Lift off for SA films

2009-09-07 21:43

Johannesburg - The popular sci-fi movie District 9, where an extra-terrestrial race is forced to live in slum-like conditions in Johannesburg, has hit theatres across the globe with a bang.

It is hailed as one of the biggest South African movies to date, topping the US charts and bringing in an impressive $288m in the US, and grossing R3.2m in its first week in South Africa.

But will this epic movie have a lasting influence on the local movie industry?

Moreover, can it be claimed by South Africans as another addition to its growing canon of remarkable films which also include critical successes Tsotsi, which won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Yesterday (2004), Stander (2004) and Jerusalema (2008)?

Nico Dekker, CEO of Cape Town Film Studios, says District 9 will have a huge impact on the South African film scene. It's clear, however, that in order to achieve future commercial successes, foreign financing and investing is required.

"This is the first blockbuster clearly situated in South Africa, with South African actors, using mostly South African heads of departments," says Dekker.

"We must learn from this example. It is a great film - but we didn't invest in this film. It shows us there is great potential for films in South Africa, with great actors, but we need international backing," he says.

The Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) has pumped millions of rands into financing local films with the aim of having specialist offshore skills transferred to local hands.

But the IDC's Media and Motion Pictures business unit, which is headed by Basil Ford, was not involved with the District 9 movie. Sadly, Ford declined to comment on the IDC's future role in the South African movie industry despite repeated attempts to interview him.

It's entities like the IDC, however, that need to continue, and up, the financing. In the case of District 9, some $20m of the $30m budget was provided by producer, Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

But that kind of investment is linked to Jackson's vision for the specific project and can't be relied upon to happen again.

"It's important to bear in mind that America embracing a South African movie like this won't happen a lot," says Sharlto Copley, who plays District 9's lead character Wikus van de Merwe. In his view, however, a blossoming of creative energy in South Africa must come first in order to inspire the finance.

Says Copley: "As a filmmaker, I have felt frustrated by South Africa's lack of creative directors. That is where we come unstuck. Hopefully the movie will inspire people, and business people will notice."

Helen Kuun, of Ster Kinekor Distribution, says what separates this movie from most previous South African movie is that it is new and fresh.

"It is unique. It is competent and convincing. Although a lot of the humour in the movie might only be picked up by South Africans, it also works as just a basic action and science fiction movie. It works on many levels," she says.

Kuun says the movie is a success because every one (who makes movies) is looking for something new and fresh that hasn't been made before.

"It was very brave using unknown actors, but they added a fresh feeling to the movie. Many people chance it, and every now and again someone gets it right."

Interestingly, Kuun believes that even if South African film inspiration is occasionally lacking, the unique properties that make the country a fantastic backdrop may see the international filmakers returning.

"If we look at the last six years, I would say it's inevitable that more international movies are going to be filmed here," she says.

"South African crew and talent can handle it - and previously we never even would have featured. The timing is perfect, especially with the new studio (Cape Town Film Studio) opening."

The South African production arm of District 9 was run by Kalahari Pictures, and co-owner Michael Murphey says South Africa has every facet needed to make great movies from ground crew and actors to directors and producers.

But again District 9 cannot single-handedly help the local movie industry take off. "It's not easy to make the number one movie in the world, so it can't be done every month."

What sets this movie apart from so many others is the director not making an imitation movie. "If you take risks it will take off," he says.