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Best Feature Film winners are dominated by the same type of movies

A clear trend has developed over the last decade of films that have won SAFTAs in this coveted category. What are Afrikaans dramas doing that other local films aren’t doing?
Thu, May 27, 2021

The 15th SAFTAs are now a thing of the past, but the win of Griekwastad in the Best Feature Film category poses some questions: does genre affect a film’s chances of winning and is it necessary for it to be widely watched? The Jozua Malherbe-directed Griekwastad has a lot in common with most of the winners of this category in the past decade, in the sense that they are Afrikaans crime/drama tales. It was inspired by journalist Jacques Steenkamp’s The Griekwastad Murders: The Crime That Shook South Africa, which is based on the 2012 murder of a family on the Naauwhoek farm, near Griekwastad in the Northern Cape.

The film premiered on DStv Box Office in May last year after lockdown restrictions made a cinema release impractical. Its win follows that of Fiela se Kind (2020), Sew the Winter to My Skin (2019), Inxeba: The Wound (2018), Sink (2017), Dis Ek, Anna (2016), Four Corners (2015), Of Good Report (2014), Material (2013), and Black Butterflies (2012) – with just under a third being kykNET productions. The latter two, which can be considered anomalies in this context, fall under the comedy and biography/biopic category respectively.

Last year, the country’s box office revenues fell by a billion rand to about R214 million – with a paltry R7.6 million coming from the six locally produced films to make it to the cinema. Even then, four of the six were primarily Afrikaans language crime/drama films. The National Film and Video Foundation, which produces the SAFTAs, says 17 out of the 22 locally produced titles in 2019 were either in English or Afrikaans – earning R47.5 million in revenue. The top-earning genres of all films released were animation (R313,6 million), action/adventure/sci-fi (R253,3 million), and action/adventure (R145,4 million).

So, what gives? Why is there a disconnect between the Best Feature Film category winners and the numbers? A look at Hollywood tells us that some of the most recent Best Picture-winning films including Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, and Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water were all made on a shoestring budget (in Tinseltown standards), but were awarded for their filmmaking ingenuity – even if the box office figures were incongruous. Back home, there is no shortage of screens for these fantastical, whimsical, imported stories. It was Steven Spielberg who said: “The public has an appetite for anything about imagination – anything that is as far away from reality as is creatively possible.”

Critics and judges care greatly about the filmmaking craft, while audiences are less inclined to. We readily lap up superhero movies because they offer us an escape – something our locally produced stories do not. Perhaps our stories feel too close to our reality – they hold a mirror to us. Maybe they remind us of past traumas, or maybe they even prompt a sense of foreboding. So, we flock to the cinema for family-friendly escapism offered by adventure sequels such as The Croods: A New Age and Wonder Woman 1984.

This is why locally produced films usually make up less than a tenth of the total cinema market share. There’s another factor: disposable income. Afrikaans films have yielded better returns on investment, which means more of them will be commissioned and produced. There have been some tremendous Afrikaans films released in this country recently, but how much stronger would our film industry be if there were stiffer competition?

  • Griekwastad, Fiela se Kind, Sew the Winter to My Skin, Inxeba: The Wound, Sink, Dis Ek, Anna, Four Corners, Of Good Report are available to stream on Showmax