12 March 2009 – Since 1896 cinema has enjoyed a strong presence in Gauteng. It was first introduced as “the most startling scientific marvel of the age”. Gauteng was home to a flourishing local production industry during 1916 and 1919, but by the 1920’s the popularity of American films had overwhelmed the fledgling industry.
Films were a popular source of entertainment during the 1920s and 30s. As a form of propaganda they were shown in mines to distract miners and keep them from the more ‘dangerous’ of the city’s pursuits. Later, they became a source of inspiration and style to the vibrant, hybrid communities of Sophiatown, Lady Selbourne and Marabastad, where they provided access to dancing, American culture and jazz. Poets and writers such as Don Mattera and Es’kia Mphahlele learned and refined their English in cinemas. Local gangsters derived their dress, speech and attitude from American films. The late introduction of television in 1976 kept cinemas far busier than their European and American counterparts.
This rich cultural legacy was sadly eroded over subsequent decades as many black artists were forced into political exile and filmmakers working within the country increasingly wore the brunt of archaic apartheid censorship laws. Some of the most significant South African feature film productions of the 1950s through to the late 1980s were dominated by apartheid and its injustices. Donald Swanson’s Jim comes to Joburg (1949), Zoltan Korda’s Cry the Beloved Country (1951), Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back Africa (1959), Sven Persson’s Land Apart (1974), Gibson Kente’s How Long (1976), David Bensusan’s My Country, My Hat (1982), Oliver Schmitz’ Mapantsula (1988) and Sir Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom (1987) are stark reminders to some of the country’s darkest moments.
Many films during the 1990s continued to focus on the legacy of apartheid and the political transition period. Anant Singh and Darrell Roodt rose to fame with Sarafina! (1992) as well as their adaptation of Cry the Beloved Country (1995), whilst internationally renowned artist William Kentridge used the stark industrial landscapes of Johannesburg in his acclaimed charcoal-drawn animated short films to explore the dramatic intersections of land, history, conflict and identity.
The local feature film industry since a new democratic dispensation has experienced somewhat of a rebirth with an increasing broadening of themes. The recent successes of films such as the Academy Award winning Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi and Tristan Holmes’ Elalini, Jason Xenopoulos’ Promised Land, Roodt’s Faith’s Corner, Zola Maseko’s Drum and John Barker’s Bunny Chow are indicative of a ‘new wave’.