LONDON – The death of Nelson Mandela has put South Africa and its political past and future back in the headlines.
But its film industry has also gone through much change since the end of Apartheid that saw Mandela, often referred to by his Xhosa clan name Madiba or as "tata," or "father" of the nation, become president 1994-1999.
After the democratic elections that put the anti-Apatheid fighter into political office, South Africa focused on developing its infrastructure and the skill sets of its film crews. It has in recent years grown its production infrastructure, such as the cutting-edge Cape Town Film Studios that opened in 2010, established production incentives in 2004, which have been improved since then, and attracted big Hollywood productions.
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Among them are Clint Eastwood's 2009 drama Invictus, in which Morgan Freeman plays Mandela himself, 2012 comic-book adaptation Dredd, Safe House with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds and upcoming release Mad Max: Fury Road with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron.
TV shows have also started shooting in South Africa, such as Michael Bay's Black Sails for Starz, which is set up at Cape Town Film Studios.
When the Cannes film festival closed this year with French crime drama Zulu, starring Orlando Bloom and Forest Whitaker, South Africa added its latest feather to its cap.
The foreign production boom has been feeding the South African production industry in recent years. But it has also started to spill over and boost domestic filmmaking, with homegrown films now reaching a bigger audience.
Hollywood still dominates South Africa's box office, with local releases historically accounting for less than 5 percent of annual revenue. But last year, South African films hit a market share of 11 percent of the country's box office.
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With that backdrop, South African filmmakers increasingly hope to leave their mark on the global film business.
The country had its first-ever best foreign-language picture Oscar nominee in 2004 with Zulu-language HIV drama Yesterday. A year later, the country won its first-ever Oscar in that same category with Tsotsi, a Zulu-, Xhosa- and Afrikaans-language drama about six days in the violent life of a young gang leader.
South African filmmakers have been looking to tell more homegrown stories for local and foreign audiences.
Lance Samuels of Out of Africa Entertainment, a producer acquired last year by Toronto-based Blue Ice Group, is one of the South Africans telling more homegrown stories. He worked on 2010 comedy Schuks Tshabalala's Survival Guide to South Africa, the biggested local South African box-office hit ever.
Out of Africa and Blue Ice have also been working on a Mandela project, a six-part TV biopic structured as a Canadian-South African co-production.
"If it weren't for (Mandela's) creative spirit and legacy of storytelling, Out of Africa Entertainment and most other industry players would not have an industry to speak of," Samuels told THR this summer. "His resilience in the struggle only made it that much more important to get films out of South Africa made and seen."
He added: "Economically, Mandela's commitment to growing the film industry in South Africa saw the birth of groundbreaking incentive schemes, schemes that are now as good as any in the world."
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Samuels and Nico Dekker, CEO of Cape Town Film Studios, say South Africa is proud to have continued to attract Hollywood productions, but the indigenous industry continues to face challenges that it is looking to address.
Box-office competition from Hollywood blockbusters and finding a wide audience in a country with 11 indigenous languages make it tougher to achieve success with local films across the country - and even harder to export them. "It is difficult for films to recoup their cost in South Africa [from ticket sales] alone," Samuels explained.
Triggerfish Animation Studios CEO Stuart Forrest and his team at what has been dubbed the "Pixar of South Africa" have set their eyes beyond their own country. Their first feature, Zambezia, starring the voices of Samuel L. Jackson and others, had success at home and in select foreign markets. “I believe it is the highest-grossing Soth African-owned film in around 30 years,” he told THR earlier this year.
Khumba, starring the voices of Liam Neeson, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Buscemi, features a half-striped zebra that gets shunned by its horde. It has also done good business since its recent launch.
Triggerfish has been focusing on planning a slate of five films and raising financing for them, with Forrest saying the studio wants to bring more African stories to the broader world.
"It's impossible to overestimate the impact that Mandela had on building a nation in which all citizens can be proud," Forrest told THR after the freedom fighter's death. "We live in this legacy everyday, and as our nation's history has been transformed, this change has permeated our storytelling and created a new voice in the world."
Many agree that South Africa's creatives need to continue to express themselves beyond the country's borders. "The apartheid years made South Africa very insular," Dekker told THR earlier this year. "The task now is to (continue to) find stories that will resonate around the world."
One such story is that of Mandela's life, which is getting a theatrical rollout late this year.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a drama that stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris and is based on the freedom fighter's autobiography, was picked up for the U.S. by the Weinstein Co. earlier this year. The epic is from well-known South African producer Anant Singh.
The movie from director Justin Chadwick is the biggest South African production ever with a budget of $35 million, compared to the $1.7 million average for local films. It has sold wide to such territories as the United Kingdom and France (Pathe), Germany (Senator), Australia (Village Roadshow), Scandinavia (Scanbox), Brazil (Vinny Films), Hong Kong (Golden Scene), Israel (Shani), the Middle East (Gulf Films) and others.
"There are more South African stories being told," and this is one of them, Singh told THR earlier this year. He acquired the rights to Mandela's autobiography more than 15 years ago, ensuring to get his blessing.
Calling the film an "apt tribute" to Mandela, Singh recently said: "The journey to getting the film made has been a long and exciting one, and we are delighted to have found so many partners who share our passion for the little known story of how Mandela became an icon for the world."
Late Thursday night, Singh said in a statement about Mandela's death: "We have lost our father, an exceptional human being, a hero to the world.
There has never been anyone quite like him and there will never be. We should be inspired by his life and celebrate him with our love."
Young South African filmmakers, such as Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, who has been screening his drama Of Good Report about a high school teacher in rural South Africa who starts an obsessive affair with a pupil, feel energized to tell their stories. “I think we’re on the cusp of a new wave of new South African filmmaking, because next year is going to be the 20th anniversary of democracy in my country,” he told THR earlier this year. “And looking at our filmmaking in our past 20 years, I can certainly see a level of maturity.”
Late Thursday, Qubeka said that Mandela's legacy should inspire young creatives and others in the country. "What's important is the legacy," he told THR. "I hope the youth of South Africa celebrate his essence by taking control of their destiny. It's what he and other struggle leaders fought for."
- Arts & Entertainment
- Nelson Mandela
- South Africa