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The Doc Continent: The State of Nonfiction Filmmaking in South Africa

From 'Cosmic Africa,' a high-definition documentary feature that was co-produced with US-based Cosmos Studios

By Carina Rubin

Asked to write a zeitgeist piece on documentary filmmaking in South Africa, I readily agreed. I am a South African citizen, born in Jamaica of Finnish parents. I worked in film in the United Kingdom for a year, then in the USA for 12 and finally returned home to Cape Town, where I started a production company, Åland Pictures. I had to travel the world to discover that everything I needed is in my own back yard. Together with South African directors Craig and Damon Foster I make documentary features and have a number of large-format films in development that all reflect a passion for Africa.

The Foster brothers and I recently completed Cosmic Africa, a high-definition documentary feature that was co-produced with US-based Cosmos Studios, executive producers Ann Druyan and Kent Gibson and South African concept originator Anne Rogers. Co-productions are an essential ingredient for documentary filmmakers anywhere in the world, but particularly for South Africans, since local industry financing and broadcast outlets are very limited.

Documentary filmmaking in the context of South Africa cannot be separated from our political history. While South Africa has a film history spanning 105 years, television only came into being in 1976. The government-run South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has three channels broadcasting in our 11 official languages, reaching a population of 45 million people. In 1996, a private channel, E-TV, came into being with a mandate to support local films, in particular documentaries. Today, E-TV no longer has a dedicated documentary slot.

On a more encouraging note, Project 10, an SABC 1 initiative in partnership with the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and the Maurits Binger Film Institute, has launched the biggest documentary initiative in this country. Project 10 looks at different aspects of life in South Africa, ten years after the first democratic elections. The program reflects a partnership among broadcasters, training programs and filmmakers, and is precisely the kind of initiative needed to put South Africa firmly on the global documentary filmmaking map.  

Next year marks South Africa's 10th anniversary as a democracy, a milestone that is being acknowledged by a focus on South African films at Hot Docs, Toronto International Film Festival, Visions du Réel, Cannes and Berlin. 

The country has an incredible talent pool. According to Martin Cuff, chief of operations at the Cape Film Commission, the last three years has seen the documentary and commercial industry grow exponentially, making South Africa one of the top four film destinations in the world, rivalled only by Argentina, Australia and Canada.  This year, however, promises to be a levelling-off period. This doesn't mean that the commercial industry will collapse, but, rather, stabilize and become more realistic. Thankfully, documentary production continues to grow.

Nicky Newman, an independent documentary filmmaker and the vice president of the International Association of Women in Radio and TV, says, "South Africa has always had a strong documentary history; we make them well. We have had a lot to speak about-and still do. The documentary industry today reflects a country in transition. This has also translated into more young black filmmakers being trained and making documentaries, which is a great step forward for our industry." 

"Four to five years ago, there was very little activity in documentaries made in South Africa for local consumption," notes Steven Markovitz, a documentary producer and co-director of the Encounters Documentary Festival. "The most successful filmmakers were either producing wildlife documentaries for the international market or political documentaries earmarked primarily for Europe. In the last year or two, we have seen an upsurge of local support from South African broadcasters, as well as from South African funders. From a financial point of view, it has become a viable territory to raise co-production finance, as well as from growing a creative point of view."

South Africa has wonderful, diverse locations, a favorable climate, a fluctuating but often reasonable rate of currency exchange, a skilled filmmaking community, professional equipment houses, labs and more. A combination of a dominant commercial service industry and a history of exclusion has resulted in a relatively small pool of local filmmakers developing their own projects for the local market. Wildlife documentaries, however, are still an African mainstay that are made predominantly for the international market. The reality is, most South Africans don't have satellite TV, so they rarely get to see these documentaries.

The Encounters Documentary Film Festival has been instrumental in helping to grow the South Africa documentary industry. "When we started Encounters five years ago there was very little interest and scant financial support," Festival Director Steven Markovitz reflects. "Today, compared to smaller European countries, South Africa is on a par."

The festival showcases local documentary films alongside international films and has contributed in creating an audience for documentary films. The workshops around the festival cover topics ranging from new technologies to aesthetics to content to ethics. Markovitz and festival co-director Nodi Murphy have also introduced  great opportunities for local filmmakers––established and aspiring––to pitch their ideas to international co-producers  while securing a local broadcaster. These pitching sessions, called the Encounters Laboratory, "bring the South African documentary community into the international debate," Markovitz asserts. "This year we managed to get two of the projects into the IDFA [International Documentary FilmForum Amsterdam] forum. Essentially, this creates a pipeline into other international forums for local filmmakers."  

Helen Kuun, marketing director for Ster Kinekor, South Africa's second largest theatrical distributor and exhibitor, has a strong commitment to local product, releasing an average of one South Africa film per month. While her slate is predominantly feature films, she has shown vision and courage by releasing documentary features, despite a relatively small financial turnaround. The Great Dance, directed by the Foster brothers, remains the top grossing documentary released in South Africa. 

