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Spling's Address to the AFDA Graduates of 2017


Spling served on the critic's panel at the AFDA Graduation Film Festival 2017 at the Labia Theatre in Cape Town. The last few years he's been asked to award the Critic's Prize and deliver an overview of the festival... here's what he had to say at this year's awards ceremony.

"Good evening, this is the fourth year I’ve been asked to officiate as part of the critic’s panel. AFDA Film School continues its high standard when it comes to producing short films, making the duty of external examination a pleasure and a wonderful opportunity to see fresh new talent emerging.

I'm sure you'll agree with me that watching your short films on a full size cinema screen makes a world of difference. Having them screened at a historic independent cinema like the Labia Theatre should give you a thrill, knowing that your production is sharing the silver screen with Oscar contenders, classics and some of the most exciting contemporary film-makers of our time.

This year’s graduate selection was just as diverse as last year's with a full bouquet of genres. While there were several escapist offbeat comedies... the general sense is that many productions were a cathartic response to a tough year. On a macro level, global politics have had a de-stabilising effect. On a micro level, a down economy has put considerable strain on people. This had a direct influence on the majority of productions, which tended towards darker psychological conditions and dealt with themes involving witchcraft, suicide, crime, abuse, violence and murder.

Generally-speaking, film-makers kept one foot on the ground, operating within their means and went for stories with personal significance that they felt passionate about. Last year's competition didn't have any clear stand outs, testament to the high standard of quality at play. Usually there are about five productions that push the limits of what's achievable within the examination constraints of a student film - this year there were almost double that number! There were a handful of short films that felt like excerpts from a much broader work, delivering creative elements, elegant visuals, refined writing, great nuance and film-making finesse.

I write an article about my five favourite films from each year's graduation festival and to your credit, you've made my job extremely difficult in narrowing the selection down. Creative narrative structures, swirling action set pieces, psychological torture, spine-tingling horror, palpable suspense, crime sprees, stoner comedies, social dramas and even fantasy... this year was a blast of frenzied inspiration. While the visual component and production values were generally strong, audio caused problems for several productions.

This year, the tendency towards self-driven storytelling was maintained with film-makers using other film references as a springboard rather than a blueprint. Consistency and tone are key and on the whole, there was a great understanding and sensitivity towards the establishment and maintenance of evenhanded film-making. If I had to offer some advice, I'd encourage you to embrace your talents and seize opportunities. Get a sense of who you are, what you're good at and what you can offer. Window opportunities can close in minutes and you need to know how to sell yourself, your idea or your script in 60 seconds. While I believe extraordinary work eventually rises to the top, this is ultimately a business and you need to be smart about your product, whether it be promoting your film or yourself. Build relationships, never stop learning, pay your dues, keep chipping away at your dream and never forget Mark Ruffalo. He may be a heavyweight star now, but he never quit after almost 600 rejections without success, a man who describes himself as "a 30-year overnight sensation".

So congratulations to everyone involved in embracing the learning curve, bringing the magic and commiting your stories to film, I wish you every success in the future."

Read about (and watch) Spling's Top 5 AFDA undergraduate films

 
Did Barry Ronge Die?


The short answer is no. Barry Ronge is alive and living somewhere in Cape Town apparently.

Ronge is a luminary of SA entertainment journalists, the renowned author of the Spit 'n Polish column, host of a long-running Radio 702 film show, the name behind a coveted Sunday Times fiction book prize and a household name in South Africa. He first came to my attention when I saw one of his interviews on a two seat art show in the mid '80s and early days of television in South Africa. He actually reminded me of an artist friend of my parents, who wasn't all that taken with the comparison. His magical Middle Earth beard, waistcoat, flamboyant style and seemingly limitless vocabulary have become trademarks of a private individual and consummate professional, who ironically led a very public career in television, radio, magazines and newspapers.

Being in the same profession, I've heard and read many curious tidbits about Barry Ronge over the years. The funniest of which is that he was born son to Mr Ronge and Mrs Wright, which I learned from an interview he did with Anne Hirsch in a Kulula in-flight magazine. The most surprising was that he taught Afrikaans at St John's College, which I learned from someone who he taught at the time. Being something of a role model, I e-mailed him several times asking for advice on how to get into film criticism, but never received a response. Years later, I saw that he did know about me and Spling Movies after he took a quote from my review for Spud 2 as part of his other opinions section on his online review site.

For several years, I was one degree of separation from Ronge who attended the same theatrical show as my parents during the Grahamstown festival. Following the show, he asked them what they thought... probably just sharpening his opinion. More recently, I understand he checks in on the John Maytham show on CapeTalk/702 from time-to-time to discuss theatre.

What's sad is that the longtime movie critic, didn't get the send off I believe he so rightly deserved. I put his name forward to the SAFTAs with a motivation as to why he should be honoured as part of the awards ceremony for a lifetime achievement, but my suggestion fell to the way side. Barry Ronge just sort of disappeared from the spotlight... formerly doing synopsis movie reviews on the John Robbie morning show, unceremoniously losing his 702 presenter status, discontinuing his column and fading to black without the sparkle we've come to expect from the prolific man. Maybe the ridicule from Gareth Cliff playing the clip of his emotional response to the Material movie was what sent him into early retirement?

