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South Africa - Film hub

South Africa - Film hub

The nation's emerging talent & new projects

Screen International

November 2007

It has been two years since Tsotsi and U-Carmen E-Khayelitsha wowed international audiences and critics. Matt Mueller looks at the new talent and projects emerging from South Africa and finds a vibrant industry waiting for its day in the sun.

Unlike the national rugby squad, which mowed down competitors with cohesive confidence at the recent World Cup, South Africa's film industry is a mixed bag: on the one hand, it is an increasingly sought-after destination for international productions ranging from the minute to the mammoth; on the other, the local industry could be accused of failing to capitalise on the global interest that followed the 2005 foreign-language Oscar triumph for Gavin Hood's Tsotsi.

There is a sense of a country playing catch-up with the rest of the world with its native film industry.

But high-budget productions continue to make use of its widely praised facilities, skills base and breathtakingly varied terrain, including Rogue Pictures' Doomsday, Roland Emmerich's 10,000 B.C. and HBO's showpiece Gulf War series Generation Kill. And with the Department of Trade and Industry expected to announce the extension of its successful tax rebate scheme before the end of the year, the picture is very buoyant for the service side of the industry (see below).

Although public funding was slashed in 2006, South African producers are anticipating a mini-boom in indigenous films as the taps reopen.

It is not all good news though. Last November, the combined Sithengi South African Film & TV Market and Cape Town World Cinema Festival announced it was moving to March 2008 and now its future is in doubt.

“We are in discussion about the continuance of Sithengi,” admits Eddie Mbalo, CEO of funding body the National Film & Video Foundation. A new board will be elected in mid-November to decide the market's fate.

The government has also granted five new pay-TV licences, which will boost South Africa from three to eight broadcasters and have a radical impact on the local production scene.

“From a commercial point of view, it is an interesting time here after a gap post-Tsotsi, when we went into a kind of funding hole,” says Ross Garland, founder of Rogue Star Films.

The South African industry is still a white-dominated preserve that needs to cultivate more black talent to reflect the Rainbow Nation's multicultural make-up. According to most producers, the situation is improving all the time and with the 2010 football World Cup set to boost South Africa's profile to a global zenith, now is the time for its film industry to keep its eye on the prize.

Double appeal, half the cost

South Africa certainly beats many locations on price. But what about crews, locations and studio facilities?

Filming in South Africa was buoyant before the Department Trade and Industry's rebate scheme - a 15% tax rebate that kicks in above $3.5m of South African spend - was launched in 2004. But in terms of creating jobs and local revenue streams through international co-productions, the rebate is viewed as the single biggest factor in the native industry's success. In recent years, Robert Towne's Ask The Dust, Working Title's Catch A Fire and The Interpreter have all taken advantage of the country's skills base and locations.

A pair of $100m-plus Warner Bros productions, Ed Zwick's Blood Diamond and 10,000 B.C., have also shot in the country (the former spent more time in neighbouring Mozambique but used a South African crew), which may signal a future influx of larger projects.

Whether they are making lower-budgeted co-productions or high-end blockbusters, however, producers all cite the country's infrastructure, facilities, skilled, enthusiastic crews and up-to-the-minute equipment as positives for any shoot.

“Because it's such an opulent destination for commercials, all the latest and greatest toys are here,” says Goodbye Bafana producer David Wicht. “The commercials companies insist on it.”

When UK production outfit Powercorp was deciding where to shoot Flood, its disaster film about London's tidal barriers being breached, producer Peter McAleese calculated that shooting in the UK would cost $50m. Choosing South Africa allowed the film-makers to make it for $25m, with Cape Town standing in for the UK capital.

McAleese returned to South Africa with Rogue Pictures' $32m Doomsday, this time using Cape Town to double for Glasgow and finding a landscape stand-in for the Scottish Highlands.

“(Director) Neil Marshall thought I was insane trying to replicate Scotland in Cape Town,” says McAleese, “but when he came here, he was blown away that an hour outside the city, you could be in the Highlands.”

UK director Baillie Walsh's $14m Flashbacks Of A Fool shot for five weeks in South Africa this summer, with locations in and around Cape Town standing in for coastal Norfolk and Los Angeles, and the beach houses of Llandudno passing for Malibu. The drama, which stars Daniel Craig as a fading Hollywood star looking back on his glorious youth, is a Buena Vista UK production. “You're looking at almost a fifth of the cost of shooting in the UK,” says producer Damon Bryant. “What I was surprised about as well is that 80% of our work force was black, which was terrific.”

There is a limit to how many major productions can be hosted at once. Flood's shoot overlapped with Blood Diamond and 10,000 B.C. and, although McAleese says the crews were good, he had a better experience on Doomsday, when it was the only major production. Of the 350-strong crew, 15 came from the UK, including all heads of department. “Like any crew, if they're well treated and well managed there are no problems,” says McAleese, responding to some producer's complaints that, without unions to regulate their hours, South African crews can be prone to exhaustion.

If South Africa wants to remain competitive and attract studio-bound Hollywood productions, says McAleese, it needs to create a studio on a par with MediaPro in Romania and Pinewood in the UK; it is something the government has said it is looking to address.

