I was shocked to read that "Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu", Mandla Dube's directorial debut, cost more than R20 million to make. This was reported in an article from January by Gali Mbele in the Sunday Times. The figure is particularly dismaying because I know that no narrative South African film has ever grossed that much money at the box office; Kalushi, which is by no means a record-breaking film, couldn't hope to gross that much, and, since many deductions have to be made for expenses and other agreed costs, as well as the distributor's and theatres' portions of the income, will never make back that huge budget. (So far, Kalushi has grossed about R1.2 million in theatres.)
It drew my attention to the financial matters of filmmaking in South Africa. How easy is it for a first-time director, such as Dube, to secure the resources he needs to make his film? Does it differ between different kinds of films? How much easier is it for experienced directors with careers and reputations behind them? Perhaps even more importantly, how does this supposed struggle for funding and whatever sources for funding as may be found affect what ends up on the screen?
Mbele reports that the main institutions that filmmakers can apply to for financial support are the National Film and Video Foundation, the Department of Trade and Industry, the National Lottery Commission, the Industrial Development Corporation, and the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal film commissions. So far as I can tell, each of these entities is owned and operated by the state; to what extent is the state being allowed – by grim financial necessity – to intervene in the works of local film-makers?
I intend to find the answers to these questions and report back soon. An understanding of how South African productions are resourced and produced will lead to a much better understanding of and appreciation for what one sees when watching them. For now, I can urge all of you to go out and support South African films even more stridently than you have been.
I notice that the highest grossing local feature film at this point is last year's "Vir Altyd" which grossed nearly R14.5 million, and this was followed closely behind by "Happiness Is A Four-Letter Word" which grossed nearly R14 million. Are these film-makers much better placed than others to receive funding? Do they even need to apply for support, or are their production companies now well enough heeled to independently finance their ventures? I note, from Mbele's article, that even a filmmaker who has won the highest nationally recognised awards and been commended at international film festivals has not been approved for state funding; does this mean that only commercial prospects are considered by the above institutions?
Note, also, that the highest grossing films of last year, as well as of previous years, such as "Pad Na Jou Hart" and "Liefling" are all romantic comedies, devised in a quasi-Hollywood mode of straight genre fulfilment, and finished with a neat and professional gloss. Can it be that what South African audiences are looking for in South African productions is more of the same as what we get from overseas, with only the superficial changes in setting and scale? I suspect that what South African audiences want is something we've not yet been offered; as I wrote in my review of Meg Rickards's "Tess" last month, it's the daring, idiosyncratic, furious, ecstatic personal expression of artists seeking to create imagined worlds, and to fully depict life according to their subjective experiences of it.
Film-makers need to find ways of operating totally independently from corporate and government support. And as viewers, our task is simple: to support, in as many ways as we can, South African film-makers.
Audiences can't affirm that a certain work is what they're looking for until it's been given to them; before 1998, no evaluations or tests could tell a producer that what viewers would embrace with deep affection and joy would be the exquisitely controlled, expansively imagined, intricately designed, wildly expressive films of Wes Anderson. Before I saw "The Tree of Life", I didn't even know I was after the viewing experience of a deeply felt and transformatively evoked subjectivity.
South Africans know that they want South African stories told by South African artists; the formal attitudes, aesthetic sensibilities, political viewpoints, moral perspectives, personal worldviews, and cinematic innovations remain the unknown vectors. And, unfortunately, it seems that, as long as film-makers are dependent on state approval and resources, their artistry and full individual potential will remain inhibited.
Two things are to happen to drag our local industry out of these stifling straits: South African movies need to earn higher revenue, i.e. sell more tickets at the box office and obtain higher viewership on paid services such as ShowMax; and film-makers need to find ways of operating totally independently from corporate and government support. American film-makers such as Wes Anderson and Judd Apatow (two of the greatest currently working, in my opinion) have found ways of making films on much lower budgets than before – though these still tower over the production budget of even the most ambitious South African films – and the price that they've paid in limited resources has been more than rewarded in the new, expanded freedom of artistry they've exhibited throughout the latter parts of their careers.
As viewers, our task is simple: to support, in as many ways as we can, South African film-makers. The main method of support would be to buy tickets to their movies, and to encourage as many others as possible to do the same. For film-makers, the task is nearly as simple: find the best and least expensive way of giving life to your artistic visions. A most important factor would be the ability to resource your project without any external considerations of its merits or value; we need the films that film-makers envisage, rather than the films that financiers approve. Fights are yet to be had in this country, and the revolution that many in our generation have called for will both require personal and broad documentation, and inspire artistic impulses in its political and cultural implications.
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