The state of the South African film industry

TAIGA RIVE

The South African Film Industry (SAFI) contributed R3.5 billion towards the country’s GDP in 2012 and is estimated to be growing at an annual rate of 14%, as shown by the South African Film Industry Economic Baseline Study Report done by the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF). With this growth and development the question that needs to be asked and addressed is why South African film and television is still overshadowed by foreign film and television alternatives.

Our complex history makes it an important factor in assessing this topic. Carefully assessing the growth compared to the attitudes and the experience from within the industry, draws our to attention how the past has shaped South African society in regard to film and television consumption.

An increasing trend in the SAFI involves filmmakers telling stories that are uniquely South African and reflect our own realities. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of local films produced increased from 10 to 36. Production studios are increasing in number and standard to accommodate both local and international shoots. Cape Town Film Studio cost R306 million to build and is custom built in the Hollywood style. Despite this, the industry remains considerably weaker than predicted. A major factor that contributes to this is the lack of revenue delivered by local cinemas for the SAFI.

There are numerous reasons for this. Firstly, South Africa has a small cinema-going audience. Secondly, due to apartheid, the black population did not develop a love for cinema, and the cinema-going audience remains predominantly in white areas today. Thirdly the price of going to the cinema regularly is more than most South Africans can afford. Fourthly the local cinemas show mainly Western films due to agreements they have with international film studios and cinema-goers are generally those who favour Western content. This means that the standard way of getting films seen by a national audience is not a reality. Film producers have to find alternative ways to reach the South African audience.

South Africa is considered to be one of the least competitive industries for foreign films internationally. Making a mark on a global level is something we continually struggle with. Screenwriter Thuso Sibisi, who has received a Golden Horn Award and is best known for writing the film Hard to Get, says, “[that this is] mainly because South African filmmakers still haven’t found [their] own unique voice in the realm of filmmaking.” Competition with a homogenised idea of film and television must be considered locally as well as internationally. When telling South African stories we may lose the interest of an international market. However, Sibisi says that this may work to our advantage as “human beings are inherently curious creatures… South Africa’s unheard voice can prove to be something of great value.”

Actor Arthur Zitha, most prominently known for his role as Bobo in SABC1’s iThuba Lokugcina, says that the space the SAFI is at at the moment is one of technology. “People are making films on their smartphones now”, he says. The lack of funding in this industry means that people are forced to be innovative and there is freedom in the fact that no party dominates the industry. America has companies such as Walt Disney and DreamWorks that monopolise film production, and according to Zitha, the absence of this in South Africa makes it possible for anybody to make a film and tell an original story. The quality of these projects is visible when observing that in 2017 the number of entries into the feature film category of the South African Film and Television Awards went up from a standard five to over twenty.

UP third year drama student, Samantha Mupariwa says that a prominent feature of the industry in this space is physical appearance. As a trained actress she worries that if she were to pursue a career in acting she may be cast aside when coming up against a more aesthetically pleasing alternative, even if they lacked the training. Mupariwa says that South Africa as a whole, government included, tends to overlook the power of the arts.

Two major operations exist that aim to support the growth of the SAFI, namely the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDV). NFVF offers funding for local film and television production through repayable loans and grants, and seeks to develop the audience and production focused on local content. IDV is a state-owned project that assists with loans, but funds no more than 49% of a project, as its goal is a sustainable local film industry.

Initiatives like these, as well as more access to resources, set a rather positive scene for the industry. While there is evidence to show that this has amounted in growth in the industry, the country still has a far way to come in terms of quality and innovation. Investing in young participants is a vital step. As Mupariwa, Sibisi and Zitha all echo, there is a need for the SAFI to move away from mimicking a homogenous production strategy, and rather to entice the South African audience to engage with work that celebrates all the culture and complexity that our country offers. 

 

Image: Sally Hartzenberg

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