More than 200 short fiction and nonfiction films have been made in South Africa since 1980. The themes of most of these films were initially limited to anti-apartheid texts. Since the late 1980s and early 1990s short-film makers have also explored themes other than apartheid.
The thematic considerations in these short films are briefly discussed in this article and dominant themes are highlighted. The first short films of the 1980s consisted mainly of images against apartheid, but later efforts were lyrical and sensitive portrayals of the destruction of indigenous cultures and forced removals of people due to apartheid laws. Some films also attempted to explore those aspects which were ignored in official history books.
In the late 1980s, particularly because of the Weekly Mail Film Festival, new themes were explored in short films, such as gay and lesbian issues and attempts by people to adapt to changes in South Africa. Animation films, including those by William Kentridge, were also made.
These short films form part of a new, critical South African film art which emerged in the second half of the 1980s.
More than 200 short fiction and nonfiction films and videos were made in South Africa between 1980 and 1995. Although these films were initially limited to anti-apartheid texts and audiovisual documents which attempted to reclaim South African history and popular memory, short films made towards the end of the 1980s became thematically more diversified.
The aim of this article is to present a brief overview of the revival in short-film making in South Africa over the past fifteen years by focusing on the thematic diversity of these films. Although books by Botha and Van Aswegen (1992), Blignaut and Botha (1992) and Tomaselli (1989) documented developments in South African cinema there is a substantial lack of information on the developments in local short-film making. For the purpose of this article short films are defined as audiovisual material on film or video which is shorter than 60 minutes in duration.
To understand the revival in short-film making in South Africa one needs to look briefly at the South African film industry after the introduction of a state subsidy scheme in 1956. After the introduction of a regulated subsidy system the Nationalist government and big business collaborated to manipulate cinema in South Africa. Ideology and capital came together to create a national cinema that would reflect South Africa during the Verwoerdian regime. However, it was initially a cinema for whites only, and predominantly Afrikaans (cf Tomaselli 1989). Of the 60 feature films made between 1956 and 1962, 43 were in Afrikaans, four were bilingual and the remaining 13 were in English.
Over the past three decades the local film subsidy system has basically rewarded box-office success. Once a film had earned a specific amount of money at the box-office, it qualified for the subsidy, which paid back a percentage of costs. This percentage was initially higher for Afrikaans language films than for English productions. It is therefore evident that the government of the day realised the potential influence this Afrikaner-dominated film industry would have on the growth and spread of the Afrikaans language.
After 1962 Afrikaner capital became a significant factor in the film industry when the insurance company Sanlam acquired a major interest in Ster-films, a distribution company, with the explicit intention of providing cinema predominantly for Afrikaner patrons. By 1969, Satbel (the Suid-Afrikaanse Teaterbelange Beperk) had been formed, and the financing, production and distribution of films in South Africa were now virtually in the hands of one large company (except for a few cinemas owned by CIC-Warner). The white Afrikaans audience for local cinema was relatively large and very stable, guaranteeing nearly every Afrikaans film a long enough run to break even as long as it provided light entertainment and dealt with Afrikaner reality and beliefs (cf Davies 1989).
With the exceptions of Jans Rautenbach and Manie van Rensburg, the Afrikaans language films were mostly unremarkable. Fourie (1981) attributes this to the conservative attitude of Afrikaners at that stage towards films. Afrikaners wanted their ideals visualised in these films. This idealistic conservatism was characterised by an attachment to the past, to ideals of linguistic and racial purity and to religious and moral norms. Films had to subscribe to these conservative norms to be successful at the box-office and seldom attempted to explore a national cultural psyche. As such, they were a closed form, made by Afrikaners for Afrikaners, with little or no attention to their potential to say something important about their society to an international audience.
