South African Filmmakers Move Beyond Apartheid Stories

JOHANNESBURG – One of South Africa’s best film producers blinked at a monitor as the crew calmed down. Cameras zoomed in on an actress who played an art dealer – smartly dressed in a pencil skirt made of bold African textiles – who offered a shy smile as an old flame stepped into her gallery.

It’s the opening scene of a new Netflix movie about high-profile black women, wealth and modern city life in Johannesburg – one in a spate of productions by a new generation of South African filmmakers. Endeavoring to tell their own stories on their own terms, they are eager to expand the opening up of a country after a generation of films marked by apartheid, poverty and struggle.

“We call it the legacy exhaustion, the apartheid cinema, people are exhausted with it,” said producer Bongiwe Selane a few days later in the editing studio. “The generation has not lived it now, it has nothing to do with it. They want to see stories about their experiences now. “

These stories have been backed by recent investments from streaming services like Netflix and its South Africa-based rival Showmax, which aim to attract audiences across the African continent and beyond, with millions investing in productions by African filmmakers.

In South Africa, where the local film industry has been funded and supported by the country’s white minority for decades, the new funding has boosted black filmmakers – a cultural moment on par with Hollywood.

Netflix’s first South African screenplay productions – the spy thriller “Queen Sono” and “Blood and Water,” a teen drama about an elite private school – have won local fans and topped the streaming giant’s international charts.

“I know a lot of people, especially in the US, were excited to see a black, dark-skinned girl play a leading character on Netflix,” said Ama Qamata, 22, a star of “Blood and Water,” on the set one afternoon in Johannesburg for a local soap opera.

When a makeup artist touched up her merlot red lipstick, showrunners called on walkie-talkies to set the scene for the day: A woman at a funeral accidentally falls into the grave of the man she is accused of murder. “Exaggerated, but the audience loves it,” joked one line producer, Janine Wessels.

Soap operas like this have been a favorite on local television for years, but many were imported from the US. “Blood and Water” takes another well-known American genre – teen drama – and turns the tables: It’s a Cape Town story that features villa parties with bouncers, bartenders, and infinity pools in neon lights – and was eaten up by American audiences .

The show has often been compared to “Gossip Girl” and was the first African original series to be listed in Netflix’s top ten in several countries including the US, UK, France and South Africa.

“One of my proudest moments was when people from the continent would say, ‘Wow, you really presented us in a good light, you really showed the world what we are capable of,” said Ms. Qamata.

In the three decades since apartheid, much of South African cinema has been shaped by its legacy.

Hollywood studios have come to the country to film blockbusters about Nelson Mandela and the other heroes of the battle. The South African government has promoted apartheid-oriented entertainment on local television as part of the country’s own efforts to count on its history.

Other local dishes were largely intended for the country’s white Afrikaans minority, who could afford cables and trips to cinemas mainly in shopping malls and affluent suburbs – a long, expensive hike for many black South Africans living in the country’s old townships.

“We’ve always had the local industry and funders who dictated how our stories should be told,” said Ms. Selane, the producer. “Our financiers say you can’t say that, or if you say so you will offend our white subscribers.”

Productions about apartheid were important in documenting the country’s history and uncovering the roots of an economy that remains one of the most unequal in the world, where wealth is still mostly concentrated in the hands of whites and a small black elite is.

However, in recent years the country has also seen major demographic and economic changes. The first South Africans to grow up after apartheid are now adults and are making their voices heard on social media and in professional workplaces. And a growing black middle class was eager to see itself reflected on the screen – and show it with their wallets.

In 2015, the film “Tell Me Sweet Something” about an aspiring young writer who finds unlikely love in Johannesburg’s hipster hangout, Maboeng, reached number five in South Africa, beating box office expectations for locally produced romantic comedies.

A year later, “Happiness is a Four-Letter Word” – the sequel to Ms. Selane’s newest film to begin on the art gallery scene – topped several Hollywood releases in South African cinemas on its opening weekend.

The film is about three brave women navigating a new South Africa. There’s Princess, a serial dear and owner of a trendy art gallery; Zaza, a glamorous housewife who has an illegal love affair; and Nandi, a high-profile lawyer who got cold feet shortly before her wedding.

“The audience came up to me to tell me how they had a man who was heartbroken, and they want to see that to see something where apartheid is not in the foreground,” said Renate Stuurman who plays the princess. “It can be in the background, it certainly brought us here, but people were happy to be distracted.”

Netflix and Showmax have pounced on stories like this to captivate audiences in Africa, where streaming is expected to hit nearly 13 million subscriptions by 2025 – a five-fold increase from late 2019, according to Digital TV Research, an industry forecaster. For Netflix, the investment is Part of a larger undertaking to acquire a generation of black content.

“We want to become a strong part of the local ecosystem to increase capacity and talent in the market,” said Ben Amadasun, director of African originals and acquisitions at Netflix. “The basis is that we believe that stories come from anywhere and can travel anywhere.”

Since 2016, the company has recorded content from filmmakers from South Africa and Nigeria, home to the industry popularly known as Nollywood. Nigerian filmmakers have made thousands of films since the late 1990s – many with just a few thousand dollars and a digital camera.

Nollywood films have gained fans in English-speaking Africa, but South Africa is losing its dominance, according to industry leaders.

For the past two decades, South Africa has hosted large Hollywood studios that are attracted by a highly skilled workforce and receive a discount from the government on all production costs spent in the country.

Cape Town’s streets have been converted from Homeland to Islamabad for the fourth season. Studios built Robben Island models for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; and crews flew helicopters, crashed cars and caused massive explosions for Avengers: Age of Ultron in downtown Johannesburg. Of the 400 or so films that were shot in South Africa between 2008 and 2014, almost 40 percent were foreign productions, according to the government agency National Film and Video Foundation.

For the filmmakers here, filming has often been a source of frustration. The studios brought in their own directors and leads – who sometimes played South African characters – and used the South Africans for jobs as assistants and line producers.

The productions “weren’t looking for our intellects or our perspectives, they were looking for Sherpas,” said Jahmil XT Qubeka, a filmmaker.

However, increasing investment in South Africa’s already thriving film industry means that local creatives like Mr. Qubeka have come closer to realizing their ambitions. His new production “Blood Psalms”, a series for Showmax, uses massive sets reminiscent of “Game of Thrones”, green screens to conjure up magical powers, and elaborate costumes made of armor and gold crowns.

One morning in an editorial suite in Johannesburg, Mr. Qubeka was talking to an editor who was editing recordings for the show about a queen fighting a prophecy about the end of the world – a plot from African mythology.

“The real revolution,” said Qubeka, “is that we as South Africans are being sought for our perspective and our ideas.”