Filmmakers making a mark in South Africa.Darrell James Roodt
Almost forgotten in the hullabaloo that followed "Tsotsi's" foreign-language Oscar in 2005 was the success of another South African film the preceding year.
"Yesterday," the story of a young black woman who discovers she has AIDS, earned South Africa its first Oscar nomination and vindicated its director's decision to make the $1 million drama.
"I was offered a B-grade film in America for a lot of money," director Darrell James Roodt recalls. "But I said, 'No, I am going to stay here and make the film I want to make.'"
Roodt, who has been making movies for the past 20 years -- including 1992's "Sarafina!" and 1995's "Cry, the Beloved Country" -- grew up the son of blue-collar white workers in Johannesburg. He was denied a place in film school because he revolted against the apartheid system and resisted learning the mandatory Afrikaans.
After that, he says, "The only other option was to make movies myself."
Following a year of working on a TV series and learning the ropes, he teamed with then-fledgling producer Anant Singh on the duo's first film, 1986's "Place of Weeping." That tiny movie was an international success, setting both on a path to careers in film.
Now, they are collaborating again on the ultimate anti-apartheid movie, a $40 million adaptation of Nelson Mandela's autobiography, "A Long Walk to Freedom."
Roodt has only recently come aboard the project, but he is keen to make it a human portrait of Mandela and not just a cinematic hagiography.
"If you got caught up in the (anti-apartheid) struggle, as he did, a lot was sacrificed," Roodt says. "He divorced his first wife and virtually abandoned his children because he was committed to the struggle. He was a tough man."
Roodt has met Mandela on several occasions. One, he says, stands out: the premiere of "Cry."
"There was a beautiful thing that happened. My mother was in the queue to meet him, and she said, 'My son made that picture!' And Mandela said, 'Not your son. Our son."
In the early 1980s, producer Anant Singh made a bold move, scraping together the money to shoot his first film, 1986's "Place of Weeping."
The anti-apartheid story did not go down well with the government then in power. "We made it on the run from the police and shot it in 14 days for $50,000," Singh recalls.
When the picture was released in the U.S. but not in his home country, "It got great reviews, and I publicized that here in South Africa," Singh says. "Then the government had a dilemma: If they ban it, it is going to be a big media issue. But should they let it pass?"
They did, but when the movie was released in South Africa, Singh recalls, "No whites went to see it. They didn't want to know. They were in denial."
Today, they are no longer in denial. That is at least partly because of the efforts of Singh himself, the country's preeminent producer, who has combined commercial moviemaking with pictures that explore the evils of apartheid -- from "Place" to his banned antiwar film, the 1987 production "The Stick," to 1992's "Sarafina!" and 1995's "Cry, the Beloved Country."
Ironically, the movie that got him into the most trouble was a James Bond film, 1973's "Live and Let Die." During a Singh-sponsored screening, he was arrested and jailed overnight because, he believes, it showed a black man with a white girlfriend (Yaphet Kotto and Jane Seymour).
Even Singh is surprised at how much has changed since then -- and certainly since his youth, when he could only find movie-related work in a store that rented 16mm films.
Even when he had made "Place," he and director Darrell James Roodt "couldn't go and see it in the same theater," Singh says. "He would go to a white theater, and I would go to the black theater in Soweto."
Today, they can see any movie in any theater, and equally important, Singh says, "You can make any film you want."
He adds: "It has been an amazing journey, coming from almost isolation to the point where, within two years, we had the first-ever Oscar nomination for a South African film (2005's 'Yesterday') and then had (2005's) 'Tsotsi' win the Oscar. It's a really exciting time."
Months after picking up a foreign-language Oscar for 2005's "Tsotsi," director Gavin Hood is prepping a new picture that he will again shoot, at least partly, in his native South Africa.
"We are just starting to prep (New Line's) 'Rendition,'" he says, speaking from Morocco, where he has been scouting locations. "It is a multicharacter story with Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal that takes place in South Africa and moves between Washington and the Middle East."
The film centers on the current U.S. administration's policy of rendition, "where you might, in the war against terror, be picked up and sent to a foreign country for, shall we say, serious questioning," Hood notes. "The film follows a CIA analyst who's involved with interrogating a suspect and the suspect's wife back in America who does not know where her husband is."
If "Rendition" seems more international than indigenous, the same might be said of its maker. While Hood grew up in South Africa, he also has lived in London and has spent much of his recent past in Los Angeles.
He regrets that there were few sources of inspiration in South African film when he was growing up. "When I was young and wanting to make films, there were really only a couple of filmmakers you could look to for inspiration," he says. "At first, I was very intimidated to make films because it was something only filmmakers from overseas could do."
That has changed in large part because of Hood's own success. Indeed, when he accepted the Oscar, the news was greeted with ecstasy in South Africa, and when he returned to his home country he was received with a near riot -- not to mention a personal audience with Nelson Mandela.
Even though Hood is passionate about his country and goes back frequently, he resents the implication that he and other South African filmmakers should be restricted to making movies in or about their homeland.
"What is important is to consciously move between different environments," he says. "I would die if you told me I had to live in Los Angeles for the rest of my life, and I would die if you told me I had to live in Johannesburg for the rest of my life."
But isn't there the danger of a brain drain from South Africa if talented filmmakers follow Hood to Hollywood? "The answer is yes and no," he says. "You are seeing things as if they are frozen in time. It doesn't work like that. There is always some 15-year-old filmmaker who goes away and comes back at 30, like Phillip Noyce did in Australia; he leaves and comes back with this extraordinary expertise and makes (2002's) 'Rabbit-Proof Fence.'"
Hood himself would like to follow that pattern -- and he soon might, with a new South African project he is developing, though he declines to discuss it.
"Will I go back and film there again?" he asks. "Absolutely -- when I find a script and subject matter as powerful as 'Tsotsi.'"