I didn't agree with many of his movie review ratings, but still respected the man, who didn't shy away from expressing his opinion. I compared him to a pastry chef in the way he composed his reviews with flair and finesse... perhaps that's why he didn't respond to my emails? He earned the platform, apparently watching movies at a family-run cinema that served as a nanny when he was the equivalent of a latchkey kid. Having always wanted to meet Barry Ronge, the closest I came to doing so was at a strawberry farm shop near Stellenbosch on the R44... the one with the giant strawberry! Unfortunately, the timing was not good. He was entering the shop as I was leaving with some friends and knowing how much he guarded his privacy, I decided to stop myself from making his acquaintance, since he was with someone I assumed was his partner.

The line of questioning around whether he died or not is amusing to me, much like a fake James Blunt Twitter trend. He's been a divisive character, viral before 'viral' was even a thing. His outrageous presence, paradoxical nature and command of the English language made him a constant curiousity to the South African public. Unfortunately, this has made the iconic character something of a joke to some... which becomes all the more evident when you search his name on some social media platforms. He will however always be a revered and sorely missed literary gift to others, testament to this is the much debated naming of the Sunday Times fiction prize and many longtime fans who search "Barry Ronge Movie Reviews" wanting to know what became of him.

This self-same spirit almost inspired me to follow through on a Searching for Sugar Man style documentary/mockumentary idea, in which we took the position of "what ever happened to Barry Ronge?" and through some loose "investigative journalism" and talking head interviews, got a clearer picture of who he is, why he matters and what became of him. Tongue-in-cheek at first, I imagined working it to the point of being a touching tribute to the man who has intersected with so many South Africans in some way. I'm currently writing a semi-biographical Spudesque retrospective novel about my days at boarding school and he gets a mention as someone who inspired me to say "movie critic" wherever there was a Career Day moment.

So, again... he isn't dead, he's just hibernating. Barry, if you're out there... please let someone know you're okay!

 
You can now find Spling's new stuff at splingmovies.com...

Spling


Hello! Over the last 10 odd years, Spling.co.za has been where you can find Spling's movie stuff. Starting with everything movie-related, Spling has whittled down his content to focus on reviews, podcasts, interviews, a bit of movie news and the odd promotion. It's been an organic and gradual process, which started with Spling reviewing a film a day for a year on a simple blog... sadly many of those reviews from the early days have been lost... maybe not all that sad if you consider some of the straight-to-video titles he was reviewing back then!

www.splingmovies.com

Over the years, Spling.co.za has become charmingly prehistoric... shabby chic... a sprawling mess. Whatever you call it, the design, Joomla platform and clunky content management system made it outdated and it was time for change. Spling.co.za is going to continue to exist in its current state for the foreseeable future, but you can find all of Spling's latest reviews, podcasts, interviews and news at splingmovies.com. Unfortunately, with the focus on our social media on Facebook and Twitter and the several affiliations and publications where Spling regularly contributes, the website took a backseat for many years. Still, the site developed a strong domain authority and enjoys several thousand unique visitors per month... so thank you.

The SPL!NG thing continues to go from strength-to-strength, but we just wanted to let you know that the website (HQ) is currently in transition. The old site has got so much content that the mammoth task of transferring it across to a new domain just seems like a bridge too far in terms of effort and expense. Please bookmark and visit our new splingmovies.com website, which while far from perfect, has a contemporary sensibility. If you love what Stephen 'Spling' Aspeling is doing and feel the urge to support Spling Movies... you can do so via Paypal using this link paypal.me/splingmovies. Crowdfunding is a great way for people to help sustain the brands and services they love in the modern age. Perhaps with enough support, we'll be able to build a bigger and better website in the near future!

 
Seven Cardinal Sins of Christian Films


Seven Cardinal Sins of Christian Films

Faith-based films are set apart when it comes to film-making. Unfortunately for most, this subgenre separation is not complimentary and has given Christian-themed cinema a self-perpetuating stigma. While the film-makers set out with the best of intentions, these inspirational films all seem to encounter a similar batch of issues.

Part of the inherent problem rests with the original objective and purpose of the film. Are the film-makers aiming to make a great film with Christian values for everyone, or are they setting out to make a Christian film with great production values for Christ-followers? It’s ironic that you’d imagine the inspiration at the heart of the film is meant to draw the "unchurched", yet it often ends up being made exclusively for pre-existing members.

Are these Christ-orientated films seen as tools to spread the good news, or are they simply cornering a large captive self-marketing segment? These films tend to preach to the choir. You could argue that the role of church-friendly films is to serve the endorsed entertainment needs of the insiders, yet this exclusivity shouldn’t compromise the quality of the film in question.

In order to address and hopefully eradicate the stigma going forward, here are Seven Cardinal Sins that Christian films and film-makers often commit...

