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South Africa, but no soft focus

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Baltimore Sun

Khalo Matabane, a filmmaker, talks of what he calls “a funny incident” of his own making at a restaurant in the well-to-do, mostly white Johannesburg neighborhood of Parkhurst.

On his way to the restroom, he crossed paths with a white woman he didn’t know. They made eye contact and, he says, he blurted: “I know I am everything you despise -- drug dealer, rapist, serial killer. But I’ve changed. The only thing I do now is sell drugs.”

It was a provocation, like the best of his low-budget semidocumentary films that show South Africans’ long-lived unease with issues of race, crime and foreigners -- films steadily winning favorable attention in South Africa and abroad.

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Smiling at the memory of the restaurant encounter, Matabane says his aim was not just to shock but, in his own way, to shake the accepted view that Parkhurst is a racially progressive place. The 31-year-old believes this country’s reality is far more complex, even in its most open-minded neighborhoods.

“A sense of reconciliation -- the idea that the country is just -- is not how South Africa is,” he says. “It’s how the country aspires to be. It’s like the American dream. You have Oprah, who made it through the gutter, but there’s 20 million people who are in the gutter.”

Matabane has made half a dozen largely improvised films that have explored South Africa’s entrenched racism, its high crime rate, its hostility toward black immigrants from other African countries and the painful displacement experienced by some whites.

In 2004’s “Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon,” a documentary with fictional elements that premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, he presented the stories of African immigrants who fled brutality and hopelessness for the unruly Hillbrow section of Johannesburg. He also depicted the government’s efforts to deport those who arrive illegally.

“Khalo really was a breath of fresh air,” says Cameron Bailey of the Toronto festival. “If we can get 10, 15 more Khalo Matabanes out there, I think we’ll really see a revolution in South African film. I’m hoping he’ll lead the way.”

Matabane is self-taught and is building his reputation in the midst of a boom in South Africa’s film industry. Once derided as a propaganda vehicle for apartheid’s white regime, the industry, anchored in Cape Town and Johannesburg, has found new energy as filmmakers explore the country’s past.

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Even so, the vast majority of movies released in South Africa are American imports, with “Titanic” holding the record for highest box office sales. The only South African actor who reliably outdraws Hollywood fare is slapstick comedian Leon Schuster.

In a country that is about 80% black, about 80% of the moviegoers are white, according to William Kirsh, chief executive of Primedia, a South African media group. Most theaters are in shopping malls far from where most poor blacks live; Soweto, home to well over 1 million people, has no movie theater. A price war between the two largest theater chains last year saw ticket prices dip to $2 per show.

Apartheid’s legacy

The challenging economics, though, have not deterred the production of films aimed at least partly at black audiences.

“Drum,” released in 2004 and directed by South African Zola Maseko, relived the 1950s heyday of the famed anti-apartheid black magazine by the same name. The same year, “Red Dust,” starring Hilary Swank and directed by Tom Hooper, depicted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that traversed the country in the late 1990s giving voice to victims of apartheid’s brutality. Last year saw the release of another film with reconciliation as its theme, “In My Country,” with Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche.

“Yesterday,” a portrait of a woman’s battle with AIDS, received an Academy Award nomination last year for best foreign language film.

What sets Matabane’s films apart, besides his unusual blurring of documentary and fiction is his refusal to apply a sunny tint of optimism.

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“You see the schisms that still exist,” says Ryan Fortune, a deputy lifestyle editor at the Sunday Times of Johannesburg and a friend of Matabane’s. “Nobody’s really daring to tackle all those present-day issues.”

Matabane’s “Story of a Beautiful Country” attracted mixed reviews. The movie, produced by Matabane traveling in a minibus taxi and recording people’s stories about lingering racism, was largely panned by Sean Jacobs of New York University in a journal called Safundi.

“I am sad to say that I at least did not gain much understanding from his travels,” Jacobs wrote. “Instead, the focus is all over the place and at the end one is none the wiser about what is going in Matabane’s beautiful country or happening to its ordinary people.”

The film was supposed to air on the South African Broadcasting Corp. but was yanked when an interracial couple in the film complained about their portrayal.

By Matabane’s teens, the sun was setting on apartheid. In 1990 he moved to live with his mother in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow neighborhood, then a “gray area” where blacks could live among whites. By age 20, with Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president, Matabane began to explore filmmaking.

Tall, soft-spoken and with a steady gaze, Matabane says that South Africa has improved in almost every way. Otherwise he would not be making films at odds with the ruling African National Congress’ message that South Africa is a nonracial society that treats everyone equally.

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“I love this country,” he says. “There is something so free and exciting about this country, but lots that disgusts me.” The rapacious capitalism he sees around him, practiced by whites and blacks, dismays him. As does the hostility directed at the thousands of African immigrants who see the country as a land of opportunity and want to contribute to it.

Unscripted

Matabane’s profile could rise later this year with the planned commercial release of “Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon,” a production that cost a mere $25,000 and is the first third of a largely unscripted, spontaneous trilogy. He recently took nine days to shoot on digital video the second installment, “Johannesburg,” a story of love, loneliness and displacement featuring an all-white cast drawn from local film students.

The third, “Violence,” will be about an “upmarket thirtysomething black male” who is the victim of a senseless violent act and retreats to his apartment, where well-wishers tell of other violent incidents.

Bailey, an international programmer at the Toronto festival, thinks Matabane is poised for a breakthrough that will enable his films to reach a wider audience.

Ryan Haidarian, head of development at South Africa’s film agency, says that Matabane first needs to focus on more fully developing scripts and stories -- steps that could prompt the agency to help underwrite his endeavors.

“One of the most important goals is developing an industry and filmmakers who can sustain themselves,” Haidarian said. “Ultimately, we want films that can be commercially successful.”

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To be commercially successful, movies must attract an American audience.

Matabane says he is developing projects that are fully scripted but wonders whether “idea-driven” films can be commercially successful. And it’s an open question whether he will be inclined toward another quality that Haidarian says the foundation likes to see in films -- those that “build unity.” Matabane already knows how “Violence” will end: One day the crime victim sees an altercation outside his window. Spurred to help, he leaves his cocoon, only to commit his own act of violence.

“I think it’s my pessimism,” he says of those final scenes. “The world is complicated.”

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