15 Films to see from South Africa

By Shameelah Khan

“That was actually really good…. For a South African Film.”

We have all heard this line before. I had only understood the frustration that people had with South African cinema when I began working as a lecturer in a University focused on Film, TV and Live Performance. It was here that I thought my love for South African cinema would finally be met with the “Oh I loved that film too” but instead I was met with a lot of negativity around South African cinema. It is my mission in life to deconstruct this- I Must Be Crazy (in case you didn’t get it this was my sad attempt at making a reference to The Gods Must Be Crazy). When it came to the theme of othering, I thought that it might be a really good opportunity to write on the anti-hero (I absolutely adore a good Anti-Hero) or Middle Eastern Women making waves in cinema or the ten films from India that isn’t Bollywood and the list could literally go on…(interesting moment to reflect here on what ‘othered’ cinemas are in relation to the Hollywood Powerhouse of Cinema right?)

But I wanted to be a bit more Patriotic and start at home, my home-South Africa. So here you have it- my top fifteen South African films that specifically deal with the topic of otherness.

P.S. Not all of these are available on Netflix (in fact, none probably are. But often you can access many South African films on Showmax)

  1. Love the One You Love by Jenna Cato Bass

I have to start with a Jenna Cato Bass film because she is never given enough credit for her amazing cinematic work and her willingness for collaboration. Set in the layered and complex backdrop of Cape Town, a sex-line operator, a dog handler and an IT technician begin to question or suspect their relationships which interlink across multiple characters. This film comments on the often forgotten narratives that are very much alive in our cities. Narratives of love, sacred friendship, loneliness and the pursuit of inner-truths.

You can watch the Trailer here:

  1. High Fantasy, another film by Jenna Cato Bass

High Fantasy is a film that resonated very strongly with some of my cinephile friends and I. I think I may have seen this film more than 4 times when it had been released. The reasons are simple, it covered many of the issues we were grappling with as a country, such as the land-discussion, Fees Must Fall, Rhodes Must Fall, moving to Asia to teach English (as a South African) and perhaps deeper discussions around race, culture, sexuality and the question of decolonization in South Africa. The film is a dark comedy that follows four friends of different races on their documented journey for a camping trip on a family farm. Things transpire when they wake up the day after in each other’s bodies.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. You Strike A Rock, by Aliki Saragas

Named after the iconic song sang by the brave women who marched to the Union buildings in 1956 “Wathint abafazi, wathint imbokodo” translated to “you strike a woman, you strike a rock”.

Honestly one of the best documentaries I have seen come out of South Africa. The incidents of Marikana had shaken our nation and we were reminded of everything that we had lost as a country. We had mourned. And we will forever mourn the massacre of Marikana. This documentary follows the aftermath of the poverty-stricken mining community in Marikana, specifically the women of Marikana. Two grandmothers rise up out of their homes and lead their community in a fight for justice and dignity. This is an intimate documentary that weaves together an ethical story about a community that will forever be in mourning for the painful political strife following Marikana.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. Paljas by Katinka Heyns

Adapted into a film, Paljas follows how the life of a family in the Karoo (a desert in South Africa) is changed completely when a travelling circus leaves behind a clown named Manual. The Afrikaans word Paljas is translated to mean “Magic/Spell”. An interesting fact about this film is that it was submitted to the 70th Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language film but was also the first South African submission since the end of Apartheid. Every character in the film is grappling with their lives amidst the racism in the Afrikaans community at the time, the political changes that South Africa is undergoing as a county and each character relates to Manuel differently. It becomes clear that Manuel’s role is seen as more than just a forgotten clown, but he becomes a significant “Other” in this community and seen as anti-Christian and probably a communist. This is a really good depiction on how otherness during Apartheid existed in many different ways.

