South African Film Comes of Age
Griffin, Gil, The Crisis
South African history unfolded at an unlikely place this year. With the rest of the world watching, the country won its first Academy Award at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. A month before Tsotsi received the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, thousands glimpsed the forthcoming moment of glory when they screened the South African film in a nearby African American enclave in the city.
Tsotsi, based on South African playwright Athol Fugard's 1950s novel, is a dark drama about a young, alienated Johannesburg shantytown thug's attempt to exorcise personal demons and find redemption. It was both the centerpiece and Best Feature winner of this year's Pan African Film & Arts Festival, held in February at the Magic Johnson Theatres, in the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza. There was plenty more additional buzz, as screenings of other South African features captured both awards and attention during the 12-day festival.
The festival, founded in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion by former Black Panther Party political organizer Ayuko Babu, now screens nearly 200 films each year. It is recognized by the film industry as the largest public venue in the Western Hemisphere for movies made by and about Africans and people of African descent.
Festival organizers say some 40,000 people attended this year's event, which included offerings from North America, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, South America and Chinese Taipei, in addition to the African films. But since the festival's inception, it has been a hotbed for the burgeoning South African film scene, which Babu says African Americans are eager to experience.
"With South Africa, African Americans see a struggle that's parallel, where Black folks won," says Babu, the festival's executive director. "The Black middle class is especially interested in Africa. It is tired of a lot of mainstream African American films and wants to see something more sophisticated and complex than Big Momma's House. South Africa has been prolific in filmmaking. The culture struggle is key to the next step of liberation."
Gavin Hood, who directed Tsotsi, and Presley Chweneyagae, who starred in it, are South Africans of vastly different backgrounds. The two stand together, however, at the forefront of this struggle, in the new South Africa.
Chweneyagae, 21, barely remembers living under the malevolence of apartheid - the official policy of racial segregation and repression under which a White minority government brutalized and marginalized millions of non-Whites. Hood, a White South African of English heritage, says as abhorrent as he found apartheid, "it followed me around like a bad smell."
Nowhere did that stench affect him more than 16 years ago while he was a film student at the University of California at Los Angeles. There, Hood says, three American classmates angrily walked out of a classroom in protest of his presence after he introduced himself as South African. At parties that year, strangers called Hood "fascist," after he revealed his nationality.
On Oscar night, Hood's first words of his acceptance speech were: Nkosi sikelele iAfrika, which means "God bless Africa" in Xhosa, one of the country's major indigenous languages. Those three words are the first of South Africa's national anthem, adopted after apartheid was demolished and the Black majority was given the right to vote. The anthem borrows from the traditional liberation hymn of the African National Congress (ANC), which in 1994 was democratically elected to lead the country.
"I felt so emotional (while making the speech)," says Hood, who four years ago premiered another film, A Reasonable Man, at the Pan African Film Festival. "I want to belong in the land of my birth. Africa is my home. I don't feel a real connection to where my ancestors came from. Once Africa is your home, it's hard to feel that someone might want to take that away from you. …