The type of realism that could have analysed Afrikaner culture in a critical manner was avoided. Instead, use was made of folk stereotypes that showed the Afrikaner as chatty, heart-warming and lovable in a comedy tradition, or as beset by emotional problems that had little to do with society, but much to do with the mainsprings of Western melodrama about mismatched couples overcoming obstacles on the path to true love (cf Blignaut & Botha 1992). These films ignored the sociopolitical turmoil of the period, as well as the realities experienced by black South Africans.
Fourie (1982) argues that most Afrikaans films communicated by means of obsolete symbols that had little intercultural communication value. They painted a one-sided and stereotypical portrait of the Afrikaner, leading to a misconception about who and what the Afrikaner was. Furthermore, the negative portrayal of blacks as a servant class in these films is a visual symbol of the deep-seated apartheid ideology.
An attempt to create a black film industry under apartheid in the 1970s resulted in the making of a large number of shoddy films in ethnic languages that were screened in churches, schools and community and beerhalls. It was contrary to government policy to allow black cinemas in the urban white areas, as this would concede the citizenship of urban blacks. The urbanisation of blacks was portrayed in these films as uniformly negative and homeland life as more fitting (cf Gavshon 1983; Van Zyl 1985). At this stage, black and white audiences were treated differently. The audiences were separated, each with its own set of rules and operations, films and cinemas. Any film that managed to be made which in any way reflected the South African society in turmoil was banned by the state, or received no distribution whatsoever, and thus did not qualify for any film subsidy. A true national film industry therefore did not emerge through the Afrikaans and made-for-blacks films.
2 BEGINNINGS OF A CRITICAL SOUTH AFRICAN CINEMA
Since the late 1970s and the early 1980s a group of film and video producers and directors who were not affiliated to the established film companies in the mainstream film industry have made films and videos about the sociopolitical realities of the majority of South Africans (cf Botha & Van Aswegen 1992; Blignaut & Botha 1992). Most of these films were shown at local film festivals such as the Durban and Cape Town International Film Festivals and, since 1987, the Weekly Mail Film Festival. Other venues included universities, church halls, trade union offices and the private homes of interested parties. Most of the films experienced censorship problems during the state of emergency in the 1980s.
These films had small budgets and were financed either by the producers themselves, by progressive organisations such as the International Defence and Aid Fund for South Africa for a united, democratic, non-racial South Africa or overseas television stations. They were chiefly the product of two groups that emerged jointly: a group of white university students opposed to apartheid, and black workers who yearned for a film or video form using indigenous imagery that would portray their reality in South Africa, that would give them a voice and space in local films. Together with numerous documentaries, community videos and full-length films such as Mapantsula, short films and even animation work marked the beginning of a new, critical South African cinema.
Initially this new cinema was based on audiovisual material that reflected the realities of the black majority of South Africa in their aspirations and struggle for a democratic society, but since the beginning of the 1990s other marginalised voices have been added to these short films, for example gays and lesbians. It is from these films and videos that the symbols and iconography of a national South African film industry can be drawn, rather than the diversions produced by the Afrikaans cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, or the made-for-blacks cinema of the 1970s. Most of the new critical local films, features or short films may be described as progressive film texts in the sense that the most of them were consciously critical of racism, sexism or oppression. They dealt with the lives and struggle of the people in a developing country and were mostly allied with the liberation movements for a non-racial, non-sexist South Africa.
Some of these short films also dealt with events which were conveniently left out in official South African history books or in a contemporary context in actuality programmes on national television under control of the Nationalist regime. Therefore, they became guardians of popular memory in the sociopolitical process in South Africa.
In an article of such limited scope as this it is impossible to examine in detail the historical and thematical development in South African short-film making over a period of fifteen years. In the rest of this article the most important thematic considerations of local short-film makers are highlighted.
3 THEMATIC CONSIDERATIONS
Most of the short fiction and nonfiction films in the early 1980s were political texts, which were instruments in the anti-apartheid struggle. Only later in the 1980s were other themes explored by various marginalised film makers, for example gay and lesbian liberation.
