AV Club: Exploring The Poignant Appeal of South African Films

providing contextual reflection of the nation's social and political evolution.

Film is arguably one of the most evocative art forms. The combination of audio and visual elements have the ability to move audiences across the age divide or geography. Like many Nigerians, my introduction into the world of South African cinema was the Jamie Uys film, ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’. Released in 1980, the film opened my pre-teenage self into a world that was instantly alive, throbbing with Blackness and nativity. 

Many years later, the TV’s on which we watched that classic aren’t in fashion anymore. In place of physical CD’s, streaming has evolved our watching habits and in an extensive swoop, influenced the attendant world of cinema. So far in Africa, the countries of Nigeria and South Africa have been the darlings of incoming streaming companies such as Amazon Prime, Showmax and Netflix. In December 2018, the crime thriller ‘Queen Soho’ became Netflix’s premier South African TV series. It would go on to become wildly successful, putting a number of new viewers onto the country’s filmmaking.

Not long after, I watched ‘Tsotsi,’ which marked the beginning of my immersion into the world of South African cinema. The Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film was about a street gang leader who is brutish and merciless, and takes whatever he wants from anyone who’s in possession of it. All that changes one day when what was supposed to be a simple robbery unfurls into chasos; inside a car he claims, is a baby. It sets the trajectory for the complete prism of the thug’s emotions to shine through. In the film’s most heated moments, he’s neither good nor bad; he’s just another human driven to circumstances by situations beyond his control. 

The juxtaposition of humane and economic travesty in the Oscar-winning ‘Tsotsi’ portends a shared thread in the philosophical direction of the films coming out of the country. External forces collide with inner convictions to create a sort of antihero, usually playing the murky terrain of Apartheid to make its spin on a contemporary issue. This does not mean that every film by a South African is heavy on the political side of things; it’s rather an honest recognition of how deeply the aftereffects permeate several facets of cultural life in the country. 

An ideal work of art is undoubtably influenced by the events surrounding its creation, which only serve to further buttress a film’s wider context, whether directly or otherwise. This was richly wielded in the hands of Mandla Dube who directed Silverton Siege,’ a movie with stark representations of the freedom fighting era. It was inspired by the real-life event of the Silverton trio, who were chased into a bank after a covert mission of theirs was compromised. The plot’s development, the fragrance of the languages, the overtones of racial theory, the thriller-esque soundtrack—all these point to an astute understanding of effective production.

Very often, the case is made for Nollywood’s expanding sense of a story. In comparison to foundational Nigerian films of the 1990’s and early to mid 2000’s, some would argue for the superior production quality of today’s movies. All this is not to say that Nigeria has not produced good films in the post-streaming era. It’s only that the truly creative directors are few and far between, confidently digging into the earth of the country’s disparate stories for a narrative. With Africa’s shared history of colonialism, there’s a lot of storylines that are yet be unfurled, particularly through film media. Asides being accessible, film allows creative freedom while staying close to the important details of actual events. This is where South African cinema triumphs; no character is spun out of thin air—you could almost reach out and touch them, so real and humane are their complications. 

In the past, I’ve often wondered about the roots of South Africa’s cinematic brilliance. It’s easy to chalk it up to its well-off economy, how easily funding and fine cinematography can be accessed by anyone with the proper connections. But truly good art transcends all this; it reveals a willingness to uncover the truth. True, the apartheid era was one of the world’s most haunting periods, especially for Black people who lived in and around the townships. However, to be surrounded by so much wealth and have none for yourself has a way of inspiring an against-all-odds mentality. 

Many post-colonial films from South Africa reflect this ethos to untangle events to make a cohesive storyline. Their stories and characterisation is heavily nuanced and displays a strong grip on trajectories. In many films, their heroes aren’t glossy images on a TV screen, it’s the township boy who seemed to do good until someone–or something, really–stopped him in his tracks. 

To me, I think the quality of movies made in Anglophone Africa does not match the startling poignance of their Eastern and Southern African counterparts. Part of the reason might be the dogged attempt of English-speaking countries to ally themselves into the workings of the new world. Our closeness to their popular culture–particularly in Nigeria–gives a false sense of camaraderie, a curious desire to align ourselves in the blistering light of capitalism. 

In actuality, the most sensational stories are found in the crucibles of the mundane. History portends a great school of inspiration and South African filmmakers aren’t just curious students, you get a sense that they are admirers of their history and the glory of their continued survival. It isn’t art’s mission to explain or correct the bad; you only show it. 

I was again reminded of this when I watched ‘Collision’ not long ago. Centred on a white South African family, upper middle-class and relatively well-off, the patriarch loses a job promotion to a black woman in the opening scenes. Their teenage daughter is madly in love with a young black musician; the musician’s best friend is affiliated with a street thug, one who counts the white patriarch as an associate. These interwoven threads are set loose over the film’s almost two hour run time. A minor storyline unfurls elsewhere, Black South Africans turning against Nigerians in a spate of xenophobia-inspired attacks; within that plot is situated an evocative but brief love story.


On the other side of the argument, the overwhelming number of people who did not agree with the idea of over flogging the apartheid stoyline, still belive that the country’s history would always be a reference point for creators. As much as contemporary demands for fresher stories, it’s always an artistic strength to play to what forms the core of your creativity. Watching a movie like ‘The Forgotten Kingdom’ on Showmax, I was easily transported to an abstract world that was still rich in its South African heritage. Which is to say, more often than not, the material isn’t the problem; rather, finding new ways to tap from it.

In the end, the culture surrounding the world of film is not improved overnight. It takes brave filmmakers to look beneath the sheen of the contemporary to unearth cinematic gold. From what I’ve observed in the past few years, South African directors are pushing the envelope for filmmaking around the continent and reclaiming the right to tell our own stories from our own lenses.

Local content has flavour that is spiritually carried by the evolution of that particular place, which is why movies like Tunde Kelani’s ‘Ayinla’ and Niyi Akinmolayan’s ‘Prophetess’ are some of the most affecting films we’ve seen from these parts in recent times, and such attention to detail ought to be continued. Criticism offers a valid standpoint of effecting positive change and, looking at the robust nature of the highlighted discourse, it’s no wonder that South Africa keeps getting it right. 

Featured image credits/