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South Africa, to its credit, continues to cause trouble. There are 11 official languages in the country. Contradiction is the 12th.
The world's last pure symbol of leadership, Nelson Mandela, handed power to a pariah president, HIV skeptic Thabo Mbeki. The richest nation in Africa still can't connect its financial might to the millions of people waiting for decent housing and health care. And for years, their movies sucked.
In 1996 I travelled to South Africa for the Toronto International Film Festival. I spent a month in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban, looking for the films that could make up a national spotlight program at TIFF. I came home empty-handed.
Eight years later, it's happened. Thanks to programmers Gaylene Gould , June Givanni and Jane Schoettle , along with festival co-director Noah Cowan , there are 10 films at this year's TIFF that bring new South African cinema into focus.
The spotlight program South Africa: Ten Years Later screens five features, a documentary and a short. There's also Red Dust (September 13, Roy Thomson Hall, 6:30 pm; September 14, Ryerson, 9:30 am), a drama about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, screening as a Gala, plus two Special Presentations - Yesterday (see review, page 59) by Darrell James Roodt (Sarafina!, Cry The Beloved Country) and Hotel Rwanda (September 11, Elgin, 6:30 pm; September 13, Paramount 2, noon), a UK/Italian/South African co-production starring Don Cheadle alongside South Africans Desmond Dube and Mothusi Magano .
The first thing you notice about South African movies is how dispersed they are. The money comes from everywhere. Although the financing available inside South Africa is the envy of every other film industry on the continent, producers in Cape Town and Jo'burg still tend to favour international co-productions, mostly with the UK, the U.S. and Canada. Drum (September 10, Ryerson, 6 pm; September 12, Varsity 7, 7:15 pm), the period drama that opens the South African spotlight, has U.S. and German producers, and stars Hollywood heartthrob Taye Diggs .
The filmmakers are dispersed, too. Every director in the spotlight program learned to make films outside South Africa, most of them in England. Apartheid sent generations into exile. Many in the current crop of filmmakers are feeling their way back home through their films.
The second thing you notice is how slick the films look. Thanks to a commercial industry that bloomed with the end of apartheid in 1994, trained crews specialize in showing off the cliffs, coastline and stunning flora of the Cape region in particular.
But even with skilled crews and cosmopolitan directors, it's unclear whether South Africa has a distinct cinematic voice. Film people across Africa complain that South African movies are too often slick but hollow, that it's an industry better suited to television drama than to auteur expression.
That'll change. First, there's still a deep well of public stories that South African filmmakers feel compelled to tell. Until apartheid and its legacy have been fully explored onscreen, we won't likely see a lot of personal cinema. Second, South Africa's filmmakers are starting from less than zero. Until recent years, there were almost no cinemas in the townships, no cinematheques, no video stores. Even worse, the apartheid government had a program that made dirt-cheap, poor-quality local potboilers and comedies expressly for township audiences. The government fed black audiences crap movies as part of their pacification plan.
As a result, the current South African film culture is one of the strangest in the world - fully mature and still in its infancy. A contradiction? Yes and no.