Light, cam­era, ac­tion

So­lar-pow­ered cin­e­mas for Africa

Sunday Times - - Insight - By CLAIRE KEETON

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

Pic­tures: © Sy­delle Wil­low Smith

POP-UP CIN­EMA An au­di­ence raptly watches the film ‘This Land’ in a Sun­shine Cin­ema venue. The project brings so­cially sig­nif­i­cant films to ru­ral and township com­mu­ni­ties by­passed by main­stream cin­ema.

Faith Nolizwe So­ton­doshe is a lo­cal en­tre­pre­neur who makes pop­corn at the Langa screen­ings of Sun­shine Cin­ema. Pop­corn is pro­vided free at all the screen­ings.

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