Preachy

If you’re looking for pure entertainment, there’s nothing worse than feeling as though you’re being manipulated by a film. Great thought-provoking films won’t insult audiences with strong biases; instead they will persuade the viewer to see things from their point-of-view. If you feel like you’re being led by the nose or patronised, you’re going to kick back.

Christian films tend to create barriers when viewers feel like they have been judged, excluded or forced to accept a set of absolute values they haven’t subscribed to. Film is a powerful medium, but if the audience feels the underlying message is self-righteous or rife with propaganda and ulterior motives, the end result is usually a disconnect for them.

Naivety

The Christian lens is typically rose-tinted. As such, we tend to encounter a rather romantic view of life in films representing this viewpoint. It’s not to say that bad stuff doesn’t happen, but we’re typically privy to a sanitised "Pleasantville" version of what we know from our own experience. There’s a creeping idealism as characters tend toward positivity and simplicity. They’re not perfect, but their wholesome virtues predispose them to fit in-line with the idea of being God’s children.

This suspended God-vision seems to numb the depths of depravity and turn ordinarily complex situations into a simple spiritual equation. This naivety also sinks into the medium as an art form, diluting the artistic merit of the director’s personal vision for a safer, clean-cut middle ground.

Inconsistency

Inspirational films probably struggle to get the same level of funding and support from traditional investors as mainstream productions. While it could be seen as a setback, Christian films are able to leverage their message movie status to accumulate necessary resources from local churches, change agencies, charity partners and key individuals.

With a typically indie disposition, the film-makers tend to rely on whatever resources are available to them. “Doing it for the faith” can sometimes mean working at a reduced fee, offering film services for free and trying to save a buck wherever possible. Keeping costs low, phoning in favours and debuting inexperienced talent makes these films more susceptible to inconsistency in performance and makes them more prone to technical hiccups, which can make or break a film for less forgiving audiences.

Cheesy

Just like good and bad CGI, there’s a fine line between real and unreal. God’s supernatural power as Creator of the Universe makes Him difficult to represent in human terms. As such, it’s tricky to represent an all-knowing, all-powerful God or heaven in any form without being subject to some inherent inadequacy. This generally cheapens the vision and undersells the moment. It seems that you can’t be subtle enough.

This also applies to sincerity and insincerity when it comes to film, and trying to get the balance and integrity of God-breathed passion can sometimes go horribly wrong. There are many hurdles: shoestring budgets, thin scripts, two-dimensional characters, working with non-actors and creating moments of deep, heartfelt spirituality can render important scenes off-balance and insincere. That contrived feeling can ruin the emotional integrity of a scene, and if a degree of insincerity creeps in, the moment goes from deeply heartfelt and sentimental to funny and borderline sacrilegious.

Melodramatic

Christianity is a faith that encourages an intersection of the heart, mind and soul. It’s not simply a religious theory, but a message of love and relationship, which tends to pivot on a deeply emotional breakthrough for true change to take place. Placing your faith in Christ and casting your belief on an event in history that forms the basis of our timeline is not simply a light-bulb moment. It often results in a pent-up, overwhelming outpouring of elation and emotion simultaneously.

Dealing with characters struggling through life, experiencing highs and lows or converting on this basis makes it easy for a faith-based film’s tone to tend toward melodrama. This is exacerbated by strongly stereotyped characters, who often populate scripts trying to reach the broadest audience possible. Choosing to enrich these moments with cinematic power is prized over entrenching them in the maudlin.

Insularity

While finding new audiences must be a serious consideration and motivating factor in the film-making process, Christian films often seem content with simply speaking to, inspiring and satisfying their own folk. If you’re relying on a captive audience to champion your film or a church network to fund the production, they obviously need to like it.

This prerequisite often results in an inoffensive message tailored to the insiders, as opposed to the telling of a universal story that has points of contact for all audiences. While the general themes of redemption, forgiveness and restitution hold strong as compelling journeys for characters, the didactic language, church-orientated setting and one-cure-fits-all approach can be alienating.

Contrived

The Christian way is founded on such noble qualities as authenticity, belief and honesty. Conveying these qualities by means of the film medium can be problematic in the sense that the film-making process relies on illusion and fabrication of such moments. Every film-maker aspires to represent moments of truth, yet the pressure is compounded by a film’s budgetary reach. While faith-based films deal with relatable characters, their scope is generally ambitious and the stories extraordinary.

This kind of storytelling has a tendency to be overwrought in its attempt to extract great emotion. When we deal with characters going through a life-changing conversion, everything seems to get played up and the nuances of the moment are lost. Creating the right conditions for a character to reach full realisation also tends to be orchestrated to a fault, straining the emotional integrity and over-extending our suspense of disbelief.

In order to rectify these problems, film-makers need to be aware of and identify these pitfalls. The Christian film industry appears to be improving and growing with experience with each passing year, and hopefully this will be reflected in terms of potential investors. More experience, more workable budget and having access to better actors will also go a long way to establishing the right tone and hopefully these films will start to appeal to those inside and outside the faith as both an enjoyable and worthy form of entertainment.

 
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