Light, camera, action
Solar-powered cinemas for Africa
Nozuko Poni is known as the lady with a yellow suitcase. Inside is a mobile cinema kit powered by the sun that was used to screen the movie This Land 20 times in eight weeks, in eight provinces, alongside the land hearings. This movie struck a powerful chord at the first Sunbox screening she held, in Rustenburg, in the North West. Poni was moved by the intensity with which people engaged “not only around the movie and land but other issues”.
Miki Redelinghuys, of Plexus Films, who directed This Land and attended screenings, says: “In 20 years of making films this has been the most exciting process for me: to get the film where you want it to be and to see it have an impact.”
A film isn’t over when the lights come on. “The dialogue around This Land continued and people got details about organisations which could support them,” says Redelinghuys.
The Sunbox is a mini version of Sunshine Cinema, a Cape Town-based project which shows new African “movies that matter” at no charge in communities, to stir up activism. They elicit both excitement and controversy.
A rapper by night and youth volunteer by day, 27-year-old Parraddox Ndabeni showed the contentious film Inxeba: The Wound in Langa township, near Nyanga, Cape Town, where he lives. He persuaded traditional surgeons, members of initiation schools and gender and gay rights activists to sit on the same panel to discuss the film.
“We want to put people in a safe space in the same room to talk to each other about these issues. No one wants to talk about being gay in our communities, and the focus of the film is two guys falling in love,” says Ndabeni.
“When the entire audience relates to what they see on screen and has something to say, it is special for me. They applaud and notice details which they talk about.”
But his screening of Inxeba at an old-age home in Khayelitsha sparked an uproar. “All hell broke loose when two or three old men refused to watch it with women inside the room. Then the women said they would listen to the men.” Ndabeni ruefully switched films.
Sunshine Cinema’s screenings have attracted more than 8,000 viewers since its launch in 2013. The big-screen event is shown to audiences of about 200 and the Sunbox shows to groups of about 40.
Nokwanda Sihlali, a researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Land and Accountability Research Centre, says they had a massively positive response to the viewings of This Land around SA, a collaboration pulled off within a week of getting the funding.
The story is about activists fighting for generations-old community land that is being sold off to mining operations with the complicity of chiefs.
Sihlali says: “The screenings have a snowball effect. People relate to the protagonists and feel inspired. They get intrigued and ask us many questions.”
Sunbox ambassador Samkelo Donisi, who organised the This Land screenings with Poni, says it is “much better for people to see what we are talking about than to only talk about it”.
Constance Mogale, director of the Land Action Movement of SA, says: “If we can show people a drama, this is a good way of linking a story to legislation. The Sunbox is not limited by electricity and it can go anywhere.”
Sunshine director Sydelle Willow Smith says the British colonial government exploited mobile cinema as a tool of indoctrination to support hut taxes. One of their propaganda films starred Mr Wise, who paid his hut tax, and Mr Foolish, who did not.
Smith and her husband, Rowan Pybus, who co-founded Sunshine Cinema, are giving this powerful tool back to the people.
“We started Sunshine Cinema to shine a light on local heroes and bring what they do back to communities. We want to shake up the narratives,” says Smith.
Both have visual arts in their blood — Pybus’s grandfather was the proprietor of a movie theatre in Zimbabwe; Smith’s father was a darkroom technician.
Their vision for mobile community cinema came alive last year when they bought a Land Rover with insurance money they got after a nearfatal car crash.
“We nearly died in an accident on our way back from Botswana. It was a big kick in the butt that reminded us to focus on what we really want to do with our lives,” says Smith, who lost part of her right index finger in the accident.
“My husband and I are both filmmakers and photographers. We do not like being in the office. We’re addicted to the unknown and to diversity of experience. It’s what makes us feel alive. I love being on the road, even though I am a bit frightened after the accident.”
Sunshine Cinema is about to embark on an 8,000km Southern African tour in the Land Rover, which has been kitted out with solar panels and a projector. The first stop is Alice, in the Eastern Cape, and the final destination will be Kwekwe, in Zimbabwe.
Five Sunbox ambassadors will be trained along the route of the Ignite the Youth tour, which will raise issues such as gender and health. Each will be given a kit for six months to show films such as Uprize! and Dear Mandela.
The screenings enthral youngsters and adults alike. When Strike a Rock was shown at the Safe-Hub Youth Café in Gugulethu on Women’s Day it provided a bridge for different generations of women to share their experiences.
Youth café co-ordinator Nandipha Gcaza says the screening united women of different ages and enabled them to hear each other. “The girls wanted to know why their parents limited them, when the mothers were trying to protect them. They talked about how to meet each other halfway.”
Across the field from the Safe-Hub, Ndabeni has been coaching drama after school hours at the Gugulethu Comprehensive Secondary School, where he has also screened two movies, The First Grader and Hoops of Hope.
Ukhonyane Mkatshone, 14, says that watching The First Grader, which is about an old man in Kenya who goes to school for the first time, made her realise education is a privilege. “It was painful that people did not get a chance to learn.”
Her classmate Yonelisa Nobangula, 15, says: “It was shocking to watch but you pay attention and learn when watching films.”
Before Sunshine Cinema was created, director David Forbes experienced how taking his film, The Cradock Four, back to communities had an effect on pupils. He showed it to students in Michausdal, the “coloured” community across the road from the historically “black” community of Lingelihle, in Cradock.
“I showed the film at a high school in their hall where at least 400 students sat goggle-eyed as their own history played before their eyes. After the screening it took a while for them to open up and begin to ask questions,” he says.
“They felt overwhelmed and shocked to see, probably for the first time since 1985, their own community and former leaders on their screens.”
The next day he screened the film to a more boisterous audience crowding into the community hall in Lingelihle, the community where the apartheid police had been brutally oppressive. “This was where its genesis had been, and I know that a lot of older people appreciated the screening,” he says.
Ernest Nkosi, who wrote, directed and coproduced the independent, self-funded 2015 film Thina Sobabili, has a similar story. Free screenings were held around SA so that thousands of high school students could see the film, which is set in Alexandra and deals with the scourge of sugar daddies who prey on schoolgirls. Nkosi says the film prompted many teenagers to open up about their own experiences, and the reaction was overwhelming.
“There’s nothing like it, to see something you wrote move people like that.”
Sihlali says: “Film is a very powerful tool which evokes emotions. If you ask anyone about what happened on the Titanic, they can describe it and tell you how it felt, just from seeing the movie.”
All hell broke loose when two or three old men refused to watch ‘Inxeba: The Wound’ with women inside the room