3.1 Images against apartheid
The International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF) was founded by the chairman of Christian Action, Canon John Collins of St Paul's Cathedral, Britain, in the early 1950s when money was collected to support the families of those charged and imprisoned in South Africa for their opposition to apartheid, and to provide legal defence for those accused in political trials.
The fund ran a comprehensive information service on affairs in South Africa over the past decades, which included visual documentation. It also produced films on all aspects of repression and resistance against apartheid in South Africa.
The best-known films included those by director Barry Feinberg, for example a film about the life and work of Archbishop Trevor Huddlestone and his continuing commitment to the destruction of apartheid. The film Makhalipile -- the dauntless one includes interviews with Oliver Tambo, Desmond Tutu and Helen Joseph. The suffering of children under apartheid was examined in Feinberg's Any child is my child.
Song of the spear portrayed the role of culture in the struggle for national liberation. Intercutting performances of the Amandla cultural ensemble, while on tour in Britain, with mass singing of resistance songs on the streets of South Africa, this 16 mm film dramatically depicted the emerging culture of liberation, which respects the humanity of all people without regard to race while reflecting the diversity of the South African population.
Isitwalandwe: the story of the South African Freedom Charter was made by Feinberg in 1980 on video and 16 mm, and made it clear that as a people's blueprint for democracy the Freedom Charter remained relevant for political change in South Africa.
The major audiences for IDAF productions, however, were the international anti-apartheid movements. The work was intended to play a campaigning role for the liberation movement in South Africa and unfortunately offered an uncritical account of its policies. IDAF productions keep to cinéma v&eeacute;rité techniques by avoiding voice-over commentary and by using live sound and letting political spokesmen speak for themselves. These productions unambiguously presented an ANC viewpoint.
IDAF was instrumental in establishing an alternative news distribution office in London, namely Afravision, by providing financial and logistical assistance. Barry Feinberg's concern for the preservation of South Africa's anti-apartheid films resulted in the largest single collection of material at IDAF. With the changing political dispensation IDAF has placed this film archive at the University of the Western Cape (cf Blignaut & Botha 1992).
In South Africa a stream of documentary productions began in 1981. Collective filmwork by Brian Tilley, Laurence Dworkin, Nyana Molete, Tony Bensusan and Elaine Proctor led to the 25-minute anti-apartheid film, Forward to a people's republic, which was completed with assistance from IDAF. This film portrayed the dynamics of the conflict in the country in the early 1980s by juxtaposing the people's militancy with white militarisation.
In April 1985 Video News Service (VNS) was formed with the assistance of the liberation movement and overseas financial support. VNS became Cosatu's unofficial film unit (cf Blignaut & Botha 1992). The film makers saw themselves first and foremost as political activists. For VNS to achieve this aim and avoid being shut down under the state of emergency, Afravision was established in London to interface with international anti-apartheid movements, and locally VNS crews made themselves indistinguishable from the foreign news media operating in South Africa. At first VNS made television documentaries for international television companies, but later started to make so-called video pamphlets to distribute news about a wide range of issues from township to township. These videos were a type of news network and were aimed at South Africans. Most of the videos were 15- to 30-minute productions and ranged from vigilante killings to the white election process in 1988.
The VNS Collective made various compelling short documentaries: Tribute to David Webster, about the human rights activist, and Fruits of defiance, which portrayed resistance to apartheid in September 1989 in Cape Town.
3.2 Reclaiming South African history
Various short films portrayed events which were conveniently left out of official South African history books and of a contemporary context in actuality programmes on national television under control of the Nationalist regime. Therefore, they became guardians of popular memory in the sociopolitical process in South Africa.
Some of these films portrayed the forced removals of communities from their places of birth under the laws of apartheid. Others confronted the viewer with the destruction of indigenous cultures due to apartheid. In Dear Grandfather your right foot is missing director Yunus Ahmed created an imaginative and lyrical film about the destruction of Cape Town's District Six.
