Reflections on South African Cinema
Director, writer, lecturer and film producer Ramadan Suleman (Zulu Love
Letter, Fools) speaks to Professor. Dr. Alan Taylor about the past, present and future of South African Cinema.
In the 2nd of our series, Director, Writer, Lecturer, and Johannesburg-based Film Producer Ramadan Suleman (Zulu Love Letter, Fools) speaks up about the past, present and future of South African Cinema.
- You are amongst the few South African film directors with a renowned international reputation. Yet trained at the then London International Film School. It takes us back to the 1980s, so there must be a few stories there? Why London? and how does that get us to 2012/2013 in South Africa?
In the early 80’s, after the closure of the Dhlomo Theatre, of which I was managing at the time, I found myself wondering, what next? or where to from here?
Fortunately, the French embassy was financing a beginner’s film course at Wits University and I was the first candidate. This was the first cinema direct workshop in South Africa, using Super 8. It was somehow a continuation of the theatre work we were doing. Before the closure, we had organized a film festival of all the Ross Devenish films, adapted from the Nadine Gordimer novels. I did two subsequent workshops then, one in Johannesburg and the other in Paris. One of the films I directed, Ezikhumbeni (on the homeless of downtown Johannesburg) is for me still, one of my favorites of the time.
In 1985, I received a scholarship to study film in Paris for one year. This was the turning point for me, because I met and interacted with Africa’s renowned film directors, the likes of Sembene, Cisse, Med Hondo and many others. During this time, I was also trying to get into IDHEC, the French film school. Unfortunately, age was against me. I was beyond the age limit. London became the obvious choice.
2. Since your return to South Africa, you have been a front row witness to post-Apartheid developments in that country’s film and television industry (SABC?). What have been the challenges, the successes? What of the future in terms of production, exhibition and distribution?
Since my return to South Africa late 90’, A lot has happened, especially with the formation of the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) – an organ of state, tasked with putting in place policies that would respond to the small, fragile and fragmented film industry. The industry was majority-controlled and owned by whites. The first 10 years of the NFVF was disastrous given that no coherent film policy and vision was put into place. The organization was more focused on imposing on filmmakers to make “commercial” films with an emphasis on American structure.
However, many filmmakers, including myself continue to defy this imported and imposition on filmmakers concerned with developing aan authentic South African film language and identity. Still in the lates 90s, the SABC public broadcaster was to some extent a breather of hope for the film industry. Many young filmmakers, especially blacks, started their careers through television series and documentary.
Until five years ago, the broadcaster has been in the press marred by one scandal after another. Issues of bad management, fraud, wasteful spending and board conflicts have resulted in the broadcaster not commissioning producers.
MNET, South Africa’s richest broadcaster, has come up with a denigrading South African alternative to the Nigerian Nollywood. They are calling it “bubblegum” movies. They give filmmakers a budget of approximately 11,500 Dollars to produce feature films. The success rate is not promising. We can claim to having so many broadcasters in South Africa or Africa, unfortunately they are not regulated by the dysfunctional regulator ICASA.
Since January this year, the NFVF has a new CEO and to date one is seeing some promising signs of a vision. They are already talking about encouraging and creating a policy regarding women filmmakers. With the new policy on the definition of a South African film, the NFVF is also making strides in leveling the terrain. As of todayI am optimistic about the South African film industry.
3. Your films Fools and Zulu Love Letter have been well received. Any views on how films from Africa are maybe, let’s say, positioned in the film festival circuit? Do you feel there are certain tacit expectations (styles, subject matter) that you as a South African director/screenwriter are expected to adopt if your films are to be considered/accepted? Are you cast in a particular way?
I have been lucky to have my films screened at prestigious festivals in Europe (Locarno, Venice and North America (Toronto) and theatres in France. Some Festivals around the world used to categorize Africa films in a “special” category. We used to be the “special focus”. Cannes has always been the most patronizing festival towards African films, especially West African films. Rules are often broken to “accommodate” even the most inartistic. Fortunately, this is changing. Festivals are looking for that special style, treatment, subject matter and aesthetic. This is the pressure I feel, to be par with your peers. There is this false perception from South African directors who assume that making the dumbest uncreative crime movie is a key to Hollywood recognition. It’s sadly unfortunate.
4. As well as film director and now producer you invest a great deal of time in professional film training programmes in South Africa, so perhaps you can single out those teaching and learning challenges that are specific to the training of the current generation of film students?
I decided to go into training out of a concern with the quality of students emanating from instant filmmaking schools that continue to produce job seekers. I have come across students who are anti analysis, anti theory, anti intellectual and yet they are motivated in wanting to change society. And they are very passionate about the ills of society.
My advice to them is that how can you attempt to change society when you yourself do not have the tools at your disposal? One of the flaws in our system is training ill equipped students in cinema, without any foundation to literature or the arts in general.
On the other hand, South Africa has an alarming population of unemployed graduates. The figures are around 20,000. The majority are black women. The training is focused at these women graduates in documentary film making. We are hoping to produce at least 50 documentary women filmmakers in the next three years. Hopefully this will assist, if successful, narrow the gap of women in the industry. It’s a daunting project.
5. Box Office Mojo for 2012 (http://boxofficemojo.com/intl/southafrica/) records that the most successful films of the year have been exclusively from outside South Africa (predominantly Hollywood fare). In other words, there is not one South African film in the list. For anyone new to the South African film industry and media culture, how do you explain this?
It is fair to say that our industry is dominated by foreign films, especially Hollywood. South Africa produces around 25 features per year. In other words, our production base is much too insignificant to make a difference at the box office. It’s about numbers, sustainability and quality. We need to produce at least 100 films per year. To work hand in hand with production, the State needs to be a strategic partner in subsiding theatre tickets to encourage the public to taste movies, not only on TV but in cinemas. Tickets are too expensive in South Africa.
6. Linked to the above, what three compass points should an aspiring filmmaker have in contemplating a career in the film industry – specifically one in the new South Africa?
Never be content with the little knowledge you have from your film school. Go out and seek further knowledge. Be addictive to watching movies.
7. Present and future projects? And what does the near future hold for Ramadan Suleman as Producer and Director?
For the past three years, I have been trying to complete a feature documentary film on African liberation movements. I am still awaiting funding that was promised by Government three years ago. Currently I am working on an adaptation of a short story by Mia Cuoto, for a feature film. The second project is a documentary film on the legendary singer Miriam Makeba.
Ramadan Suleman can be found here http://www.nativesatlarge.co.za
Professor Taylor is here http://about.me/dr.alan.taylor
In 2014, the French ministry of culture from the French embassy of South Africa recently awarded Ramadan Suleman with the Order of Arts and Letters (Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres).