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Their Money, Our Stories: The Problem with South African Filmmaking

Imagine a film about the Civil Rights movement made by South Africans. The cast are national acting icons recognisable from Generations and Isidingo. The lead actor playing Malcom X delivers a stellar performance espousing a superb American accent, wins best actor and is presented the award by ceremony host, Trevor Noah. This takes place at the SAFTAS which is the international crème de la crème ‎of industry accolades. The local director is a formidable talent, who is consistently listed by actors around the globe as an auteur they dare dream to work with. When watching the film, audiences experience the familiar teary-eyed, heart-string tug or gut-wrenching shock catharsis produced by award-winning films that have well-rounded character arcs and dot-to-dot narrative structures. Imagine this occurrence is as old and familiar as the film industry itself. Would it illicit the same level of outrage from Americans that South Africans directed at Beyoncé, when earlier this month, media announced she was going to write and play the lead role in a Saartjie Baartman biopic?

Sharing some of the views expressed by the general public, local chief of the Ghonaqua First Peoples, Jean Burgress, thought it outrageous and arrogant of the audacious Yoncé to consider portraying a historical character worlds apart from her own reality. Concerns expressed questioned her artistic sensibility and aptitude to portray the Hottentot Venus with integrity, abound with subtleties and nuances specific to Saartjie’s story. When asked for comment on the issue, hip hop artist and activist Dope Saint Jude said, “I’m not sure if she is the BEST person (because she is a black woman and one of the most famous black women to be fetishised for her physique – even though she’s claimed ownership over this) or if Beyoncé is the WORST person, because she may not understand the depth of the story”.

And yet, isn’t this the essence of acting? The prerequisites of the craft require a deft imagination, physical transformation, and when necessary is aided by a consortium of make-up and special effects. Isn’t it wondrous and magical that actors tell a story by pretending to be someone they’re not, and the audience knowingly pays to be entertained by this? Skepticism towards Beyoncé demonstrated a lack of faith in her acting capabilities, which frequently occurs when A-list stars are cast in films about iconic South Africans. Despite having a small pond of suitable and worthy talent, the net is often cast elsewhere and so, when watching a biopic trailer produced by others, we sit in hopeful anticipation that the actors won’t speak in a butchered mash-up of Australian, British or unspecific African dialects that are so generalised they’re offensive. 

We’ve seen Morgan Freeman and Idris Alba portray Mandela and Jennifer Hudson’s attempts at being Winnie. However, the grievance expressed over megastars portraying roles in other nation’s iconic stories isn’t uniquely South African. Award-winning SA filmmaker Craig Freimond, pointed out that Anthony Minguella received huge flak for casting too many British actors in the American Civil War story, Cold Mountain. He coyly justified the decision by reminding naysayers that at the time, most of the people were British Americans. 

Similarly, and not too long ago, an article appeared in the Hollywood Reporter where veteran American actor, Michael Douglas, complained that too many British and Australian actors were being cast in the best American roles and more recently, Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne came under fire for playing a transgender artist in The Danish Girl. “Hollywood has been making films about the rest of the world since it first went into business. Most film schools never discuss cultural and racial appropriation and representation when you study films like CasablancaThe African Queen, Lawrence of Arabia or even Disney’s Lion King”, remarked Oliver Hermanus, the award-winning SA co-writer and director of Skoonheid, when asked about the ideological ramifications of more economically developed countries telling the stories of developing countries. 

Despite the Beyoncé debacle being a false clickbait announcement now forgotten among the backlash surrounding the #WhiteOscars, the reactions garnered at the time point to long standing debates around storytelling “rights” and inextricable links between the ongoing cycle of neo-colonialism and subsequent cultural imperialism. While in the case of Beyoncé one might feel justified in one’s anger by assuming, without evidence, that her egotistical ambition is aimed at proving she’s an invaluable, prize-worthy triple threat, it’s too easy to blame actors, who in the great money churning institution of Hollywood, are puppets part of a bigger show.

If film is an art form, then are the creators beholden to ethical obligations? Craig Freimond, who wrote and directed local film Material thinks, “There is always an ethical responsibility to telling stories that are based on real people. If it’s all in your imagination, who cares? Go mad and do what you want. But when you are dealing with people’s lives, there is huge responsibility”. On the contrary, Oliver Hermanus commented that, “Whether it is ethical or unethical in the eyes of the audience is not necessarily relevant to the filmmaker. Perhaps that breaking of the moral code is the purpose behind their art”. Freelance writer and director for film and TV, Lara Cunha, says the relationship between creative licence and ethical responsibility isn’t mutually exclusive, but project dependent. “Filmmakers are commentators, which in and of itself carries an ethical responsibility, but it is still an individual’s expression and, therefore, does not make it a yardstick for what is moral and just. Ideally, an audience should be able to discern for themselves”, she remarked.

Last year, the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) released a report attempting to answer how we should view South African cinema. Unsurprisingly, it revealed that local audiences desire to see their own cultural references and that films don’t always consider what the audience wants. But, when you’re part of a Westernised system that favours and is conditioned to accept the Holllywood filmmaking process as the status quo, how do you begin to create stories South Africans want to watch? How do you avoid compromise if you’re at the mercy of international big wigs with big bucks funding your film? How do you portray nuanced stories without repeating township tropes and heroic gang films pegged for awards because protagonists overcome adversity, and it’s inspiring to see yet another film about “Africa”? Of course, these narratives are important and have their place. However, alongside them lies a range of stories, as diverse as our nation, that need to be told without the whitewashing of the Western lens. Certainly our filmmakers are producing complex and beautiful South African cinema, but it’s challenging when, despite living in a democratic and “free” society, one’s artistic vision and voice is shackled by one’s economic dependency on those whose primary concern is amassing box-office profit instead of dismantling cultural supremacy.

“The issue with film is it’s a powerful, popular medium and for people encountering the subject’s life for the first time, it can lead to distortion…not telling our own stories is often a factor that keeps people unheard and deliberately silenced about their own lives. A lot of the dismay was about something bigger than Beyoncé,” says writer and feminist, Danielle Bowler. When asked what she thought the furor was really about, she highlighted that perspectives of developed nations are “profoundly informed by power, racism, sexism, classism and other forms of oppression…it was about the history of other people narrating our stories on film and in other mediums, without accuracy, respect, understanding, intimacy and historical consciousness…”

Maybe we shouldn’t ask who has the right to tell our stories, but rather, how we can create a self-sustaining infrastructure to nurture an industry that isn’t service based and generates enough capital to fund our filmmaking. While economic independence and access to large budgets won’t guarantee the making of exceptional films, a degree of financial freedom opens up the possibility of creating original cinema that’s generating stories by our artists, for our people, without being indebted to a set of standards that we had no part or power in creating but are continuously coerced into perpetuating.

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