It wasn't too long ago that South African audiences were offered only the mythical slam-banging of Rambo and Indiana Jones, with political and social commentary restricted to magazines and newspapers.
But since Jan. 23, South Africans--especially the black and "colored" (Asian or mixed-race) audiences--have been grappling with the apartheid issue at the movies too, thanks to a controversial South African film called "Place of Weeping" and its colored producer, Anant Singh. ("Place of Weeping" is playing in Los Angeles at the Beverly Center Cineplex.)
According to unofficial South African box-office figures, the film has broken opening-day ticket-sales records in Soweto (the huge black "township" near Johannesburg), areas of Durban (where Singh, and many other Asians, live and do business) and Cape Town and theaters inside the black "homelands."
These results are in spite of the fact that the film carries the South African equivalent of an X rating (it has been rated PG by the MPAA). Yet, perhaps not surprisingly, "Place of Weeping" has done poorly in Pretoria--center of the federal government and the Afrikaner minority--and has in fact been denied advertising time on the local television channels there.
But Singh, a diminutive 30-year-old who seems quite comfortable in his own skin, says the time has come for all South Africans to face their political legacy in the entertainment arena. He says that "South African film makers have too long avoided controversy and must now deal with the situation as it is there."
Singh, a successful movie distributor who moved into the production business, says he began his professional life as apolitically as possible--"It was hard enough to get into distribution, being colored"--but gradually, after his position became established, he began looking for ways of commenting on his government's policies.
"Since government censors control what film is seen, where it is seen and who sees it, I could only proceed cautiously," he said in a recent interview. "But as someone who had been denied bank loans on the basis of my parentage, I felt I had to say something. The pressure simply built up."
"Place of Weeping," directed and written by 24-year-old South African film maker Darrell Roodt, tells the story of a black farm laborer who is casually murdered by his Afrikaner "baas" and the efforts (mostly ineffectual) of a white Johannesburg journalist to expose the killer. U.S. film critics, such as the New York Times' Janet Maslin, have found the film occasionally mawkish but very powerful, and Singh, with an impish grin, confessed that that was part of his marketing strategy for the film.
"Please make no mistake: This is a film I was dying to have made," he said, "but I know the film business in South Africa, and I knew that such a film was going to have to be handled very carefully. So I opened it abroad first, got a couple of good notices from the States, then brought it back home. If it had the scent of a prestigious film, it would get by the censors more easily."
Among Singh's other stratagems for "Place of Weeping" were a nationwide South African release--"something I learned from handling, shall we say, less artful films," he commented dryly--and timing the film's release as closely as possible to a city-by-city referendum on the integration of South African cinemas.
Star-Kinekor Theaters, one of Singh's main competitors in the distribution industry, recently announced it would no longer supply those 15 theaters it deals with that remain segregated, and the Natal Mercury newspaper reports that the last feature these Pretoria-area segregated theaters will get is, ironically, "Place of Weeping."
"That's just what I wanted," said Singh from Durban this week. "Perhaps this way the government will see that segregation no longer applies."
A decidedly mainstream film, Singh continued, is the perfect medium for opening up a population to change, and giving South African film makers a chance to express their feelings on the subject of apartheid--something they had previously avoided--might allow those creators a means of connecting with their audiences.
"Film makers--especially black film makers--didn't want to take a chance by going up against the system that way," Singh said. He himself came in to finance "Place of Weeping" only at the last moment, after Roodt's original backers withdrew. "So when Darrell (Roodt) came to me with this, I had to say yes."
Singh is clearly pleased with the amount of ruckus his little film has raised in his native country, telling with relish about how he was barred from speaking about it on the South African television equivalent of "Today" after insisting on showing clips from the film.
"Of course, a little controversy pumps up public awareness on any film," he noted. "But in this case I feel the flap is really about something, rather than your typical public-relations stunt. We won't have to hype this film."