Capturing stories that frame a new history
International film festivals hungry for local tales
The world would not have known about the atrocities of apartheid South Africa if the humiliation and pain experienced by people was not told through the art. Late musical icon Miriam Makeba’s famous address to the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1963 about the plight of her people was an important catalyst in our anti-apartheid campaign. Poets, photographers, painters and filmmakers also registered their protest through art.
Films such as Sarafina, Cry The Beloved Country, A Dry White Season and Bopha! captured the real struggles of our people.
There was a time when film maker Mickey Dube went to various film festivals in his quest to share more stories of ordinary Africans to audiences around the world. Dube, the co-founder of 1Take Media, who also forms part of the Independent Black Filmmakers’ Collective, took one of his notable films Man on Ground (directed by Akin Omotoso) to festivals such as Monaco Charity Festival, Jozi Film Festival, Durban International Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival which won various awards for its ensemble cast. In 2000, his film Music of The Violin was showcased to packed audiences at the Toronto Film Festival where he says, “people take the festival so seriously the whole town comes to a standstill. Many people take time off work to come and watch the films.”
Dube says there is a huge upside of showing at international film festivals. Not only can they launch young film-makers, but there is a huge chance that one can, through the networks and opportunities presented at this platform, go on to launch commercial films that can reach wider audiences.
Producer, Dumi Gumbi’s The Ergo Company have since 2012 produced 10 films including Tokoloshe, Mrs Right Guy, Gog’ Helen, Dorah’s Peace, Love By Chance and Five Fingers for Marseilles, and knows how crucial deals are clinched at these festivals.
“Our last couple of films have literally gone from South Korea to Sweden and it has been great exposure not only for the films themselves but for us as a company and individual producers. We are busy planning a film, which is 70% based in Seoul so while doing research which meant that I had to go to Seoul last year – the fact that one of our films had been in one of South Korea’s biggest film festivals really assisted in getting the necessary paperwork done in an expedited manner. Showcasing films at prestigious film festivals can help in getting things done a lot faster and we are now looking at how we partner with the company that assisted us during the research trip,” says Gumbi.
The other vital advantage, Gumbi adds, is exposure to international markets. When Ergo targeted the Asian market, they chose the most significant festival in Asia, the Busan International Film Festival to showcase Five Fingers for Marseilles there last year. He says this effort contributed to their success in selling the film in most of the countries in that region.
Dube points out that showing films to audiences from various regions have helped to develop unique stories that the world wants to see from Africa. This is because fresh voices showcasing at these events challenge the stereotype of rural village stories and colonial tales about wars and famine that used to be associated with the continent. This in turn has positively influenced the message coming from the continent.
Gumbi concurs with Dube and adds that showcasing South African films at these festivals shows the world our stories being told by us. “It’s very important for creative people who are constantly bombarded with western products. We (also) get to show the world that we are also capable filmmakers and we need to change the narrative about Africa and its people – we are diverse, we are complex and we face the same issues as our western counterparts so these festivals help in changing how the world views us as a people,” he says.
Filmmaking is a highly competitive business and producers and directors also want a return of their investment. Gumbi’s The Ergo Company is steadily making inroads in this regard with three of their last films having been picked up by international companies out of the US and the UK. Two creatives who worked on Five Fingers have gone on to sign international representation deals.
According to Dube, films such as Akin Omotoso’s Vaya, Jahmil X.T Xubeka’s Of Good Report and Sew Winter to My Skin, and other local critically acclaimed movies such as Inxeba: The Wound, Nommer 37, District 9 and Tsotsi garnered notable successes not only for the individual films but for the local industry as well.
“It is important to tell authentic African stories because the world is slowly accepting that we have a different story to tell,” says Dube.
Although he adds that the hill is too steep when it comes to Africans competing with filmmakers who hail from more resourced countries, Dube notes that the introduction of Netflix streaming platform has been a huge game changer and an attempt at leveling the playing field. He credits the service for accepting African content on its own terms. “The Netflix model basically says we do not control how you tell your story because you are the expert,” he says.
For Gumbi, although it is easier for filmmakers to access funding from various film commissions to show at these festivals, what still holds African creatives back is access to capital which he says makes it tougher to make films. Government agencies such as the NEF and ICD take forever to conclude film deals while the Dti’s level of competence has slowly eroded over the years, while these is no support from the private sector for this art form, he notes.
“If it is difficult to raise funds just for production, can you imagine how hard it is to get your film distributed and marketed?” he points out.
And once a local film has jumped all these hurdles, the big elephant to try and move past is the domination and suffocation of Hollywood movies in our local cinemas.
“South African films will never compete with Hollywood films (in terms of ) budgets, quality, marketing and the star system that they have. Local filmmakers need to tell our government to put a quota system in place if we are serious about owning the local box office,” says Gumbi.