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Portraits of Anywhere but Home

South Africa Caters to Filming 'Foreign' Scenes as Local Industry Founders

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page A16

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- In the wonder world of cinema, South Africa's landscape has doubled as an oil-rich California coastline and a spring break beach in Florida. It has been the bluegrass pastures of Kentucky and the killing fields of Rwanda. And once, to satisfy the exotic appetite of a Hollywood producer, South Africa was even a stand-in for the surface of the moon, playing host to the universe's first lunar rock concert.

But what the large and increasingly sophisticated film industry here rarely does is portray South Africa itself, as a setting for South Africa stories made by South African filmmakers employing South African actors. And when it has, such as in the moving tale of a mother struggling against AIDS in the Oscar-nominated "Yesterday," the product has generally been greeted with indifference by South African audiences.

South African actors Kenneth Kambule, left, Lihle Mvelase and Leleti Khumalo in the Oscar-nominated film "Yesterday." Like many South African films, "Yesterday," a tale of a mother struggling with AIDS, was greeted with indifference and was pulled from the country's theaters after just a few weeks. (Hbo)

"Yesterday," which was filmed in the Zulu language spoken by South Africa's largest tribal group, is one of five contenders for Best Foreign Language Film at the 77th Annual Academy Awards tonight. It is the first South African film to receive an Oscar nomination. Yet in its home country, most movie theaters pulled "Yesterday" after just a few weeks.

"I thought a lot more people would go to see the film. . . . I thought it would be more mainstream in my own country," the director, Darrell James Roodt, a veteran South African filmmaker, said in a telephone interview from Johannesburg. "It's a horrible irony."

Even as local films have foundered, South Africa has developed into one of the world's most popular places to shoot films supposedly set in other countries. The Cape Town area in particular -- with its varied landscape of mountains and sea, city and country -- is home to a thriving industry based on mimicry. The Cape Film Commission prints a promotional card with arrows pointing to various points of interest. Downtown is labeled "London." The waterfront is "Hong Kong Harbor." Table Mountain is "Swiss Alps."

A South Africa-born actress, Charlize Theron, won an Oscar last year for her role as a serial killer in the Hollywood film "Monster," but she has acted mostly in American-made commercial movies.

There is much discussion in Cape Town film circles about how to foster a more vibrant industry of homegrown film. Yet the head of the Cape Film Commission, Martin Cuff, said he had not seen "Yesterday." He is not alone. Two of Cape Town's biggest producers, David Wicht and Philip Key, also said they hadn't seen it. Nor had South Africa's minister of arts and culture, Z. Pallo Jordan, nor President Thabo Mbeki.

Roodt says much of the problem has to do with the overpowering marketing muscle of Hollywood. American-made films get an estimated 92 percent of the screen time in South Africa's theaters, leaving the rest of the world to fight for the remaining 8 percent. "American imperialism, it's amazing how fundamental it is . . . from the hamburgers you eat to the films you watch," Roodt said.

But in an era when India, Nigeria, Australia and other countries have thriving film industries despite Hollywood's power, many South Africans say the problem has deeper roots in a national character still divided by race and unsettled by the changes that have transformed the country since the end of apartheid a decade ago.

Even though political power is solidly in the hands of blacks, the roughly 10 percent of South Africans who are white hold a large share of the nation's disposable income and still dictate much of its consumer culture.

The malls that house the nation's multiplex theaters are almost entirely in affluent white neighborhoods, far from the townships where most blacks live. But Ster-Kinekor, South Africa's largest cinema chain, said 19 percent of its audience last year was black, up from 7 percent three years ago.

The same rifts are visible in other areas of popular culture. It can be hard to find South African music on radio stations here, or South African food at restaurants. In a country with 11 official languages -- English, Afrikaans and nine African tribal languages -- even the notion of a common South African culture seems elusive to some.

"I don't think there's something that you could call a quintessentially South African identity," Wicht said.

Among the reasons for the low turnout for "Yesterday" was the unhappy subject matter, say makers of other films.

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