As South Africa continues to move away from its apartheid past, its film culture has taken a similar path of reflection on the past during the country’s first decade as a democracy.
“A lot of South African cinema is about reconciliation and memory, the past and a sense of justice. Those themes are to be expected,” said Audrey Thomas McCluskey, an Indiana University professor and author of a new book featuring interviews with 25 of that country’s filmmakers.
“There is a body of opinion, though, that thinks that South African films should turn away from that and focus on what else is going on and leave the past in the dust bins of the history,” added McCluskey, also director of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center. “You can see similar conversations in America around the issue of slavery and reparations, although not at the fever pitch that they’ve had in South Africa.
“Obviously, we’re further away from slavery than they are with their immediate past, but it’s a similar kind of conversation and there’s always going to be grievances and there’s always going to be challenges to the status quo, based on what has happened in the past,” she said.
Between 2000 and 2004, McCluskey traveled to South Africa three times.Then, as the director of the IU Black Film Center/ Archive, she saw an opportunity to expand the center’s collections to include films from the African Diaspora. After extensive contacts with South African filmmakers, her efforts resulted in the new book, The Devil You Dance With: Film Culture in the New South Africa (University of Illinois Press).
“It is a society that’s still in flux,” she said. “There have been some institutional changes that have guaranteed a certain level of accessibility and ownership for formerly marginalized blacks, and that includes the political culture and, for some, economic advancement. But many are still suffering. That tension is what I tried to capture and show how it has affected the work of filmmakers.”
McCluskey, who is an associate professor African America and African Diaspora studies, found a wide range of views about the relationship that the government should have with the film culture.
“You see in the book a divergence of opinion. There are filmmakers who believe that the government should be doing more to make up for all that has happened in the past and that the government does not consider the importance of the arts enough,” she added. “The arts have been a part of the liberation struggle, they say, and still are a vital resource. The artists were the ones who were speaking out and now some suspect that the government is putting them on the sidelines.
“Others realize that there are economic and financial strains on the society, given the level of poverty and the gap in wealth. They understand that priorities may be in terms of housing, education and all the other important issues that have been neglected for so long, for so large a part of the country.”
The directors McCluskey interviewed included those who had been exiled or severely restricted. She spoke with white directors who worked within the apartheid system as well as men and women of all backgrounds who have produced films since the system of racial segregation ended in 1994.
“The talented artists interviewed here are overcoming a devilish legacy in pursuing their passion for filmmaking and performance,” McCluskey wrote in her introduction.
The white directors she interviewed included Angus Gibson, a documentary filmmaker who produced the Academy Award-nominated film Mandela: Son of Africa, Father of a Nation, and Kevin Harris, a TV producer who worked within the apartheid system but eventually fought the censors.
“I had great compassion for those filmmakers, who had to recalibrate and reorient themselves to the new realities in a new South Africa,” McCluskey said. “I also understand and empathize with those who have suffered and now are impatient about change both inside the film community and in society.”
A group of people who McCluskey came away from with great admiration for were South Africa’s female directors, who didn’t always get “the best shake” in a male-dominated society.
“That is one category of the South African identity and one that they’ve had to struggle with, because South Africa not only has been a racist society, but very sexist, from the apartheid regime and also in certain elements of traditional African cultures,” McCluskey said.
“They’ve had to battle on several fronts to get where they are,” she said. “Most of the women have not broken through in a large way, but they continue to do documentaries, short films and television.”
She interviewed Bridget Pickering, who was co-producer of Hotel Rwanda, which was filmed in South Africa, and Xoliswa Sithole, producer of the award-winning film Shouting Silent, about the affects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on children, including her. Palesa Nkosi is another example of a filmmaker who now works mostly in the state-sponsored television industry.
In 2006, Tsotsi, a film set in South Africa about a young gang leader who cares for a baby accidentally kidnapped during a car-jacking in Soweto, won the Academy Award for best foreign film. McCluskey believes that its success was an exception that broke through with financing and distribution deals.
“That’s why the global market is so important, where all of the connections and funding comes in, and I’m sure that it’s a web that only a few have been able to penetrate intact,” she said. “I would hate to think that this was an exception, but it has all the markings.
“The Hollywood model is not a model that most countries can follow, particularly in developing countries. It starts from a different place,” she concluded. “That is why many of the filmmakers espouse a different model that serves South African needs.”
Picture: Courtesy of Indiana University
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