Regarding the country's reputation for violence, few producers have suffered a negative experience. “Violence is only an issue if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Wicht. “As a film-maker you're not really going to experience that. There are high levels of crime but it's largely confined to poor South Africans. It is very unfortunate ... but those are the facts of life.”

Major productions set to descend on South Africa include The Human Factor, an adaptation of John Carlin's book about Nelson Mandela using the 1995 Rugby World Cup to help end decades of mistrust between blacks and whites. Now in development at Morgan Freeman's Revelations Entertainment, Freeman plans to star as Mandela with Clint Eastwood attached to direct.

It proves that although apartheid is in the past, inspirational tales using it as a backdrop are not going out of fashion any time soon.

Support for rising talent

A generation of young independent film-makers, both black and white, hopes to benefit from new state funds.

South Africa's indigenous films often do well at the box office; the biggest star Leon Schuster's broad slapstick comedies, for example, regularly trounce Hollywood competition. Yet local production virtually ground to a halt last year when the National Film & Video Foundation's (Nfvf) $5.6m (r37m) budget was slashed by a third despite the success of Tsotsi and U-Carmen E-Khayelitsha. It was a huge blow, but this year the funding was reinstated. “We're back where we were,” says Ryan Haidarian, Nfvf's head of production and development.

But optimism is growing. On top of funding from the Nfvf and the government-owned development bank Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), which invests in local films and international co-productions, there is also an anticipated Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) revamp, which is expected to drop the qualifying expenditure for its tax incentive to $1.8m (r12m) while increasing the rebate for local films and South African co-productions to 35% for the first $900,000 (r6m). There is real hope that homegrown production levels can equal the 15 films made in 2004-05.

“It would leverage us up immensely,” says Jeremy Nathan of production outfit Dv8 Films. “We'd have the beginnings of an industry and the best will travel.”

Nathan's Dv8 produced Bunny Chow, a tale of three stand-up comedians road-tripping to South Africa's biggest rock festival. It played well at festivals last year, and its writer-director John Barker is developing two more projects with Nathan: The Dictator, a satirical jab at a Robert Mugabe-like dictator, and The Umbrella Man, a period comedy set against the backdrop of a true-life minstrel carnival, which Barker has submitted to the Sundance Lab.

“There's a lot of young independent film-makers here,” says Barker. “We just need to start making films.”

Other recent productions include Mark Dornford-May's follow-up to U-Carmen, Son Of Man, a Christ allegory set amid African genocide that matched Goodbye Bafana with eight nominations at the second annual South African Film and Television Awards; Jerusalema from UK-based director Ralph Ziman, about the rise of a Sowetan gangster; the Australian-South African co-production Disgrace, based on the JM Coetzee novel and starring John Malkovich as a Cape Town professor who gets entangled in post-Apartheid politics; and Spoon, a supernatural thriller co-directed by Sharlto Copley and Simon Hansen, about an ordinary guy who discovers he has telekinetic powers.

“It reminds me of early Shyamalan,” says Haidarian. Nfvf is co-financing Spoon alongside Anant Singh's Videovision Entertainment, one of the country's leading independent distributors and producers.

Videovision is also behind prolific South African film-maker Darrell Roodt's latest, Prey, about an American family terrorised by lions on safari.

Ross Garland's Rogue Films is distributing Big Fellas, a satirical comedy about white wannabe film-makers travelling to Johannesburg, nationwide on November 23; the film stars Hakeem Kae-Kazim, whose credits include Hotel Rwanda. Also on Rogue's slate are Confessions Of A Gambler, about a Muslim woman with a gambling addiction, premiering at the Dubai International Film Festival in December, and Spud, an adaptation of John Van de Ruit's South African bestseller about a 13-year-old Afrikaaner boy at an elite boarding school on the eve of Mandela's release. Garland is hoping to negotiate a co-production deal on the back of the book's recent US launch.

The first film to shoot under the new UK-South African co-production treaty, ratified earlier this year, is Skin by UK writer-director Anthony Fabian. A co-production between Bard Entertainments and Elysian Films, with a fifth of the budget coming from the IDC, Skin focuses on the true story of Sandra Laing, a black girl born to white Afrikaaner parents during the Apartheid era. The film, which is being shot in Johannesburg, stars Sophie Okonedo, Alice Krige and local star Tony Kgoroge.

More black talent is coming through, too. Sunu Gonera, a commercials and short-film director whose feature debut is Lionsgate's swim-team drama Pride, starring Terrence Howard, is looking to return next year to shoot his second feature. And Dv8 has Khalo Matabane's State Of Violence ready to shoot, pending the DTI's rebate scheme announcement. A contemporary revenge tale about a black Johannesburg businessman seeking his wife's killers, Nathan says the film follows the Tsotsi formula of combining social conscience with a commercial sensibility.

Private equity, however, is still short on the ground for an industry that has yet to prove it can offer a decent return on investment. “It takes a Crocodile Dundee, like Australia had, to unlock serious equity locally,” says David Wicht of co-production facilitators Film Afrika, “and we haven't had anything like that.”

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