Ahmed returned to the bulldozed landscape of his place of birth and through innovative film techniques, he evocatively recalled the spirit of the formerly thriving community. Set to the haunting sounds of Jean Michel Jarre, the endless tracking shots mercilessly explored the desolate plains, as if filmic interrogation would restore this place to its former life. The film became a lyrical lament for a lost area lying on the right foot of Table Mountain (the grey old Grandfather of Cape Town).
Ross Devenish also made a short film about the movement of a family under apartheid's racial laws. In A chip of glass ruby the Banjee family lived in a small house in an area of Johannesburg which was reclassified as a white residential area. Although the family had lived there all their lives, they were forced to relocate to a new Indian development. In Cato Manor: people were living there director Charlotte Owen created a visually exciting, revealing and visually stunning history of Cato Manor, which was changed from a thriving and bustling active township of mixed African and Indian people to become its present unhappy ruin. Last supper at Horstley Street is a moving short documentary and true drama of one family's poignant experiences when they were removed from their traditional home in District Six and their attempts to adapt to their new environment, which was without amenities or traditions.
One of the most moving explorations of popular memory is Lance Gewer's Come see the bioscope, a film about Sol Plaatje and his attempts at the beginning of this century to educate rural blacks about the Land Act of 1913. The film resembled the oral narrative structures of West African cinema (for example Wend Kuuni from Burkina Faso).
3.3 Gay and lesbian liberation
In 1989 Melanie Chait's Out in Africa became the first South African film to deal with the gay liberation struggle in South Africa. This short film is a moving tribute to two gay South African men, Simon Nkoli and Ivan Toms, who were respected internationally for their stand against apartheid. Dr Toms was the first white South African to refuse to serve in the South African Defence Force; Simon Nkoli was one of the Delmas trialists. The film portrayed what it meant to be gay under apartheid and claimed that the South African liberation struggle is a movement for political as well as gay equality.
An important new voice in the creation of a South African gay and lesbian cinema is Luiz DeBarros. Most of his short films were screened at the short film competition of the Weekly Mail Film Festival. DeBarros was a third-year BA student at the University of the Witwatersrand when he made Pretty boys, a film about two male prostitutes discussing their lives. The film attempted to explore the possibility of prostitution as a positive experience.
Clubbing revolved around six 20-something-year-old friends who meet one evening before they go out clubbing. In the film DeBarros captured the decline of a white ruling class in a society in which the rules were changing. They must come to terms with a future of uncertainty, a future no longer assured of privilege.
His latest film is Hot legs, a revenge fantasy which revolves around Tim, a young gay doctor who wants to take revenge on Dave, a man he once loved, by holding him captive in a motel room for six days. Together the two characters relive their past and look at how they became the people they are.
Another new voice to a local gay cinema is Stephen Jennings. The dress follows the chance meeting of two lonely people. DeBarros and Jennings' work will possibly signal the beginning of a vibrant South African gay cinema culture.
3.4 Adjusting to the new South Africa
Since the late 1980s the annual Weekly Mail film festival has become an important forum for the screening of short films. A short film competition also encouraged new and young film makers to present their work at this festival. In recent years short films about sociopolitical changes in South Africa and how people relate to them have become thematically dominant at this festival. In the 1980s the contours of South Africa's political landscape were transformed by massive black popular protest and government promises of a 'new' South Africa.
Between black political mobilisation and a state attempting to manage a disintegrating economy lies another reality -- an embattled white working class struggling to defend a way of life in the face of loss of privilege based on race. Against this background, Guy Spiller's short film The boxer explored the effect which wider sociopolitical changes in South African society had wrought in the intimate space of a white working-class family in Johannesburg. In particular, the film documented the hopes and fears of a young champion boxer in a society where the passage from youth to manhood involves entry into a world moulded by a violently defensive culture which is bound by a narrow patriotism and captured by the rhetoric of right-wing politicians.
