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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 March 2006, 09:25 GMT
Tsotsi puts SA films on the map
Tsotsi has gained South Africa an Oscar for best foreign language film - but will it prove a turning point for the country's fledgling film industry, asks Justin Pearce in Johannesburg.

Scen from Tsotsi
The SA film industry has targeted international film festivals
It's a world where private security companies patrol the leafy suburbs while gangsters patrol the untarred streets and open sewers of a squatter camp.

It's a world of soaring skylines, red earth, and commuter trains where you take you life in your hands as soon as you buy a ticket.

It's a world where Zionist Christians in their white robes gather to pray on a hilltop in a smoky winter dusk.

What you see in Tsotsi is unmistakeably Johannesburg - and it's a world that is about to become more familiar to cinema audiences worldwide after the movie directed by Gavin Hood won this year's Oscar for best foreign language film.

Up to now, few South African films have made an impact on foreign screens.

At home, audiences have lapped up the slapstick comedies of Leon Schuster but have been less enthusiastic about more serious local offerings.

Will Tsotsi's Oscar award be the breakthrough that South African cinema has been waiting for?


"It is going to put us at a different level - the challenge will be whether we can sustain that," says Eddie Mbalo, chief executive of South Africa's National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF): the body which acts as a channel for state funding to the local industry.

Eddy Mbalo
We will continue to encourage films aimed at local audiences
Eddie Mbalo
Garth Holmes of the South African Academy of Film, Television and Dramatic Art agrees. He compares the South African industry to that of Australia, which emerged from nowhere in the 1970s to become the big player that it is today.

"The Australians have been very good at taking full advantage of what they do - and that's what we've got to learn to do," Mr Holmes says.

"There's an opportunity now - and if we don't go for it now we'll never get there."

Tsotsi's Oscar has not come entirely out of the blue.

The award of last year's best actress Oscar to South African-born Charlize Theron - even though she has made her career in the US - has awakened South Africans to the possibility that the Oscars are more than just something that happens 10 time zones away in Los Angeles.

South Africans hail local film's Oscar victory

South African production Yesterday was also nominated last year, while Hotel Rwanda - a South African-Italian co-production filmed in South Africa with some big-name international actors - also won international acclaim.

This surge of productivity has been attributed to a government grant of 35m rand ($6.1m), channelled through the NFVF over three years, which has kick-started 26 feature films.

So far, the grant has not been renewed - Mr Mbalo hopes this is because of a temporary bureaucratic glitch rather than a lack of political will.

Audience award

Tsotsi first started to get noticed abroad when it won the audience award at last year's Edinburgh Festival. It was later picked up by international distributor Miramax.

Presley Chweneyagae as Tstosi
Director Gavin Hood calls Tsotsi a 'coming of age' story
Asked what it is that has drawn foreign audiences to a film from an industry newcomer like South Africa, people point to the universality of Tsotsi's plot.

"Everyone is interested in gangsters and how their minds work - look at Martin Scorsese," Mr Holmes said, alluding to the US director's dark dramas of the criminal underworld.

But could the lure of another Oscar lead to a situation where South Africa filmmakers play to foreign audiences at the expense of local themes and markets?

Mr Mbalo says it doesn't have to be like that.

"We will continue to encourage films aimed at local audiences. Experience tells us that if a local audience buys into it, people will pick it up internationally."

But getting the local audience to buy into local movies is a challenge in itself.

Out of South Africa's population of 40m, some 7m people have the means to go to the movies, but at the moment not all of them are doing so.

"We need to get more people into cinemas. We need to build cinemas in the (black) townships, which is where most people are. We know a lot of black people have moved into traditionally white areas, and we need to find out if they are going to cinemas."

On the question of affordability, he points out that many people will shell out 30 rand ($5) a week for a football match - more than a discount movie ticket.

Mr Mbalo also believes there are lessons to be learnt from South African television, which has experienced a flowering of indigenous drama and soap operas in the last few years. He argues for a need to promote South African actors as stars.

"If you look at ratings on TV, local content is king. Actors draw audiences."

Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has built up an industry through selling itself as a cheap and picturesque location for foreign films and advertisements - but Garth Holmes believes that this has been no help to home-grown productions.

"South Africa has become good at servicing - but foreign productions are runaway productions."

Mr Mbalo sums up the challenge: "If South Africa is to be seen as a film-making nation then we have to make films, and we have to position ourselves internationally."

He says the South African industry has adopted a strategy of targeting major international festivals such as those at Cannes, Venice and Toronto.

"When we went to Cannes, people said 'what are you doing here, you're hardly making films'. I said, 'you watch us, we're coming.'"

Tsotsi takes foreign film Oscar
06 Mar 06 |  Entertainment

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