South African filmmakers on demuring 'apartheid cinema' to widen country's aperture with new stories

·7 min read

JOHANNESBURG €" One of South Africa's top film producers squinted at a monitor as a hush settled over the crew. Cameras zoomed in on an actress playing a dealer of fine art €" chicly dressed in a pencil skirt made from bold African textiles €" who offered a coy smile as an old flame stepped into her gallery.

It's the opening scene of a new Netflix movie about high-powered Black women, wealth and modern city life in Johannesburg €" one in a flood of productions from a new generation of South African filmmakers. They are bent on telling their own stories on their own terms, eager to widen the aperture on a country after a generation of films defined by apartheid, poverty and struggle.

"We call it the legacy exhaustion, the apartheid cinema, people are exhausted with it," Bongiwe Selane, the producer, said a few days later in the editing studio. "The generation now didn't live it, they don't really relate to it. They want to see stories about their experiences now."

Those stories have been buoyed by a recent investment from streaming services like Netflix and its South Africa-based rival, Showmax, which are racing to attract audiences across the African continent and beyond, and pouring millions into productions by African filmmakers.

In South Africa, where for decades the local film industry has been financed by and catered to the country's white minority, the new funding has boosted Black filmmakers €" a cultural moment that parallels the one playing out in Hollywood.

Netflix's first script-to-screen South African productions €" the spy thriller Queen Sono and Blood and Water, a teen drama about an elite private high school €" have won fans locally and topped the streaming giant's international charts.

"I know especially in the States, a lot of people were excited to see a Black, dark-skinned girl play a lead character on Netflix," Ama Qamata, 22, a star of Blood and Water, said one recent afternoon in Johannesburg on set for a local soap opera.

As a makeup artist touched up her merlot-red lipstick, showrunners shouted into walkie-talkies to set up the day's scene: A woman at a funeral accidentally falls into the grave of the man she is accused of killing. "Over the top, but the audience loves it," one line producer, Janine Wessels, quipped.

Bongiwe Selane, a producer, at the Usual Suspects Studios in Johannesburg on April 13, 2021. She says people want to see stories about their current experiences, not just from the apartheid era.  (Joao Silva/The New York Times)
Bongiwe Selane, a producer, at the Usual Suspects Studios in Johannesburg on April 13, 2021. She says people want to see stories about their current experiences, not just from the apartheid era. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)

Bongiwe Selane, a producer, at the Usual Suspects Studios in Johannesburg on April 13, 2021. She says people want to see stories about their current experiences, not just from the apartheid era. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)

Soap operas like this have been a favourite on local television for years, but many were imported from the United States. Blood and Water takes another familiar American genre €" the teen drama €" and turns the tables: It's a story set in Cape Town, featuring mansion parties with bouncers, bartenders and infinity pools soaked in neon lights €" and has been eaten up by American audiences.

Often likened to Gossip Girl, the show was the first original African series to be ranked in Netflix's Top Ten chart in several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and South Africa.

"One of my proudest moments was people from the continent just saying 'Wow, you really represented us in good light, you really showed the world the filmmaking we're capable of,'" Qamata said.

In the three decades since apartheid, much of South African cinema has been shaped by its legacy.

Hollywood studios have flocked to the country to film blockbusters about Nelson Mandela and the struggle's other heroes. The South African government has promoted apartheid-focused entertainment on local television as part of the country's own efforts to reckon with its history.

Other local fare catered largely to the country's white Afrikaans minority, who could afford cable and outings to movie theatres mostly in malls and wealthy suburbs €" a long, expensive trek for many Black South Africans living in the country's old townships.

"We've always had the local industry and funders sort of dictating how our stories should be told," Selane, the producer, said. "Our financiers say, you can't say that or if you say it that way you will offend our white subscribers."

Productions about apartheid were important in documenting the country's history and exposing the roots of an economy that remains one of the most unequal in the world, where wealth is still concentrated mostly in the hands of whites and a small Black elite.

But in recent years, the country has also undergone major demographic and economic shifts. The first South Africans who grew up after apartheid are now adults, asserting their voices on social media and in professional workplaces. And a growing Black middle class has been eager to see itself reflected onscreen €" and showing it with their wallets.

In 2015, the film Tell Me Sweet Something, about an aspiring young writer who finds unlikely love in Johannesburg's hipster hangout Maboeng, hit number five in South Africa, blowing the lid off box office expectations for locally made romantic comedies.

A year later, Happiness is a Four Letter Word €" the prequel to Selane's latest film that opens with the art gallery scene €" outperformed several Hollywood releases in South African movie theatres on its opening weekend.

The movie revolves around three bold women navigating a new South Africa. There is Princess, a serial dater and owner of a trendy art gallery; Zaza, a glamorous housewife having an illicit love affair; and Nandi, a high-powered lawyer who gets cold feet on the cusp of her wedding.

"Audiences would come up to me to tell me how they also had a guy who broke their heart and they want to see that, to watch something where apartheid is not in the foreground," said Renate Stuurman, who plays Princess. "It can be in the background, surely, it's what brought us here, but people were happy to be distracted."

Netflix and Showmax pounced on such stories to capture audiences in Africa, where streaming is projected to reach nearly 13 million subscriptions by 2025 €" up fivefold from the end of 2019, according to Digital TV Research, an industry forecaster. For Netflix, the investment is part of a larger push to acquire a generation of Black content.

"We're aiming to become a strong part of the local ecosystem in terms of growing the capacity and talent in the market," said Ben Amadasun, director of Africa Originals and Acquisitions at Netflix. "The basis is that we believe that stories can come from anywhere and travel everywhere."

For the past two decades, South Africa has hosted major Hollywood studios drawn to its highly skilled workers and government-issued rebate on all production costs spent in the country.

Cape Town's streets were transformed into Islamabad for the fourth season of Homeland; studios constructed models of Robben Island for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; and crews flew helicopters, crashed cars and set off massive explosions in downtown Johannesburg for Avengers: Age of Ultron. Of the roughly 400 films made in South Africa between 2008 and 2014, nearly 40% were foreign productions, according to the National Film and Video Foundation, a government agency.

For filmmakers here, the shoots were often a source of frustration. The studios brought in their own directors and leading actors €" who sometimes played South African characters €" while sidelining South Africans to jobs as assistants and line producers.

The productions "weren't looking for our intellect or perspectives, they were looking for Sherpas," said Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, a filmmaker.

But increased investment in South Africa's already thriving film industry means that local creatives like Qubeka have come closer to realizing their ambitions. His new production, Blood Psalms, a series for Showmax, employs massive sets reminiscent of Game of Thrones, green screens to concoct magical powers, and elaborate costumes of armour and golden crowns.

Inside an editing suite in Johannesburg one recent morning, Qubeka chatted with an editor slicing together shots for the show, about a queen battling a world-ending prophecy €" a plot drawn from African mythology.

"The true revolution," Qubeka said, "is that we as South Africans are being sought out for our perspective and our ideas."

Christina Goldbaum c.2021 The New York Times Company

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