

Hollywood’s vision of Africa started with stereotype-laden films,” The Zulu’s Heart” in 1908 and “Tarzan” in the 1930s and slowly evolved with the 1950s classic, “The African Queen.” It may have peaked with the more recent, “Hotel Rwanda” and Clint Eastwood’s Nelson Mandela/rugby epic, “Invictus.”

The emergence of African-born filmmakers has pushed the creative envelope giving moviegoers a fresh cast of scintillating characters including N!xau, Tsotsi and the alien prawns of “District 9.”

Apartheid’s fall created a cultural awakening in South Africa that led to the opening of Cape Town Film Studios last September. The studio operates in four large hangars and wrapped production on its first film in February with “Dredd” a 3-D action flick that employed 400 Africans. More production is coming to South Africa in the coming months partially in the wake of Johannesburg-born directors Neill Blomkamp and Gavin Hood’s successes.

Blomkamp, 31, scored with “District 9” and Hood with “Tsotsi” pushing both into big budget Hollywood films. “Tsotsi” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2005 while “District 9” was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 2010 as well as three other Oscars.

Blomkamp created “prawns” an alien race of crustacean looking characters that were stranded in Johannesburg and discriminated against in his apartheid metaphor shot in Soweto. After the movie grossed $211 million worldwide he is now working with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster on “Elysium” a sci-fi flick. Hood, 48, has made Hollywood financed films “Rendition” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” since Tsotsi.

From Cannes to Ouagadougou

Their success is inspiring the next wave of directors and there were nine South African filmmakers at this May’s Cannes Film Festival. Capetonian Oliver Hermanus’ “Skoonheid” was screened on May 17 and was the first film ever in Afrikaans to be screened at Cannes. Last year a film from Chad “A Screaming Man” took home a jury’s prize the first time in 13 years an African film was in the running for a top honor.

In the shadow of that exposure are several hundred film directors across the continent struggling to raise money to make quality low budget films depicting the harsh reality of life in Africa. Their work can be seen at the biannual Pan-African Film Festival in Burkina Faso’s desert capital Ouagadougou. This year’s event featured 18 films competing for the top prize, the Golden Stallion of Yennenga and the event is among Africa’s biggest cultural gatherings. It’s hardly the Oscars as several of the 11 screening halls are outdoors, some films are shown on white walls and filmgoers have to sit on sizzling metal seats in 105-degree heat. Fespaco’s organizers ran out of money and didn’t pay the event’s hotel bill but the show went on anyway. “Pegase” a Moroccan film about rape and incest won this year’s top honor.

Unlike Hollywood and Bollywood where films are primarily commercial productions laden with sex and violence, African filmmakers are whetted to social and political themes and have only recently reached out with more commercial fare. Africa has come light years from the 1950s when filmmaking was banned in many colonial controlled countries. It wasn’t until 1955 when Paulin Soumanou Vieyra a film student from Benin studying in Paris made “Afrique Sur Seine” a film about black Africans in France. He was the first black African filmmaker.

The father of African cinema is considered to be Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene who emerged in the 1960s with his film, “Black Girl” and went on to direct over a dozen films until his death in 2007 at 84. His 1993 murder mystery, “Guelwaar” is considered an African film classic. He was the first director from Africa to earn international recognition and was a novelist before turning to film. He wanted to deliver his messages of colonial corruption and later the corruption of the home grown elite to a mass audience and film was the best way.

The Diary of Evelyn Frank

In 1962 Danish filmmaker Henning Carlson came to Johannesburg to make an anti-apartheid film based on Nadine Gordimer’s novel, “World of Strangers” — the same year Nelson Mandela would begin his life sentence for “sabotage” in South Africa’s notorious Robben Island prison.  Carlsen’s film “Dilemma” would have an effect on how the world glimpsed apartheid, sparking the first anti-apartheid movement in Europe. It would also shape the life of Tusker founder Eddie Frank.

Frank’s mother Evelyn was among South Africa’s lead actresses and Carlson auditioned her for his lead but said he was making a movie about women and their appliances. She had read, “World of Strangers” and quickly realized that in the role of Anna Lowe, an Afrikaans lawyer doing perilous pro-bono work for black South Africans, he was working undercover without permission from the government. Carlson shot the film with cloak and dagger techniques by using side mirrors on cars to show street scenes so as not to alert BOSS, the Orwellian Bureau of State Security.

