In recent times, South Africa’s film industry has emerged as a key player on the international stage and they’ve made some really great movies on home turf. Many of them convey a hard-hitting message dealing with issues of colonization, segregation and apartheid, while others will simply make you smile. Grab a bag of popcorn and settle down to watch our top picks for South African movies.
The only South African film to have actually won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film, Tsotsi was adapted from the 1980 novel of the same name by South African writer Athol Fugard. The plot follows six days in the life of a tsotsi (thug) in a Johannesburg slum. Leader of a gang, his life takes a sudden turn when he finds himself in possession of a baby following a carjacking. The film touches on the sensitive issues of violence and inequalities between white families and the indigenous South Africans. It’s a powerful, thought provoking piece of cinema accompanied by a moving soundtrack of Kwaito music (think house music with African sounds) by the Soweto-born musician and poet Zola. The ambiguous ending might leave you hanging so be sure to watch the two alternative endings that also were made at the same time.
The Bang Bang Club (2010)
This South African-Canadian biographical drama tells the story of four photojournalists in South Africa who worked together from 1990 to 1994 during the Apartheid period and became known as ‘The Bang Bang Club’. It recounts the psychological stress they endured as a result of the disturbing events and violence they witnessed. The movie was written and directed by Steven Silver and it’s an adaptation of the autobiographical book The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War co-written by Greg Marinovich and João Silva, who were two of the four photographers, the other two members being Kevin Carter (who created the famous Pulitzer-winning photograph of a vulture and a starving toddler during the 1993 famine in Sudan) and Ken Oosterbroek.
The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)
This 80s comedy by the late South African director Jamie Uys takes place in a remote Kalahari desert tribe in Botswana. They’re unaware of globalization and the modern society beyond them until one tribesman Xi (played by real-life Namibian bush farmer and actor Nixau) discovers a Coca-Cola bottle and introduces it into the tribe. It immediately causes disputes and unhappiness and Xi is forced to enter out into the real world. What follows is a poignant, funny account of Xi’s first contact with modern civilization and his reaction to the western world’s notion of science and the law.
District 9 (2009)
This comic sci-fi mockumentary was a blockbuster hit in its day, nominated for four Academy Awards. Inspired by the events that took place in Cape Town’s District Six during the Apartheid era, it touches on issues of racism, gang culture, the black market economies and alienation. The plot follows Afrikaner bureaucrat Wikus (played by South African actor Sharito Copley) in his attempts to relocate an alien refugee camp. The film was written and directed by South African-born Neill Blomkamp’s and all of the cast and crew are South African apart from producer Peter Jackson.
This Oscar-nominated 1998 Afrikaans-language film tells the touching tale of a lonely stationmaster and his family, who live out in the isolated Karoo semi-desert, each one dealing with different emotional issues. A traveling circus troupe passes through the town and leaves behind a clown called Manuel, who is discovered by the family’s estranged son who keeps him as a secret. The clown sets about trying to heal the family’s pains and the troubles in the village. Read between the lines and you’ll soon realize that the poignant movie, directed by famed South African Katinka Heyns, is an allegory for South Africa.
Also an Oscar nominee, this was the first full-length feature ever to be shot in South Africa’s native Zulu language. It revolves around a character named Yesterday (played by Leleti Khumalo, who was also in Hotel Rwanda and Invictus who lives alone in a rural village with her daughter Beauty. Although diagnosed with AIDS (that she caught from her husband who works away in the mines) she remains determined to create a better future and education for her daughter. The film highlights the struggle and stigma associated with AIDS-related illnesses in communities with no electricity water or medical support. It’s an inspiring story of strength and courage.
Wonderboy for President (2016)
This political satire and mockumentary centers on the rise and fall of Wonder Boy, who is a charismatic small-town politician from the Eastern Cape. He’s persuaded to run for presidency by two calculating, corrupt politicians with ulterior motives. The movie mocks the South African political system and raises serious issues about corruption but will also have you laughing at the absurdity of events.
Four Corners (2013)
This is a coming of age drama set in South Africa’s Cape Flats about a young boy who’s a whizz at chess but gets caught up in a gang war between two volatile gangs, one of whom is grooming him to become a member. It’s raw, violent and compelling and a sad reminder of the harsh realities faced by children who grow up in these communities.
Seen any other great South African movies that you’d like to recommend? Tell us about them in the comments section below.