The history of South African cinema is complex. The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery was the country’s first feature-length film shot entirely in the country in 1910. With De Voortrekkers (1916), the Afrikaners’ Great Trek north-eastward from British-run Cape Colony and their decisive victory over Zulus at Blood River in 1838 were brought to life once again.
Both Afrikaans and English-language films have frequently addressed South Africa’s history of colonization and racial segregation. From indigenous viewpoints, the nation’s black people have been able to tell their own histories since the end of apartheid.
1. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha
Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s text for Bizet’s original opera, ‘Carmen,’ was translated into Xhosa for this 2005 opera film. Carmen (Pauline Malefane, who was one of the translators) and Jongikhaya (played by Pauline Malefane, who was one of the translators) are a cigarette factory worker and a policeman in a tumultuous relationship depicted in the film (Adile Tshoni). Carmen’s association with drug traffickers puts a strain on the relationship, but Jongikhaya works hard to maintain her in his life. Mark Dornford-May, a British-born director making his feature film debut, included traditional African music in the film.
Tsotsi, directed by Gavin Hood and based on Athol Fugard’s 1980 novel of the same name, follows the exploits of a Johannesburg slum tsotsi (literally, “thug”) over the course of six days. After a carjacking, David (Benny Moshe), a gang boss, is left in charge of an infant. The film from 2005 depicts the tensions and violence that arise when indigenous South Africans and white families face out against one another due to long-standing inequities. The film’s powerful soundtrack, composed by Soweto musician-poet Zola, emphasizes the film’s portrayal of the country’s dual culture. For the first time in Oscar history, a South African film has won the Best Foreign Language Film award.
3. Life, Above All
Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) is just 12-years-old when her baby sister dies of an AIDS-related sickness. Chanda is left to defend her ailing mother from the rumor mills of the township near Johannesburg, South Africa, as her stepfather turns to drink. Acclaimed novel Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton is the basis for this powerful film, which exposes the impact of alcoholism and HIV, stigmatization and cruelty. Newcomer Manyaka won Best Actress at the 2011 South African Film and Television Awards for her role as a prying neighbor in Olive Schmitz’s poignant drama that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. She also won Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film.
4. The Bang Bang Club
Four photojournalists who worked together in South Africa to document the violence that preceded the end of Apartheid in 1994 are referenced in the title of this 2010 biographical drama. In Steven Silver’s film, not only is the country’s recent history depicted but also the conditions under which photojournalists worked in the midst of it. Another was Kevin Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch), a photographer who committed suicide after his ‘cool’ approach to photojournalism was criticized during the 1993 Sudanese famine. Carter was the subject of the Pulitzer-winning shot showing a vulture following a hungry toddler. Long-term exposure to violence, like depicted in Silver’s film, can have a detrimental effect on a person’s mental health.
5. The Gods Must Be Crazy
When Xi (Nixau), a Kalahari Desert tribesman, discovers a Coca-Cola bottle, he is utterly unaware of the globalized world around him. Jamie Uys’s 1980 comedy classic portrays this narrative. Scarcity is shown for the first time to Xi’s originally happy tribe when the introduction of the bottle to their culture creates conflict and sadness. He encounters western scientists, foreign professors, guerrillas, and policemen on his journey to rid the tribe of the bottle. The Gods Must Be Crazy is the most financially successful film to come out of South Africa because it depicts the ridiculousness of civilization’s institutionalization of science and law through Xi’s eyes.
6. Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalem
A child from Soweto, Lucky Kunene (Rapulana Seiphemo) rises from carjackings and robberies to establishing a real-estate empire in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow district shown by Ralph Ziman in his 2008 film. He poses as a vigilante real estate agent who threatens landlords with violence if they don’t lower their rent prices like the Robin Hood of the 1990s in South Africa. Social mobility in a society that restricts people’s potential is the subject of this story.
7. District 9
Director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is a darkly comedic sci-fi allegory that examines racism, ghettoization, and stigmatization through the lens of District Six in Cape Town during the Apartheid era. Wikus (Sharito Copley), an Afrikaner administrator, attempts to evacuate an extraterrestrial refugee camp in a mockumentary style. Gang culture, black market economics, and the persecution of outsiders are just some of the topics covered in this video… Blomkamp was heavily influenced by Franz Kafka’s work. At least four Academy Awards were nominated.
The narrative of a stationmaster and his wretched, isolated family, who live in the Karoo semi-desert, is told in this 1998 Afrikaans-language film written by Chris Barnard and directed by Katinka Heyns. The family is, of course, an accurate representation of South Africa. Willem (Larry Leyden), the family’s boy, makes friends with a clown (Ellis Pearson) and his elephant buddy in a bizarre sequence. Despite the family’s efforts to mend, the local townspeople’s hatred remains unabated.
9. Otelo Burning
Director Sara Blecher and her cast worked on this Zulu-language film for several years before it was released in 2011. During the 1980s, Otelo Buthelezi and his friends find solace in surfing as racial tensions rise. It’s up to Otelo to decide if he wants to turn pro or defend his family in the embattled township of Otelo.
Known for her roles in Hotel Rwanda and Invictus, actress Leleti Khumalo shines as the film’s titular character, a diligent rural peasant who is raising her daughter Beauty alone because her husband is a mineworker on the move. Yesterday is eventually diagnosed with AIDS after he physically collapses on stage. She’s determined to live until Beauty, her seven-year-old daughter, is old enough to go to school. During the visit to her spouse to inform him that he has contracted the disease from her, he beats her. Before he dies, he returns, confesses his sins, and aids Yesterday in building a makeshift hospital. People living with HIV or AIDS-related illnesses are subjected to stigma in South Africa, which is depicted in a 2004 film that focuses on this issue. As a Best Foreign Language Film candidate, Yesterday was the first full-length feature film shot in Zulu by Darrell Roodt (Sarafina!).