In a pre-CNN, pre-Internet era the world was given a glimpse of a straight-jacketed country in the throes of racial dictatorship. The black and white neorealist film featured a command performance by Zakes Mokae in the lead male role of a black African befriending a white man and white woman (Evelyn Frank’s character).  Its score juxtaposed vocal and drum solos from American jazz great, Max Roach, who granted the filmmaker permission to use his “Freedom Suite”, which he had written to commemorate the American Civil Rights Movement.  Roach’s score, mixed with cutting edge South African popular music shown in several eye-popping local performance pieces, offers a discordant blend that meshed with themes of racial intolerance impacting everyday relationships. “Dilemma” was met with great fanfare and controversy when it screened at Cannes the year of its completion, and in 2007, after screening at the Modern Museum of Art in New York as part of a “Jazz in Film” retrospective, was entered into the museum’s permanent film archives. 

As the film was wrapping BOSS agents came after Carlson and he was ordered out of the country. “My dad took the film and went to the Danish embassy where it was smuggled out of the country in a ‘diplomatic pouch’. Henning was on the plane when the agents tracked him down. They found film but it was dummy wildlife footage he shot to cover himself,” Eddie Frank recalls. “My mother was followed by BOSS agents and our phone was tapped. BOSS agents came into our home to interrogate my mom. Three years later my parents took me and my brother, with what they had in the bank, and left the country for Los Angeles.”

The Hollywood Gods Are Crazy

I met filmmaker Jamie Uys in Santa Monica in August 1985. He was in Hollywood to find a female lead, a co writer and editor for his sequel to his 1980 hit, “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” Uys (pronounced Ace) had toiled in relative obscurity outside Africa for 34 years making over 20 films inside Africa before Gods became the first international hit from an African director. The slapstick comedy was the highest grossing foreign film ever in the U.S. and at 64 Uys was a hot property.

Uys was a bit dumbfounded by his late-life success and wandered around L.A. almost like his star N!xau, a dazed Kalahari bush tribesman does in the film. The bushman’s life is transformed when a coke bottle drops out of the sky and he tries to return the bottle to the gods. Uys thought the Hollywood gods were crazy too and refused to take a Hollywood production. “I can’t work with 300 people behind the camera; I’ll go mad. I don’t want people to invest in my movies. The minute they put one cent into my movie, they want a delivery date; then they will tell me how to make it.”

N!xau was seen as a sex symbol in Japan and on the tour there was given $5000 in electronics, toys for his seven kids and a kimono for his wife. “When we got back to the Kalahari he handed the kimono to his wife and she tripped over it. The kids played with the toys for a few moments and lost interest. That night I could hear the hyenas carrying off the gifts. All this expensive stuff was picked apart and strewn all over the Kalahari.”

Uys’ Gods sequel flopped but with the $100 million gross of the original he was able to move out of his gas-lit hermit like A-frame and build a luxury home on Paradise Beach outside Johannesburg. The success didn’t change his passion for botany and he enjoyed roaming the veld on his bicycle looking for plants. He died in 1996 of a heart attack.

Uys was from the first generation of Africa’s filmmakers who were not easily seduced by Hollywood. In today’s global world, filmmakers like Blomkamp and Hood seek to play on its bigger stage. Their continued success will help Africa’s emergence as a cinematic center.

Tusker Geografica recommends:

African-Made Films

Black Girl (1960); Dilemma (1962); The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980); Shaka Zulu (1986); Guelwaar (1993); Cry Freetown (1999); Drum (2004); Tsotsi (2005); Bamako (2006); District 9 (2009); A Screaming Man (2009); Pegase (2011).

Hollywood/Euro-Made Africa Films

The African Queen (1951); The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952); Out of Africa (1985); Cry Freedom (1987); Gorillas In The Mist (1988); A Dry White Season (1989); Black Hawk Down (2001); Hotel Rwanda ( 2004 ); The Constant Gardener (2005); Blood Diamond (2006 ); The Last King of Scotland (2006); Invictus (2009).

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