08 October 2013

Race and Class in the Cinema of Apartheid

To write a Marxist history of an art form or a cultural process in a time designated as postmodern--or at least with the logic of postmodernism dominating cultural debates--is one of the central challenges of our time. In Europe, three responses from a Marxist perspective have been put forth as the dominance of poststructuralist theory begins to ebb. Italian architecture critic Manfredo Tafuri has argued convincingly that the essential task of today is not so much writing a history of modern art forms as writing a modern history of those forms. In his discussion of the politics of history writing, French philosopher Louis Althusser has theorised the imperative of producing a dialectical concept of the history of an art form rather than merely presenting a narrative account of its history. And in England, writing about the history of structure of the State, Perry Anderson has postulated that history writing should be theoretical and analytical as well as factual and descriptive in order to be adequately comprehensive.

Writing from a Marxist perspective and aware of these present-day challenges, Keyan Tomaselli has written a theoretically solid book that attempts to develop an overview of modern South African cinema during the era of Apartheid. Employing the concepts of class and race as structuring principles and as ideological determinants of South African film, Tomaselli's The Cinema of Apartheid is not so much about the history of filmmaking in that country as it is about the modern conditions that shaped its cinema. In other words, Tomaselli sought to unravel the historical bases of Apartheid cinema.


With a very few exceptions--which I will address later--South African cinema since its inception imbibed and regurgitated the ideology of Apartheid as if it was a natural phenomenon, whereas it was an imposed historical condition. Tomaselli shrewdly observes that Apartheid was predicated on the paradoxical notion that racism is mainly an attribute of blacks. In its attempt to advance such insidious ideas, official (that is, consciously or unconsciously upholding Apartheid) South African cinema was probably the only national cinema in the world that had the gall to purvey mediocrity as genial art. Witness the Broederbond antics of The Gods Must Be Crazy director Jamie Uys (Broederbond was a white Afrikaner Mafia that secretly formulated the rationale of Apartheid), who turned the tragedy of the displaced Khoisan people into a comedy rather than a serious historical lesson. Indeed, the ideological nature of South African cinema under Apartheid was so extensive and claustrophobic that it destroyed any aesthetic uses of film within the national culture.

In the first two impressive chapters of his book, entitled 'Censorship' and 'Control by Subsidy,' Tomaselli examines the institutional controls that the South African state used to impose Apartheid on the nation's cinematic production. From the inception of the South African cinema in 1910--the same year that the modern South African nation was founded--to 1963, most censorship was imposed on imported films and concentrated on representations of sex and nudity. Throughout this half-century, official South African cinema never challenged the status quo of Apartheid. From 1963 onwards, censorship became directly political, since some films reversed this complacent attitude towards Apartheid. Government control was also practiced in the form of subsidies for film production, the topic of Tomaselli's second chapter. In Apartheid South Africa, this system operated by funding only those films that overtly or tacitly promoted the state ideology. It's no coincidence that this kind of official support began in 1956, when oppositional forces were in the process of mounting their challenge to the government. As Tomaselli shows, the second major reason behind the policies of subsidisation was that the government hoped to prevent the production of noncommercial films, especially those that displayed artistic intention and technical competence.

In this context, a very peculiar phenomenon emerged in the 1970s, one consonant with the perverted logic of Apartheid: the emergence of films for blacks about black people made in the African languages but written and directly by whites who did not speak these languages. (Here I must register a very strong objection to Tomaselli who consistently refers to black languages as 'vernaculars,' in contrast to English and Afrikaans, which are given the higher status of 'languages.' Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, etc. are languages. To think otherwise perpetuates colonialist ideology and prejudices.) In those films subsidised by the government of the time, the neo-fascist ideology of Apartheid ran amok. Accurately, Tomaselli refers to this type of cinema as films for blacks and never as black films even though only blacks acted in them--a very important distinction. Analytically, Tomaselli draws a distinction between these and Afrikaans films. In the former there is both an absence of 'politics' and of whites. Hence conflict is eliminated, and individual solutions, rather than collective actions, are emphasised. In contrast, the Afrikaans films examined the traumas of urbanisation and the 'virtue' of the separation of the races. Tomaselli is at his best when he compares these processes and analyses the formal configurations that resulted.

Although The Cinema of Apartheid is one of the most engaging and useful books written on a particular African national cinema, Tomaselli omits one of the country's major historical processes: the mining revolution (the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and gold in Johannesburg in the late nineteenth century), which totally transformed the historical, cultural, political and social landscape of South Africa. It was the mining industry that set the stage for the emergence of the South African cinema. It was this same industry that transformed dance halls into cinema halls in the mining compounds, populated by the newly created black proletariat. The philosophy of Apartheid was first presented and justified in mining publications. Without considering the effects of this revolution, the emergence and the development of South African cinema becomes incomprehensible.

In his fascinating penultimate chapter, 'Independent Cinema,' Tomaselli situates the formation of the independent cinema in South Africa--which persistently maintained its opposition to Apartheid--in the wider context of the formation of Third World cinema: Brazilian Cinema Novo, Argentinian Tercine Cinema, and the African cinema of Ousmane Sembene. Tomaselli argues that the explosion of the independent, or oppositional, cinema of South Africa resulted from the establishment of film and television departments at the universities, which coincided with the reawakening of the labor and student movements in the 1980s. Many South African independent filmmakers based their work on these two areas of social mobilisation. As opposed to being subsidised by the system of government funding explained and critiqued earlier in the book, most of these filmmakers have received funds from institutions outside government circles: the South African Council of Churches, European television stations, private benefactors, and so on. The state of emergency declared in South Africa in 1985 reduced the vigour and effectiveness of independent cinema, but it by no means eliminated it. This sector of the South African cinema remained impressive, both in terms of its innovation and in contribution to cultural debates of the day. It aligned itself with such new intellectual movements as the History Workshop at the University of Witwatersrand and with various black intellectual historical forces.

Tomaselli's last chapter, 'Social Polarization,' deals with, among other things, the African National Congress' establishment of a film unit. Tomaselli suggested that it is the independent cinema sector and the ANC film unit that would provide the foundation of a post-Apartheid cinema. In my view, Lionel Rogosin's 1959 film Come Back Africa--some of which was shot secretly in South Africa and not allowed a screening there until 1988--prefigures the coming national cinema.

[This is a slightly edited version of a review written by Ntongela Masilela, a black South African independent filmmaker who at the time of its writing was residing in exile in West Berlin and who was attached to Berlin Technical University. It was originally published in the film and video monthly journal The Independent, Vol. 12, No. 2, March 1989, pp. 15-17. Readers interested in post-Apartheid South African cinema may find useful the recent book by Lucia Saks, Cinema in Democratic South Africa: The Race for Representation (Indiana University Press, 2010).]

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