Through the course of writing this blog I have learnt about many things in the South African film industry that I had never heard of before. Perhaps one of the most interesting not-so-secret secrets of this industry, is Retro Afrika Bioscope. When Ian Rijsdijk mentioned during the interview I had with him earlier this year that Gravel Road Productions was restoring old South African films, I was intrigued. However, only now after a month of it niggling in the broom closet of my brain, did I think to get out the broom and do a Google sweep. I wasn’t disappointed.
Retro Afrika Bioscope is bringing back to life South African films that were made in the ’70s and ’80s by digitally restoring and re-releasing these lost classics. A specialty label for Gravel Road Entertainment group, the initiative was launched in 2013. Chief executive of Gravel Road, Benjamin Cowley, happened upon the idea during a conversation with Tonie van der Merwe, a filmmaker who made around 400 films in the period between 1971 and 1989. When van der Merwe mentioned that he had six of these films just lying in his garage, Cowley decided to take them off his hands and begin the process of restoring films which were made in arguably the most productive period of South African cinema.
During the Apartheid years of the 70s and ’80s, the government provided subsidies to filmmakers in order to create local feature films. In Keyan Tomaselli’s book, The Cinema of Apartheid: Race and Class in South African Film (1989), he explained that while the subsidy scheme’s “initial establishment was necessary to launch the local film industry,” (47) it did have many pitfalls as a product of racial structuring at that time. During this period most of the films made were of very low budgets due to the amount of money the subsidies provided. Looking at these films today you can see they are not of the highest standard, which is partly to do with the fact that the filmmakers were novices and partly to do with the stories which were being told.
“The popular culture reflected in these kinds of films is imaged, not from organic class experience or cooperation, but through media reconstructions of it. These reconstructions inevitably reinforce the dominant ideology of racial capitalism” (Tomaselli, 67).
According to Tomaselli, pre-1982 films which were aimed towards black audiences lacked narrative structures which dealt with politics (70). In a film made for a black audience, no white actors were to be seen, not even in the background, which Tomaselli argues was meant to “[over-emphasize] personal causation and individual solutions rather than collective action” (70). However, a theme which was prevalent in these films was one of going “back to the homelands,” (71) which supported the Apartheid’s homeland policy that sought to bar black South Africans from the cities. The nature of the filmmakers “underlying social and cinematic assumptions” (81) and the fact that they displaced the actual conditions of South Africa by using imaginary scenarios, actually made their films “susceptible to the propagandist intentions of the state” (81). Benjamin Cowley explained in an interview that the films made for white and black audiences during the ’70s and ’80s were meant as a way of keeping their minds off of political unrest.
However fraught with complexity, the “subsidy era” of the South African film industry was, it did help black writers and directors get work, as white directors would often ‘front’ the productions so that they could get funding. In my opinion, these subsidy films represent a very complex yet productive time in South African cinema, and it is for that reason that I feel it is very important that these films be restored and shown.
“When that subsidy fell away, it all disappeared. So these guys went out and got day jobs and within the blink of an eye an era of South African film was lost.” – Ben Cowley for IOL.
Around 1600 films were made, mostly in African languages, during this time. With some of these films having been banned by the Apartheid government, they are truly getting a new lease on life from Retro Afrika Bioscope. One such film was Joe Bullet, banned in 1973 it was luckily one of the films in van der Merwe’s garage to be restored in 2013, and then later screened at the 2014 Durban International Film Festival.
Retro Afrika Bioscope’s restored films are thus not only being reincarnated but also shared with the South African public. Recently, these films have also become available to an international audience. On the 1st of April 2016, the online streaming platform, Filmdo, teamed up with Retro Afrika Bioscope, to make 24 of these classic African films available to “African cinema lovers globally.” With the restoration process typically taking 4-6 weeks, and Gravel Road talking to international festivals, SABC, and DSTV, it seems that we might soon be seeing more of these films being aired.
While I am all for creating new local films by South Africans, it is good to be made aware of the industry’s past. Let us not celebrate the structure of Apartheid which subsidized these films, but the people who made them. By restoring these old films, Retro Afrika Bioscope are preserving a part of the history of South African cinema and are sharing long-lost images with the world. I feel that we are always so quick to dismiss the past, to throw it away, but here is an initiative which acknowledges the past for its good and its bad, and recognizes the value in these long-forgotten garage treasures.
(Featured image depicting part of the restoration process, taken from Retro Afrika Bioscope.)