Shock! He has stumbled into some kind of intrigue. He’s picked up the wrong car. The voice on the phone is Afrikaans, and the speaker is clearly about to become his adversary. The back seat pops down and a black woman, tied and gagged, rolls out. There it is: this American will have to save the black South African from the white Afrikaner. There will be car chases, there will be poverty as backdrop, there might even be room for an interracial romance.
Thus runs the trailer for the post-colonial nightmare that is Vehicle 19, set for release in June. This B-grade roadkill would, perhaps, not be surprising had it come from American minds but Vehicle 19 is a South African product, and to examine its lineage is to see the false dichotomies and disingenuous representations that have been hampering the idea of cinema in South Africa since the National Film and Video Foundation’s (NFVF’s) development initiative, Sediba, was devised in 2005.
Vehicle 19 is produced by Ryan Haidarian and Eddie Mbalo is the executive producer. Both are formerly of the NFVF, which is the body tasked with film development in South Africa. Mbalo headed up the organisation from 2003. Haidarian first headed up the development division, and then the new ventures division. Both left in 2011 to start a new venture, Forefront Media Group. And both are the subject of an interesting interview conducted during their time at the NFVF for a 2010 University of Cape Town PhD thesis by Astrid Treffry-Goatley titled The representation and mediation of national identity in the production of post-apartheid South African cinema.
Treffry-Goatley’s thesis is a harrowing read on the state of cinema in South Africa. One of the main concerns she raises is the NFVF’s emphasis on “commercial success and economic sustainability, since as Haidarian notes, unlike the state system in France where the purpose is to develop culture, in South Africa, the state is investing in this sector of the economy because they think that this could be a real driver of the economy”.
She goes on to quote Mbalo as saying “it is good for filmmakers to pursue their aspirations [but] we need to find stories that can travel”. By “stories that can travel”, Mbalo means films that will be successful outside of South Africa.
South African bit-parts
Recently, the NFVF commissioned a report from Deloitte on the South African film industry, which outlines a number of positive developments. Much of the audited data in the report is taken from the department of trade and industry (DTI), which manages the rebates and incentives to the industry that are largely responsible for the fact that feature film production has quadrupled in the past four years. The report notes that the industry contributes around R3.5-billion to South Africa’s gross domestic product, that it created more than 15 000 jobs last year and that it has grown 14% a year over the past five years.
What the report doesn’t say is that many of the films produced locally are service films or co-productions, meaning that they either use South Africa as a backdrop or as a stand-in location, but are not creatively helmed by South Africans nor star them in principal roles — these include films such as the Denzel Washington vehicle Safe House, or Disgrace, starring John Malkovich.
It’s also worth noting that the Deloitte report makes mention of the success of M-Net’s Mzansi Magic channel’s films and Chicco Twala’s Bubblegum films, but there is no mention of the economic successes of the films that the NFVF has itself developed and supported. That the report is economics-centred, and more than once mentions the export market, seems to hold up the fact that the NFVF, under Mbalo and Haidairan’s successors, chief executive Zama Mkosi and head of development Clarence Hamilton, is still economically and export-driven.
In a statement regarding the NFVF’s trip to this year’s Cannes Festival to promote South Africa as a location, as well as to screen at the South African pavilion (and not in selection) the films Black South-Easter, Blitz Patrollie and Khumba, Mkosi said: “As we take our filmmakers and film projects there, our objective is very clear: we want to attract new markets and investments.” The NFVF spends 26% of its department of arts and culture- allocated R105-million (up from last year’s R86-million) budget on marketing, which includes visiting local and international festivals. Its allocation towards development is just 20%, and 27% is spent on production.