South Africa: Catching a fire

The country's film sector continues to thrive, but does it have what it takes to become a permanent player on the global film scene?

In the late 1980s, anti-apartheid activist Joe Slovo told his daughters the story of one of his personal heroes, Patrick Chamusso. Chamusso was an ordinary black man living in South Africa, an apolitical foreman at the Secunda oil refinery who was wrongfully accused of sabotaging his workplace. After being brutally interrogated -- and seeing his wife imprisoned and tortured -- Chamusso was shocked into action. Joining the African National Congress, he subsequently risked his life in a dangerous follow-up strike on the refinery.

"He was a very original character and a completely unknown man," says Robyn Slovo, who has now produced a critically acclaimed film about Chamusso, Focus Features' "Catch a Fire," based on her sister Shawn's script and directed by Phillip Noyce. "He was extraordinarily brave but strangely unheroic, and yet things happened to him, which totally transformed his life."

If transformation is the theme of "Fire," it also is a theme of the South African film industry itself. Twelve years after the end of apartheid, the country's film business is undergoing the kind of renaissance other industries only dream about. Like most periods of change, this one has not been without its hiccups, but as producer David Wicht says, "On the whole, the sentiment is very positive. The government has never been more supportive of the film industry than it is today."

A number of factors are contributing to the sense of optimism many in the industry share, chief among them the country's rebate scheme, which appears to be a model of efficiency (after a period in which it didn't seem to be functioning so well). On top of that, South Africa won the foreign-language Oscar for last year's emotionally gripping film from director Gavin Hood, "Tsotsi," and thanks to versatile locales and strong infrastructure, the country has a booming locations business, consistently drawing foreign productions.

Nor is that all. It also has a new state-of-the-art shooting facility under construction just outside Capetown, and the country's national broadcasting company, the South African Broadcasting Corp., has begun pumping money into indigenous TV production, including sitcoms and dramas as well as nonfiction broadcasting.

"It is a very exciting time to be working here," script editor Dermod Judge says.

Having just made her film there, London-based Slovo is convinced that the future is bright, and she remains enthusiastic about the experience of making a film in South Africa.

"You can get fantastic production value out of South Africa," she says. "We could never have made our film like this in America. We couldn't have got that collaboration from the authorities, and we couldn't have got that much for our money."

The South African government has made it a priority to be more accommodating than its competitors when it comes to production, realizing that the film industry not only has the potential to create jobs and bring in much-needed foreign revenue but can lure tourists to a country long recognized as one of the most beautiful in the world.

"The government today is so much better versed as to the potential of the film industry than the people who preceded them," says Michael Mac Carthy, CEO of Movie Makers and a key figure in the new Dreamworld Film City facility. "That government was quite ignorant about the potential of the film industry for our country, but this government is very, very educated and has been studying it minutely ever since 1994."

The strategy is working: In the past year, the country has hosted a number of high-profile productions, including Edward Zwick's "Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and Bille August's "Goodbye Bafana," which chronicles the unique bond that developed between Nelson Mandela and one of the men charged with guarding him over a 27-year span.

Nowhere has the government's positive attitude been more visible than in its rebate system, which is designed to encourage filmmakers to come to South Africa. Producers now get a rebate of 15% of their South African spend, with indigenous productions receiving up to 25%, according to the country's Department of Trade and Industry.

While the rebate system had drawn some sharp criticism from prominent producers who found it hard to access -- and American lawyers who said it involved so much paperwork that their fees alone added hundreds of thousands of dollars to a picture's budget -- of the producers interviewed for this report, both Slovo and her line producer with Moonlighting Films, Genevieve Hofmeyr, say that the problems have been ironed out. "It is a very simple concept," Slovo says. "You get a direct percentage of your budget of all your South African spend. For us, it worked very well."

Adds Mac Carthy: "It might have been (difficult to access) initially, but now it's not. It was a new scheme before, and inevitably when you start something like that, there are going to be a few bumps."

That is not to say the rebate system is without critics. At present, a rebate is only granted to movies with a budget of more than 25 million rand ($3.3 million) -- a huge amount of money for most South African filmmakers and way above the cost of most locally produced films. In effect, this means the rebate has only been going to larger-budget foreign films that happen to shoot in South Africa or ones backed by foreign financiers, as was the case with "Fire," which was funded largely by Focus, Universal's specialty division.

The rebate system does allow producers to "bundle up" their productions -- meaning that, say, five productions with budgets of 5 million rand ($663,000) apiece could link up and together earn the rebate. In practice, though, producers say that can be hard to achieve. "Part of the problem is that you need to bundle your forms within quite a tight period, and that period is about a year," producer Platon Trakoshis of Big World Cinema says. "It is quite difficult to do that."

