A cinema for (some of) the people

South African film production house kykNET's dominance skews storytelling on the country's screens.

Promo image for the film Stroomop.

Driven by what seems to be a Hollywood-cum-nationalist fantasy, the film production house kykNET Films has created an enclave for mainly white Afrikaner filmmakers to occupy a disproportionate amount of space on the silver screen, leaving the rest of South Africans’ stories untold. In a country plagued by inequality along class, race, and gender lines, we need more people telling smaller stories, rather than a few people telling big stories.

There is a common myth that people of color in South Africa are not a “cinema-going” audience, but according to a 2015 report by the South African National Film and Video Foundation, there is no unambiguous evidence to support this claim. Yet, of all South African productions released in theaters during 2018, the three highest-grossing films were in Afrikaans, featured predominantly white cast members and were all produced by kykNET Films. An absurd idea, given that only 13% of the population speak Afrikaans (and nearly 50% of cinemagoers prefer watching films in English or isiZulu).

KykNET Films, an affiliate brand of the kykNET satellite TV channels, produces Afrikaans-language feature films for theatrical release. It is a subsidiary of the multinational media conglomerate Naspers, which owns amongst many other brands, Media24, Multichoice, DSTV, Supersport, Showmax, and MNet.

A white Afrikaans-speaking population that has mostly maintained its economic and social privilege after the end of apartheid, has ensured a viable market for Afrikaans media companies such as Naspers. Naspers used to be the mouthpiece of the National Party during apartheid and after the end of apartheid cleverly repositioned itself within a consumerist discourse.

Although Naspers now caters for a variety of demographics, its cinematic theater releases are almost exclusively in Afrikaans and cater for white audiences. More concerning, however, is how Naspers’s repositioning has led to the segmentation of audiences along race, class, sexuality, and gender lines, while simultaneously avoiding any recognition of those differences.

The representation of group identity in cinema is important, because cinema, even when redefined for the multiple-screen digital context of today, has extraordinary power to construct our idea of the Other. The camera’s gaze is able to put power in the hands of those who look and decides to either empower or disempower those who are looked at.

Historically, cinema in South Africa and elsewhere has been limited in its representation of black, femme, and LGBTQ+ bodies. In a country where identity politics inevitably occupies huge amounts of space in our public discourse, it is important that our cinema contains progressive representations of group identities. A cinema that disavows the differences between classes, races, genders and sexualities, is an impotent one.

The 1996 South African Constitution explicitly challenges the arts, including cinema, to partake in reconciliation, reform, and nation-building. Yet, since the end of apartheid, South African films have tended to rely on Hollywood conventions and lackluster representations of some identities, prohibiting us from forming a national cinematic voice.

The three highest-grossing South African films of 2018 were Stroomop—an adventure-cum-drama about a road trip by a group of mostly white women in a self-help group; Ellen—the real-life ordeal of a coloured Cape Flats mother and her drug-addicted son; and the chick flick Susters (about three adopted daughters, including one black, of a white woman on a road trip to scatter her ashes). Collectively, these films do little to deconstruct the roots of colonialism and apartheid. Although these films are neither overtly offensive nor explicitly racist, they are forgettable. Predominantly white casts, as in Stroomop and Susters, constitute a concept of “whiteness” against which the few characters of color are immediately defined. The story worlds in these films are severed from the lived realities of most South Africans, allowing white viewers to enter and exit the theater without reflecting on themselves.

Given that close to 60% of Afrikaans-speakers in South Africa are not white, representing people of color should come naturally to kykNET. But the few attempts that have been made at telling these stories (for example, Ellen), fall short of the progressive representations the constitution calls for. These representations are harmful when “standard” Afrikaans (the official dialect of Afrikaans associated with the apartheid state and whiteness) and the Christian faith are equated to respectability. Ellen arguably sends a message, albeit discreet, that “colouredness” is an affliction that haunts the Cape Flats and whiteness is the solution to the problems.

Mainstream Afrikaans films can thus be seen as creating a cinematic world for white viewers to absolve themselves from historical baggage and escape into (and be trapped by) a barren Hollywood myth. The money it takes to produce one kykNET film could be used to produce at least three smaller films with broader thematic, artistic and discursive reach. If we are to take the constitutional mandate for the cinema seriously, we need to redefine the role it can play in a South African context.

Further Reading