Unfortunately, I really struggled to find a trailer, but you can view a bit of it here:

  1. The 7-UP Series, originally a BBC produced Documentary Series bought over by Aljazeera

The 7-Up Series is one of the most slept on documentary series about South African politics. You may be familiar with the 7-Up series as BBC has done an award-winning one in Britain. The series revolves around a group of interviewees selected as kids at the age of 7 in 1992 Apartheid South Africa when the country was transitioning into its Democracy. The documentary follows these selected humans from all racial and class backgrounds in 7-year intervals. 1992 was a critical time in South Africa. Where some of us (cough) were being born, the country was experiencing intense civil war where extreme violence broke out between the ANC (African National Congress) and the Inkatha Freedom Party. The documentary is a complete intersectional example of the harsh inequality that existed in South Africa during and Post-apartheid. This documentary series will have you chuckling, cringing, crying and questioning whether anything has really changed since 1992.

You can watch the series here:

  1. Confessions of a Gambler, Rayda Jacobs

One of my favourite South African films. Set in Bo-Kaap, Beeda is a single mother and businesswoman who is battling many inner struggles around identity, love and her search for meanings in her community. She is a devout Muslim woman and is in constant dialogue with God throughout the film. After losing her son to his battle with HIV/AIDS, she develops an addiction to gambling (an act that is religiously not allowed). This, of course, raises many conflicts between her lived experience as a Muslim woman and her newly found love for the slot machines.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. Shirley Adams, by Oliver Hermanus

One of my favourite directors in South Africa and in my opinion, Denise Newman’s finest performance. Especially given the conversation around the “coloured” identity, I thought it would be a good time to explore some of the amazing films made. There are quite a few, but for now, I would like to focus on the notion of othering and the coloured community in South Africa. Shirley Adams is othered by her community and struggles to receive any support from her community. The story is set in a Mitchell’s Plain, Cape Town. Often a space that many don’t know much of given the romanticizing of Cape Town and the tourism-dream. A coloured single mother, Shirley, struggles to take care of her disabled son, Donovan, who was shot in the neck on his way from school. Her life changes when it becomes about supporting her disabled son who is left without real friends, medical or financial support other than his mother. In their tiny home, the two battle with sadness, depression and loneliness in different ways.

You can watch the trailer here:

Some other amazing films by Oliver Hermanus which I personally love are Skoonheid and the Endless River (this is cinematic-gold for all you cinne-lovers) and we patiently await Moffie, his latest piece.

  1. Material, directed by Craig Friedmond

I am always surprised when people don’t know about Material. The first time I screened it for my students, there were so many questions that came out of that class. I am a firm believer that if we really (I mean really) accept Riaad Moosa’s attempt at acting- we really see the heart of this Comedy. It follows the intimate story of Cassim, a young Muslim man who wants to pursue his dream of being a comedian, which is not accepted in the eyes of his father (a stellar performance by Vincent Ebrahim). On the surface, the film is about comedy and a father-son relationship. But on a deeper reading, this film is about a part of South African history that often goes untold – that of the community of Fietas, now known as Pageview/Vrededorp and the dark history of the Oriental Plaza, a famous shopping centre well known amongst Muslim communities. 14th Street was a bustling trade street in Fietas where almost everyone in the community would support and get their groceries of all kinds. There was a spirit there. Following the harsh and violent implementation of The Group Areas Act, the traders in 14th Street were also affected, and their businesses evicted and moved to what is known as the Oriental Plaza. Until now, there are many people who had lived in Fietas whose businesses had to be moved to the Plaza. Most of those who refused to move have, still until today, not stepped a foot into the Plaza. There were some riots around the Plaza in 1976 but given the political climate around Sharpeville, it was lost in the archives.

