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South Africa in the Hollywood eye

The nation has become a rising beacon post-apartheid and the film industry is taking note, with home-grown filmmakers and their foreign counterparts sharing the spotlight.

November 08, 2009|Reed Johnson

Just 20 years ago, South Africa was commonly perceived as one of the most polarized, ill-starred places on the planet. Shackled by the racist system of apartheid, or legally enforced segregation, it was a nation divided against itself and shunned by the rest of the world as a pariah state.

Today the world is looking at South Africa for very different reasons. This summer the country will become the first African nation to host the World Cup soccer tournament. As one of the most politically stable, democratic and relatively prosperous countries on a troubled continent, South Africa is regarded as a model by many of its neighbors. It's also a growing tourist destination.

Another influential outside party is taking a renewed interest in South Africa these days: Hollywood. A century after D.W. Griffith filmed his 13-minute black and white silent fable "The Zulu's Heart," South Africa and the U.S. film industry appear to be entering a new phase in their complex, sometimes tortuous relationship.

This year, at least three films with one type of Hollywood connection or another to South Africa have opened or will be opening in theaters. Like a great many of the films made by South Africans in recent decades, they not surprisingly are preoccupied with race and class relations, either as text or subtext.

The most unconventional is last summer's hit "District 9," directed and co-written by Neill Blomkamp, a native South African now based in Vancouver. Produced by Peter Jackson, it's a science fiction tale about persecuted space aliens that's also a thinly veiled allegory of South Africa under apartheid.

Steve Jacobs' "Disgrace" was adapted from Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee's tough novel and released this fall. It stars John Malkovich as a middle-age Cape Town professor who becomes exiled within his own country as he adjusts to the challenges of post-apartheid's topsy-turvy social realities. The movie received substantial financing from government sources in Australia, where Coetzee now lives.

Anna-Maria Monticelli, the screenwriter and producer of "Disgrace" (and wife of its director), said she believes that the film speaks to issues of tolerance, reconciliation and socioeconomic justice that resonate both within and outside South Africa. "It is for smart people, this film," she said. "It's pushing you to go places where you've not necessarily been before and to understand."

Opening next month will be Clint Eastwood's "Invictus," a historical drama about the upset win by South Africa in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which helped unite blacks and whites during the crucial early months of Nelson Mandela's presidency. It stars Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the team captain.

In an interview, one of the film's producers, Lori McCreary, who also co-produced the 1993 South Africa-set film "Bopha!" -- which her Revelations Entertainment production company partner Freeman directed -- called the country "a great place to make films." Among the factors she cited were a favorable currency exchange rate, a variety of arresting shooting locations and one of Africa's deepest pools of talent. More than 200 of the 240 crew members and 62 of 70 actors who worked on "Invictus" were South African, she added.

"The U.S. is more interested in South Africa than at any point probably since the '94 election," McCreary said. "The world is looking at South Africa." As for the coincidences of timing and subject matter between "Invictus" and this summer's World Cup, she said, "I wish I could say it was planned. I think it's fortuitous for us."

A fourth film, Anthony Fabian's "Skin," a British-South African production that recently opened in U.S. theaters, relates the improbable-but-true story of Sandra Laing, a South African woman whose mixed-race ancestry wreaked havoc on her sense of personal identity and her family relations. It stars Sophie Okonedo and Sam Neill as the girl's conflicted father.

These foreign and semi-foreign films join a growing number of home-grown South African movies grappling with the country's painful race-relations legacy, including Gavin Hood's "Tsotsi" (2005), shot in Johannesburg and a Soweto township, about the enduring hardships and disillusionments of the post-apartheid era. Adapted from a novel by playwright Athol Fugard, it won the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

South Africa appears eager to attract more Hollywood and foreign production. Cape Town Film Studios, Cape Town Film Studiosbilled as the first Hollywood-quality production studio to be built in southern Africa, is under construction and expects to produce its first movie next year.

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