As the South African film industry has grown, it has quickly been catching up with technological developments on the international front. High Definition, for example, was a foreign format just a few years ago; today, Cosmic Africa is being released theatrically in South Africa, in the format. Ronald Henry, technical director at Spectrum Visual Networks (Pty) Ltd, is currently encoding Cosmic Africa for the first commercial digital release (HD) in South Africa. "With very few exceptions most movies produced in South Africa have not been large financial successes, due in part to the niche audience appeal and also because of the high associated costs, particularly the 35mm production and distribution process," Henry notes. "In fact, most productions don't even recover the cost of the bulk prints from the takings at the box office. The likely scenario is that digital cinema will increasingly play a major role in South African movie releases over the next few years, possibly with the deployment of a hybrid digital -electronic cinema standard, which will meet the needs of the local film industry, while keeping a close eye on the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) specification for digital cinema Hollywood releases."   

"Digital cinema technology is progressing at a fast pace," Henry continues. "For the first time since August 2001 we can actually look beyond the legacy of film as a quality benchmark and look to exceed 35mm, in sound, image and consistency. In view of the stellar technical requirements likely to be required to screen Hollywood product on a digital screen, it makes no sense for South Africa to invest prematurely in this. There is no immediate benefit outside of screening locally produced movies. The most immediate benefits from servicing our own industry should be addressed with digital cinema, and as digital builds momentum internationally, the cost of the high resolution projectors will drop continually. And with 4K (resolution) as the absolute ceiling, it will not be long before the business case for this will make sense, and or the standard of the local infrastructure will eventually, through organic growth, converge with the international requirements for screening Hollywood releases."

South Africa really has everything it needs to make and continue to make first-class documentary films. While every country in the world has a culture of documentary filmmaking, there is something here that makes South Africa feel exciting and unpredictable.


Carina Rubin and the Foster brothers are presently developing the first African large-format film made by South African filmmakers on an African-inspired subject.


Documentary Resources in South Africa


Festivals and Markets

Apollo Film Festival is a showcase for South African independent film. The venue is the art deco Apollo Theatre in the Karoo town of Victoria West.
Contact: Gail Robbins
Tel: +053.621.1185 Fax: +053.621.1185
Cell: +082.849.4928

Cape Town World Cinema Festival, a festival of world cinema with African film at its heart.

Durban International Film Festival––Over 100 films are screened, most of them premiere showings in South Africa. Documentaries and short films are also included. The festival promotes local films and offers seminars and workshops featuring local and international filmmakers. The program includes screenings in township areas where cinemas are non-existent.
Contact: Nashen Moodley (Film Festival Manager)
Tel: +031.260.1145/ 260.2506 Fax: +031.260.3074

Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, held for the first time in 1999, showcases international and South African documentaries.
Contact: Molly Slingsby
Tel: +021.448.0608 Fax: 021.448.1065

Gay & Lesbian Film Festival Out in Africa is held in both Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Tel: +021.465.9289 Fax: +021.465.1927

International Environmental Film Festival is held in Pretoria in conjunction with World Environment Day.
Contact: Neil Currie (Director)
Tel: +

Molweni Film Festival
Molweni is a network of independent filmmakers committed to making a difference in the development of the emerging township film industry. The Molweni Film Festival office is located in the heart of the Cape Flats townships. The festival is held annually.
Contact: Brenda Davis
Cell: +082.501.8936

Now in its seventh year, RESFEST, an international touring festival, explores the dynamic interplay of film, art, music and design. The festival showcases the year's best shorts, features, music videos and animation in an environment that combines screenings, live music events, parties, and intimate conversations with filmmakers. RESFEST 2003 toured to Cape Town in November.
Contact: Anna Pietrzyk
Tel: +021.418.6666 Fax: +021.418.6333

Sithengi––Southern African International Film & Television Market Sithengi is held annually in Cape Town in November. The market encourages buying and selling of African product and also hosts a Co-Production Forum that allows producers to pitch projects to international broadcasters and buyers. Sithengi also organizes industry-related seminars and workshops.
Contact: Michael Auret (CEO)
Tel: +021.430.8270 Fax: +021.430.8186

Additional Resources includes hundreds of articles on every aspect of filmmaking.

Film Resources Unit,, includes articles on African film, biographies of African filmmakers and a catalogue of all the films they distribute.

National Film and Video Foundation

Screen Africa-a magazine that covers the film industry for the film industry.

The South African Independent Film Site, run by Underdog, an up-and-coming production company, has resources, interviews with South African directors, news and reviews, as well as jobs in the film industry.

Southern African Communications for Development (SACOD)–– Read how film can be about more than just entertainment.