South African Filmmakers Learn Valuable Lessons in Sunny Cape Town
by Margaret O'Connor
The Southern African Film and Television Market (SITHENGI), which ran November 13-16, attracted more than 1,200 delegates from Africa, Europe, and North America for four days of seminars, screenings, and schmoozing. The business proceedings were concentrated in Cape Town's apartheid-era monstrosity, The Artscape Theatre. Two other November industry events, The Cape Town World Film Festival and Resfest, were held nearby in the posh Waterfront mall and the gleaming new Trump-esque convention center.
SITHENGI is viewed as boot camp for the growing number of South Africans trying to break out of the thriving commercials and production services sectors and into feature films. Never mind that the local feature film business is in its infancy and that the art of the deal is foreign to most locals. SITHENGI CEO Mike Auret said that South Africa is looking at the Australian model of developing the industry. "I'll never forget the Aussie who showed up in Cape Town a couple years ago. He reminded me that Australian government invested in the industry for 30 years before 'Muriel's Wedding' and 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' made it to the world stage," Auret said.
The sparse audiences at the first Cape Town World Film Festival (November 14-23) made it clear that locals are impatient for Southern African film-makers to find their way. Twenty-two year-old film school graduate Reagan Gomez said, "The older guys have been making stuff that they thought needed to be said, not what people wanted to watch." He walked out of the theatre 10 minutes into the world premiere of South Africa documentary "Karoo Kitaar Blues."
Auret said that "we have an underdeveloped entrepreneurial base here. Co-production is the engine driving the market." Thirteen international industry leaders heard 16 feature films pitches. Sandra den Hamer from Cinemart/Rotterdam Film Festival, Cornelius Moore from California Newsreel, and Firdaus Kharas from Canada's UTV were amongst the panelists. Kharas reportedly picked up the option to develop an animated feature based on a pan-African comic strip, "Strikers."
Animated feature "The Legend of the Sky Kingdom" raised the bar in terms of expectations for African animation. It began life as a three-minute promo screened at SITHENGI in 2002. Anant Singh, the international face of South African film, encouraged Zimbabwe-based producers Phil and Jacqui Cunningham and director Richard Hawkins to develop the concept. Singh's company, Videovision, is managing international distribution and Dreamworks and Disney are among the studios that have seen the film.
Promoted as "junkmation," the film employs African street crafts as characters. The film is a shining example of innovation hatched from necessity. "We have a load of rubbish in Zimbabwe," Cunningham, explained. "With our currency moving from 16:1 (at the beginning of the project) to 6,000:1 (at completion) against the U.S. dollar, I couldn't use a lot of imported anything."
The creators turned pairs of scissors into an army, a cell phone into a ship's captain, and film reels into the hull of a boat. SITHENGI organizers hope the Zimbabwean's inventiveness will infect the South African talent.
"Some South African film makers suffer from the 'give me' syndrome. South Africa needs to link government subsidies to box office results," Auret said. A number of workshops were held to help local better understand what works at the box office. Gary Goldstein, producer of "Pretty Woman" and "The Mothman Prophecies," joined Videovision's Anant Singh and Alesia Weston of the Sundance Institute for a forum about what works in Hollywood. John Boorman, director of "Country of My Skull" starring Juliette Binoche and Samuel Jackson, followed this up with a weekend of master classes.
Norman Maake, director of "Soldiers of the Rock," one of the locals trying to break into the mainstream feature film market, picked up the most promising director award. The announcement was met with thundering applause from the film school types attending the awards event. Maake is becoming their folk hero, since "Soldiers of the Rock" started out as a graduate school project. His film portrays the rough and tumble of life on the gold mines. ("Soldiers of The Rock" will soon play at the African Film Festival in New York.)
"Proteus," a Canadian-South African venture, picked up the best actor award and praise for the benefits of co-production. Canada was the first country to sign a co-production treaty with South African. Italy followed suit with the announcement of a co-production treaty at this year's SITHENGI. "Proteus" is based on the transcripts of a 1735 sodomy trial involving a Dutch sailor and a Cape native who became lovers while imprisoned on Robben Island. Co-producer, Platon Trakoshis, said that Strand is looking at U.S. distribution rights and that Ster-Kinekor is looking at South African distribution. "Proteus" premiered at the Toronto International Festival Film and travels to Rotterdam and Berlin in 2004.
There were more Southern African documentaries on offer than local feature films. "Karoo Kitaar Blues" director Liza Key worked with popular South African singer, songwriter, and entertainer David Kramer to capture a dying genre of folk music. Key captured some absolutely stunning desert landscapes in the process. The rambling road trip movie provided some very funny glimpses into the musicians' first encounters with city life. Most memorable was the guitarist who played his home-crafted instrument with a spoon clenched between his gums, getting fitted for false teeth. It provided a comical contrast to George Clooney getting his teeth bleached in "Intolerable Cruelty."
Key, inviting her film's comparison to "Buena Vista Social Club" said, "'Karoo Kitaar Blues' is different because this music isn't meant to be performed in public. It's the music that shepherds and aloe tappers perform to pass the time in the poorest, most remote parts of South Africa." Key is off to the Rotterdam and New York in January to work on distribution deals.
More familiar South African tunes were on offer in two other new documentaries: "Sophiatown: Surviving Apartheid" (which won the best doc award) and "Casa del Musica." Director Pascale Lamche made it easy for international audiences to get a clear perspective on the people and the place by illustrating the parallels between Sofiatown and Harlem in the 1950s and getting jazz legend Dolly Rathebe to explain that she was the Halle Berry of her day. The film provided a nice balance of romance and realism. A co-production involving BBC, FR2 (France), and TV2 (Denmark), European territories were pre-sold. Nu Metro has taken theatrical rights for South Africa and Gallo/Nu Metro will release the soundtrack locally. The film captured the rhythm of the festival -- more Abdullah Ibrahim's quietly passionate jazz piano than Mandoza's raw kwaito beats.
"Casa Del Musica," a musical journey from Cape Town to Cuba, proved wildly popular with audiences. Director Jonathan de Vries followed South African jazz legend Robbie Jansen on a sax tour around Havana. Jansen was prompted to make highly personal revelations as a result of his interactions with his Cuban contemporaries. "I just wanted to make a film that would make Capetonians stand up and take pride in their musical heritage," de Vries said. "I'm blown away by the amazing audience reactions."
Cathy Henkel's documentary, "The Man who Stole My Mother's Face," was made to evoke discussion and debate about a critical issue gripping South Africa. Rape has reached epidemic proportions in South Africa, with almost 50 percent of South African women experiencing rape in their lifetimes, according to a leading advocacy group. "The Man who Stole My Mother's Face" is a mother's fight to have her story heard and a daughter's quest for justice. Henkel said the SITHENGI screening led to expressions of interest from an HBO commissioning editor and the organizers of film festivals in London, Milan, New York, and Toronto.
The SITHENGI schedule allowed for some chill time on the last day of the market. Cricket on chic Clifton Beach, diving for crayfish off Cape Point, and a liquid lunch on the sprawling grounds of the fabled Constantia Uitsuig wine estate were some of the delegates choice of Sunday afternoon diversions.
I caught up with the SITHENGI CEO for a post-mortem on the morning after the market closed. The new beachfront café in Sea Point was more than a little bit like South Beach, Miami with its concentration of buff bodies and charming Art Deco details. "I don't think we'll have the resources to go head-head with Rotterdam for a long time. But, a lot of local filmmakers feel comfortable selling in Africa," Auret said.
Rotterdam on a cold, wet January morning or Cape Town on a blissfully sunny summer's evening? Auret certainly has some great raw materials with which to work.