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Out of South Africa, a Quintet of Oscar Hopefuls

This fall’s remarkable output shows the nation’s film industry has never been as strong as it is today.

The Republic of South Africa has a special place in my heart. It’s a country that I’ve visited nine times. It’s where my mother was born and spent the first 34 years of her life. It’s where many members of my family live to this day. And it’s where my grandfather, a white civil rights attorney, died under mysterious circumstances while defending a black man during the era of Apartheid.

For most people, though, South Africa is merely the source of fleeting images from the past two decades: the release of political prisoner Nelson Mandela, who had spent the preceding 27 years in jail, in 1990; the fall of Apartheid, the system of government-imposed racial segregation that had reigned for 46 years, in 1991; the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, his partner in ending Apartheid and the last white South African president.

In 1993, there were the seemingly endless lines of people patiently waiting to participate in the nation’s first free and fair elections, for which 86% of the nation turned out over the course of three days, in 1994; and the subsequent inauguration of Mandela, with political opponents by his side, as the president of a new "rainbow nation."

A lot has happened in South Africa over the years since, but most people tuned out long ago. I expect, however, that they’ll be tuning back in very soon. Why? Largely because South Africa will be hosting the 2010 World Cup next summer, but also for another reason: over the next few months, South Africa will present a compelling argument that it is a rising superpower in the world of film.

Indeed, no fewer than five of this year’s most-talked-about fall films — all the subject of awards chatter, to varying degrees — have come out of South Africa:

– Neill Blomkamp’s "District 9," a science-fiction allegory of Apartheid starring Sharlto Copley;

– Steve Jacobs’s "Disgrace," an adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, starring John Malkovich and newcomer Jessica Haines;

– Anthony Fabian’s "Skin,"  the true story of Sandra Laing, a black girl born to white parents, which stars Sophie Okonedo and Sam Neill;

– Pete Travis’s "Endgame," a thriller about covert negotiations that helped to end Apartheid, featuring William Hurt and Chiwetel Ejiofor;

– and Clint Eastwood’s "Invictus," which chronicles the unlikely bond that developed during the runup to the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa between its black president and white rugby team captain — played by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon — which helped to unite the nation.

A few sporadic films from and/or about South Africa have been released in the past. Notable examples include:

– Richard Attenborough’s "Cry Freedom" (1987), an adaptation of a book about an unlikely bond between a white South African newspaper editor (Kevin Kline) and black activist Steven Biko (Denzel Washington’s performance earned him his first career Oscar nomination);

– Euzhan Palcy’s "A Dry White Season" (1989), which brought Marlon Brando the last of his eight career Oscar nods — and his only one for best supporting actor — for his performance as a barrister retained by a white South African (Donald Sutherland) who witnesses the worst of Apartheid and decides to take on his government;

– and Darrell Roodt’s "Cry, the Beloved Country" (1995), wherein James Earl Jones and Richard Harris portray a black man and a white man brought together by a shared tragedy involving their sons. (A young Sidney Poitier starred in Zoltan Korda’s 1952 production.)

But South African cinema only really began to take off five years ago, when Roodt’s "Yesterday" became the first South African film ever nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign language film. A year later, Gavin Hood’s "Tsotsi" was not only nominated for but won that prize, becoming a source of national pride and an inspiration for the South African government to invest heavily in the nation’s burgeoning film industry. In its footsteps have followed several other award-worthy films, including:

– Mark Dornford-May’s "U-Carmen" (2005), an adaptation of the opera "Carmen" set in a South African township and performed in the Xhosa language;

– John Barker’s "Bunny Chow" (2006), an uproarious road comedy;

– Ralph Ziman’s "Jerusalema" (2008), a gangster film that created the first big star of South African cinema,

– Rapulana Seiphemo; Michael Raeburn’s "Triomf" (2008), a drama set in an impoverished white suburb on the eve of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994;

– and, most recently, Jann Turner’s "White Wedding" (2009), a buddy comedy featuring an ensemble cast (including Seiphemo and "Venus" up-and-comer Jodie Whittaker) that South Africa has just submitted for consideration at the Oscars.

It was really only a matter of time before foreigners caught on to the benefits of shooting in South Africa. Among them: the nation’s low production costs (it’s estimated to be 40% cheaper to shoot in Cape Town than in Hollywood), unparalleled diversity of backdrops (oceans, beaches, deserts, prairies, plains, mountains, jungles, vineyards, shantytowns, suburbs, and modern cities), and state-of-the-art filmmaking tools (including soundstages, post-production facilities, and skilled crews) have attracted a growing number of international productions and stars.

This led to the impressive crop of Hollywood movies emanating — in large part or in full — from South Africa over the five years, which paved the way for the remarkable 2009 output. These have included:

– John Boorman’s "In My Country" (2004), a drama about two journalists (Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche) covering South Africa’s post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission;

– Tom Hooper’s "Red Dust" (2004), in which an expatriate South African human rights laywer (Hilary Swank) returns home to represent a black man in a case against the white police officer who tortured him years earlier;

– Andrew Niccol’s "Lord of War" (2005), starring Nicolas Cage as an international arms dealer in business with an African warlord;

– Edward Zwick’s "Blood Diamond" (2006), the story of two Africans (Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou) desperately seeking a rare diamond for very different reasons and the journalist entangled in their quest (Jennifer Connelly);

– Phillip Noyce’s "Catch a Fire" (2006), an account of an apolitical black man (Derek Luke) who becomes radicalized after he and his family are arrested and tortured by a white anti-terrorism squad leader (Tim Robbins) for a crime he did not commit;

– and Billie August’s "Goodbye Bafana" (2007), which chronicles the evolution of the unlikely friendship that developed between Mandela (Dennis Haysbert) and one of his jail guards (Joseph Fiennes).

Next year will bring Lonny Price’s "Master Harold… and the Boys," an adaptation of a Tony-nominated play about a white South African boy (Freddie Highmore) who is caught between his father, a bigot, and his caretakers (one played by Ving Rhames), whom he comes to love.

The South African film industry has never been as strong as it is today. One of the fastest-growing sectors of the nation’s economy, it employs some 25,000 people and contributes roughly $800 million a year to the nation’s gross domestic product. Based on this year’s remarkable output, those numbers — like the quality of the films coming out of South Africa — seem poised for continued and marked growth over the years to come.

Scott Feinberg is one of the film industry's most-trusted awards analysts and has one of the best track records at forecasting the Academy Awards. He wrote "The Feinberg Files" blog for the Los Angeles Times and now writes his own at AndTheWinnerIs.blog.com. You can also follow him at Twitter.com/ScottFeinberg.