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Starry, Starry Nation: Fostering a Film Identity and Celebrity Culture in South Africa


South Africa needs its own identity, culture and celebrity when it comes to film. Hollywood had the star system, which enabled movie studios to leverage their stars in order to gain more traction when marketing their films to an adoring public. This was done by creating personas for the young actors and originally came about because audiences wanted to know their names. In the early days of cinema, it was considered an embarassment to move from theatre into the seemingly substandard medium of film and many of the performers weren't actually identified. We've come a long way as evidenced by tabloids, intrusive paparazzi, bankable names, celebrity obsession, public personas, political clout and extraordinary salaries. There's something in us that compels humanity to raise a celebrated elite to take centre stage.

In South Africa, our sports stars have occupied this territory with names drawing more attention for sporting achievements and major endorsement deals than our entertainment industry. Social media and television personalities are also beginning to stake a considerable claim in this influential fandom, but film is languishing. There are moves for South Africa to play catch up with the idea of introducing a "star system", to help create a similar excitement around the idea of film stars. Somehow, we've been lagging when it comes to the development of name stars in our own country.

starry starry nation

Charlize Theron and Sharlto Copley, who recently co-starred in Gringo, have demonstrated that we have got the talent and star quality necessary to make it on the international scene, so what's wrong? Part of the problem is the fact that we have low self esteem as a film-making nation, not having really created our own film culture or identity, making us feel less than. This is perpetuated by the justifiable decision to leverage international stars with inherently South African films. Idris Elba and Naomi Harris were used to garner attention for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. People tend to hinge their viewing decisions on names, which makes recognisable stars critical to drawing an audience. If only we were able to build our own stars and have them carrying films rather than relying on outsiders to do the job.

It's great to see Sean Cameron Michael, Fana Mokoena, John Kani and Kim Engelbrecht making waves on the international stage, but we should be celebrating these breakthroughs and we've got a plethora of local actors who deserve much more attention than they're currently getting locally. Deon Lotz (Skoonheid, Faan se Trein, Shepherds and Butchers) is someone who you will recognise instantly if you've seen more than two South African films in the last decade. Thishiwe Ziqubu (Hard to Get, Man on Ground, While You Weren't Looking) has star quality and is turning in a number of significant performances. Christia Visser (Tess, Hollywood in my Huis, Alison) is a brave young actress with a bright future ahead of her. It's amazing that Israel Makoe (Four Corners, Avenged, Beyond the River), an actor with great presence and fierce energy, hasn't got more focus.

The media has a lot to answer for, not giving our talent enough space and commercial territory with which to create podiums. We need to believe in our stars and their amazing talent, and encourage the public to do the same. South Africa is so busy focusing on big international releases, that the smaller stuff where the real talent is blossoming is largely ignored. When we do shine with official Oscar contenders and those breaking into the international scene, there is some definite interest, but there is still not enough buildup and hype.

Generally-speaking, we have a conservative culture, which means that stars who are recognisable aren't at risk of being mobbed by fans. Perhaps this conservative, downplayed narrative needs to change. More needs to be done around stars and their media profiles to the point that the public becomes familiar and interested in them. We shouldn't be waiting for their talent to be acknowledged on a worldwide platform, but raising them up and celebrating them ourselves. Whether that be through publicists or based on merit alone - it needs to happen!

This doesn't only end at celebrity culture, but also requires a boost in support of arts and culture. Local film productions don't get enough attention in the buildup to opening weekends, which generally means that they don't last more than a week or two on mainstream circuit. Many don't even know when there is an opportunity to watch local film content. Our industry is growing in leaps and bounds but because there is still a stigma around the perceived quality of South African film, many don't really give local content the attention it deserves.

There should be a greater focus on getting South Africans to see local content, exposing them to faces that become more recognisable and generating hype around the idea of film stars. Growing confidence is essential to a viable, structured, credible and blossoming film industry. If the media takes an active role, the public becomes more interested and industry benefits, this will create a healthy self-replicating cycle. So I implore you, South African citizen, journalist, filmmaker, star, or potential funder to take a much more active promoting our country, arts and culture! Let's start these conversations, start tracking great local content and stars. Our spend follows our passion... so let's get excited about the stuff we're doing well, support it with more than a 'like' and there will be more of it!