The good news is that after much grousing from filmmakers, the government has given the industry strong indications that it is going to extend the rebate to lower-budgeted films, though no announcement has yet been made as to what the new threshold will be.

"The Department of Trade and Industry is looking at creating a fund for smaller films," Trakoshis says. "It looks like they will announce something
in April."   

The rebate is one element that has contributed to the growth of South African film; a tax break known as Section 24F, which allows any South African investor to count 39% of his feature-film investment as a tax deduction, is another. Like the rebate scheme, the tax break also experienced some initial problems, which Wicht says were exacerbated by the government's "aggressive" definitions of what type of investments qualify. On the whole, though, the idea that South Africa wants to develop more indigenous filmmaking and attract more foreign production to its shores ultimately has to be deemed a positive.

Additionally, the country's National Film and Video Foundation has begun pumping money into local production, spending upward of $26 million over the past five years, mainly in the form of job training and script development -- both almost as important as actual production if the country wants to create a real industry infrastructure. Likewise, the government-backed Industrial Development Corp., a semiprivate bank that has a mandate to put money into local product, has spent almost $70 million on film production over the past three years.

Again, that money does not come without certain prohibitive strings, and insiders complain that the IDC will only back movies that have a genuine potential to be profitable outside South Africa -- which means that in order to qualify for funding, projects typically must have big-name stars attached, usually from Hollywood, and they must be backed by an established foreign sales agent.

Wicht says that the IDC has been functioning more like a traditional bank than a government-backed entity -- lending money rather than investing equity -- and other producers say that the body's stringent regulations make it difficult to get projects off the ground.

"A lot of people have been trying to do bigger South African productions, and they have been hitting a brick wall in terms of getting sales agents abroad," Trakoshis says. "What we are realizing is, it is going to be difficult to make South African films that way. So, we (producers) are looking at making lower-budget films using South African directors and actors."

Thanks largely to institutional support from the SABC, which the government has ordered to back indigenous productions, local filmmakers are being given the opportunity to sink their teeth into a range of projects, which only stands to increase the country's experienced talent pool. In fact, the SABC has more than 140 long-format dramas in various stages of development and production, all of which are budgeted at 1 million rand ($133,000) an hour, Judge says. What's more, he currently is teaching a mandatory program for writers working on SABC-funded dramas and comedies, called Sediba, "an African word that means a well or fountain," he says. "We are trying to encourage black writers -- that is our mandate and our job."

Sediba is only one of the programs designed to foster a love of film among South Africa's black population, which exhibitors in particular hope will blossom sooner rather than later. Although there is a dearth of movie theaters through the country -- only about 600 operate in all of South Africa, making it nearly impossible for many rural inhabitants to see films -- two leading theater chains recently slashed ticket prices in the hopes of attracting more interest from the community, but the move was less than successful.

Trakoshis uses different words to describe the decision to cut admission prices in half to draw bigger crowds: "It was a big failure and didn't work at all."

One of a small number of black producers working in South Africa, Mfundi Vundla says that despite the growth of the black middle class, significant obstacles remain when it comes to the black population attending -- and making -- films.

"The legacy of the apartheid system is that most of the cinemas are in these so-called white-only areas because the white audiences were the ones who could pay for these Hollywood movies," he says. "South Africa has changed, but there is still that legacy. The potential bulk of the cinemagoing audience in South Africa has not been cultivated."

Other insiders concede that blacks have yet to reach the higher echelons of filmmaking to any great degree. True, there are black filmmakers such as Norman Maake, who directed the 2003 production "Soldiers of the Rock" and served as the second-unit director on "Fire," and Zola Maseko, who helmed the 2004 offering "Drum." And South African filmmaker Teboho Mahlatsi recently chaired the short-film jury at the Venice Film Festival. But black filmmakers remain firmly a minority.

"It has taken a long time to turn around apartheid in many industries in South Africa," Hofmeyr says. "The film industry was white-dominated until 10 or 12 years ago, and the process of training people isn't quick. But it is happening in huge leaps and bounds now. You might not always be able to find black heads of department yet, but you can find (blacks) in all positions leading up to that."

Indeed, there are signs of progress. On "Fire," Slovo says, "we had several black heads of department -- a mixed-race costume designer, a black script supervisor, a black second-unit director -- the whole team apart from the (director of photography). ... But I don't want to paint too wonderful a picture; it is something that has got to change in South Africa."   

Change is happening, though, and it is happening fast.

"It is really a process," Hofmeyr says. "It has taken longer than I think we would all have liked, but it is really moving fast now. And that is extremely encouraging."