One of the most remarkable films about adapting to the changes in South Africa is Catherine Meyburgh's The clay ox. This visually stunning film portrayed the brief meeting of two young Afrikaners at the foot of the Drakensberg. He is a pacifist who is fleeing from military conscription. She is an activist who is preparing a suicidal bomb attack on a military target in Pretoria. In a highly symbolic landscape Meyburgh addresses the patriarchal, repressive society under apartheid. Afrikaner mythology is examined by using numerous symbols and references to Afrikaner history.
Meyburgh and Spiller are among a generation of short-film makers who attempt to explore new themes in a post-apartheid cinema. 3.5 Animation work Any overview of the revival in short-film making is incomplete without a brief reference to an exciting animation cinema which has been emerging since the 1980s. The most important exponent is the artist William Kentridge. At the Twelfth Durban International Film Festival four of his short animation films were presented under the title Animations by William Kentridge 1978-1989. Kentridge used various techniques in creating these animation shorts.
His Soho Eckstein saga depicts the battle between Soho Eckstein (property developer) and Felix Teitlebaum for the hearts and mines of Johannesburg. One of the shorts in the saga, Mine, subtly but scathingly indicts the mining industry. Monument, animated by means of a charcoal technique, chronicled the life of Soho as a civic benefactor. The whole saga is intended to form a longer film still in progress.
In Vetkoek fete galante, an animated silent film, Kentridge made fun of the state of emergency of the 1980s. It was made during that period, but before blank spaces were declared subversive. The short chronicled the history of one such blank space.
4 CONCLUDING REMARKS
It is clear from this thematic discussion of short films that South African cinema has gone a long way since the Afrikaans soapies of the 1960s and the paternalistic `black' films of the 1970s. The future looks promising for a vibrant South African cinema, because the White Paper for a post-apartheid film industry was completed by December 1995. Under this policy financial support for short and feature films is seriously considered within the framework of a statutory body similar to film funds in France and the African state of Burkina Faso. Both countries have vibrant film industries. The beginning of a true national South African cinema may be here at last.
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A chip of glass ruby (Ross Devenish, 1982, 56 minutes)
Any child is my child (Barry Feinberg, 1988, 30 minutes)
Cato Manor: people were living there (Charlotte Owen, 1989, 30 minutes)
The clay ox (Catherine Meyburgh, 1993, 30 minutes)
Clubbing (Luiz DeBarros, 1994, 30 minutes)
Dear Grandfather your right foot is missing (Yunus Ahmed, 1984, 47 minutes)
The dress (Stephen Jennings, 1995, 18 minutes)
Felix in exile (William Kentridge, 1994, 9 minutes)
Forward to a people's republic (Brian Tilley, Laurence Dworkin, Nyana Molete, Tony Bensusan, Elaine Proctor, 1981, 25 minutes)
Fruits of defiance (Nyana Molete, Laurence Dworkin, Fessie Molefe, Joseph Mogotsi, 1990, 45 minutes)
Hot legs (Luiz DeBarros, 1994, 17 minutes)
Isitwalandwe: the story of the South African Freedom Charter (Barry Feinberg, 1980, 51 minutes)
Last supper at Horstley Street (Lindy Wilson, 1985, 50 minutes)
Makhalipile -- the dauntless one (Barry Feinberg, 1989, 54 minutes)
Memo (William Kentridge, 1994, 4 minutes)
Monument (William Kentridge, 1990, 3 minutes)
Out in Africa (Melanie Chait, 1989, 23 minutes)
Pretty boys (Luiz DeBarros, 1992, 30 minutes)
Song of the spear (Barry Feinberg, 1986, 57 minutes)
Tribute to David Webster (Nyana Molete, Laurence Dworkin, Fessie Molefe, Joseph Mogotsi, Brenda Goldblatt, 1989, 25 minutes)