South African cinema needs to set itself free by retelling the country’s stories

A still from the 2015 film ‘Necktie Youth’. Film in South Africa needs to undergo radical change if it is to shed the shackles of the past. Urucu Media/Hanro Havenga

Foundation essay: Our foundation essays are longer than usual and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.

South African cinema has a long history of production. Yet, similar to the country’s segregated past, it too has a segregated history of representation. From stories that perpetuated apartheid to films seeking commercial success, it has been a disjointed journey for film in South Africa.

Previously, Afrikaans films enjoyed the privilege of production funding. Films made during apartheid with government funds explored Afrikaner identity. These were primarily told from the position of insiders reflecting on their own culture and history. They reinforced Afrikaner identity through history and language.

This production history traverses from the opus of Afrikaner nationalism reflected in pre-apartheid film Die Bou van ‘n Nasie (The Building of a Nation) to the much revered work of Jans Rautenbach and beyond.

Scholars and historians looking at national cinema recognise the significance of language as identification in communities. But, language as part of a national identity may be either unifying or divisive.

White directors, black characters

Previously, representations of blacks were predominantly at the hands of white filmmakers who were on the outside of black lived experiences. These directors often reproduced black stereotypes. Today, South African nationalism encompasses diversity on a number of levels. Black experiences are embraced in their various facets.

No longer is it simply the narrative of the rural black man who comes to the city as in 1949’s Jim Comes To Jo’burg (aka African Jim) that preoccupies the (white) filmmaker’s imagination. It is the narrative of the urban black experience that now piques the white imagination, as in Sara Blecher’s Ayanda.

Ayanda (2015)

The clear ideological agendas in representing black experiences and narratives that perpetuated the apartheid state’s policies can now be contested. This can be done by white and black filmmakers each vying to rewrite histories.

The histories are revisionist cinematic projects that either seek to challenge the grand narratives of official histories or explore smaller personal stories; experiences of individuals that reflect alternatives to the meta-histories which could (or do) serve state ideology.

Crossover markets

There is a productive dualism in the debate on national cinema. The first is an interrogation of how the national is constituted. The second is an exploration of how to constitute the national.

The latter takes into account the connections between institutional structures, modes of production and further considers the circuits in which films are exhibited and distributed.

“Apartheid” – and later “truth and reconcilliation” – stories have come to be described as a genre that offers the opportunity to revisit the past. Promised Land, Forgiveness, Red Dust, Country of My Skull and Long Walk to Freedom come to mind.

Country of My Skull is the story of an American journalist following the personal stories and testimonies of people at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The film relies on exposing the perpetrator’s versions of events against the victim’s experiences and their search for justice. On closer examination, the production histories and aesthetic choices are firmly within commercial imperatives and crossover markets.

These films rely significantly on posing the question of how to represent the national under apartheid but from a post-apartheid state. The “what to represent” is the overarching concern for most filmmakers. But the “how to represent” poses an equally – if not more pressing – political challenge.

It is not simply a matter of challenging stereotypes or claiming the space to represent narratives from an insider’s perspective. The image itself and how stories are told is an equally fraught political issue. It evokes political consideration and proposes an opportunity to decolonise images.

Political agendas

The matter of forms, aesthetics, narrative and genre are central to what access and reception these films may come to enjoy or not. If the approach is one of challenging prescribed conventions, it implies the political agenda of the film must forfeit commercial potential.

The films examples cited of “apartheid” and “commission” stories are made by white directors who recognise the cultural currency in the opportunity of these revisionist histories.

These films rely on reproducing recognisable conventions that are a part of cinema’s mainstream to appeal to a global audience – hence the phrase “crossover films” that are nationally or culturally specific. But these also rely on the reproduction of aesthetic forms that work in the form of “colonial” or first cinema. First cinema are dominant and prevailing forms which rely principally on generic formulae and perpetuating stereotypes of “otherness”.

Black filmmakers in South Africa can explore narratives that revisit the previous official histories of apartheid. They can insert their own experiences that challenge “official” historical representations.

A film like Zulu Love Letter explores the issue of how to write and rewrite national histories and works in the paradigm of restitution politics. The film follows the story of a political activist seeking justice for a family who lost their son in a political assassination. It is structured as an investigation that exposes the violent atrocities of the apartheid state.

In terms of form and approach, Zulu Love Letter clearly positions itself from a “black insider perspective”.

Zulu Love Letter (2004)

It lays bare some of the questions regarding the commission’s success at the level of “the people” in contrast to its nation-building significance. It favours the subjective and personal in contrast to the idea of nation building as expressed through the commission’s mandate.

National cinema is also about recognising that marginal experiences are as important in reflecting diverse experiences. And these experiences cannot be contained or expressed in forms that are inherited through “colonial” or first cinema storytelling forms.

Drawing from the significant contribution of scholars of world cinema, it is more productive to look at how different cinemas seek to engage with representation and paradigms on their own terms, rather than in constant opposition to canonised forms.

Black filmmakers in a contemporary South African context are seeking to draw from their own insider and immediate lived experiences. They experiment with forms that best articulate these realities.

Necktie Youth, Shongwe-La Mer’s directorial debut, captures the experiences of urban youth. Its cinematic expression is very much shaped by the aesthetic choices of the director. The film’s freshness – its use of immediate testimony from young people dealing with drug use, alcohol abuse, expressions of middle-class disenchantment – is explored through the medium as a form of resistance to dominant colonial registers of representation.

Necktie Youth (2015)

Decolonising the image

Like generations of young filmmakers before, there is a direct engagement with not just narrative, but with aesthetics and form as a mode of challenging representation. These are forms that welcome the space for subjectivity as opposed to singularly privileging the national.

Decolonising the image is not a matter of merely challenging stereotypes. It is instead a matter of engaging with plurality of identities. It also is in recognising that these positions are inflected by the subjective.

Cultural expression demands greater recognition as an invaluable component in the national cinema question. On account of commercial aspirations, South Africa continually undermines the political significance of the decolonising project that cinema affords.

South African cinema has the potential for producing narrative diversity in a wealth of forms. It can reflect the breadth of its experiences if it remains true to the freedoms that its people cherish and so often hail.

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.