You can view the trailer here:

  1. Kanarie, directed by Christiaan Olwagen

This is a FUNNNNN film on the surface until you really realise what a complete and utter violent heinous system apartheid was for EVERYONE. We laugh and are completely living the narrative with the characters. This is a period piece and a coming-of-age war musical about a small-town boy who gets selected to serve in the South African Defense Force Choir known as the Canaries. The film is set during the height of Apartheid and probably has many similarities to the newly released Moffie by Oliver Hermanus. Even though it is focused on the military at the time, it gives the viewer a clear glimpse into the construction of Apartheid and its extreme attempt at fear-propaganda around Communism (supported through the Church) and the complete lack of awareness of the politics happening in the country. There are some really gut-wrenching realisations of the country at the time and it is clearly evident in this film.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. The Whale Caller, directed by Zola Maseko

I have to say this – the book was far better than this film. I had my doubts about putting this film up (aysh). People will completely disagree with me. My own students gave me hell about screening this one. But my oh my – I loved it the first time I saw it and I love it now. Perhaps it is because of my undying love for Zakes Mda, who wrote the book before it was adapted into a film. I think the one problem that the film had was its extreme theatrical performance on the end of the protagonists but, in the space of otherness, I argue that this works for me. The audience is completely left to wonder what is happening in the film. From the get-go, this film is a visual dream (again cinnes – this one is for you). The screen paints before you the lush colours of the oceanic dreamscape of Hermanus where The Whale Caller, played by Sello Maake ka-Ncube is in love with a whale named Sharisha. She is his first love, and he has many a sexual encounter with her (a lot more descriptive in the book). His world is disrupted by the presence of a wandering whimsical woman named Saluni who battles for his love. The two go on an existential journey walking through notions of blindness, Sisyphean existence and the forgotten ones. It also comments quite clearly on the existence of the Black man in South Africa, reversing all notions of the Black man as violent, as absent or as a gangster (yawns). The Whale Caller lives in a dream-space and carries into that imaginative space all of his dreams as a young boy and as a lover of the Whales. It also interrogates the idea of childhood trauma, magical realism and the spaces of love in a world that is constructed around hate, violence and segregation.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. The Letter Reader, directed by Sibusiso Khuzwayo

Available on Netflix, this short film follows the journey of a young boy from Johannesburg who arrives in KwaZulu-Natal to live with his grandmother for a little bit whilst his parents are going through a difficult time in their marriage. In this quaint and whimsical village, he begins to read letters for the community members, but things get complicated when he falls in love with one of the community members and begins to meddle in her personal relationship. Set in the backdrop of the green and blue hues of the KwaZulu-Natal landscape covered in mountains and wrapped in an overcast grade, this film pays tribute to a narrative about love. We also pay tribute to the talented Andile Gumbi who we lost in 2019.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. Poppie Nongena, directed by Christiaan Olwagen

Another brilliant Period Piece by Christiaan. Poppie follows the true story of Poppie Nongena, based on the novel by Elsa Joubert. Poppie is a South African Afrikaans speaking Xhosa black mother who, during a tumultuous time in apartheid, must protect her family. She was deemed an illegal resident in South Africa and left paperless in her own country. The story follows her in her strive for domestic work, permission to stay in the country, permit-applications, her husband’s illness, community anger and the extraordinary cinematic build-up to the 1976 Sharpeville Protests.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. Imam and I, directed by Khalid Shamis

The documentary by Khalid Shamis tells the story of his grandfather, a well-known anti-apartheid activist Imam Abdulla Haron, who is best known for his anti-apartheid activism and his death (which literally shook the Earth in South Africa marking one of the Cape’s scariest earthquakes) by the Security Branch of the South African Defense Force in 1969. Imam and I weaves together intergenerational stories about Shamis’s grandfather and in turn going on a personal journey with his own subjectivity explored in the documentary. This is another narrative often left unspoken about in South Africa and tells a very different narrative of the liberation movement, archive, memory and the violent repercussions of Apartheid.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. The World Unseen, directed by Shamim Sarif

A touching story also set in Apartheid, following the journey of two Indian women Amina and Miriam who embark on a love story amidst a tumultuous apartheid backdrop. Amina is a free spirit who owns a café in the heart of Cape Town where she meets Miriam, a troubled Indian housewife and mother who is struggling to confront her husband about an affair he is having. The two form an unlikely love and explore their sexuality in a space that otherwise is forbidden for them to explore. I’ll admit, the acting is sometimes a bit “off”, but never before have I seen, in South Africa, an Indian community in apartheid grappling with racism, homophobia and misogyny told through two very strong female-lead protagonists.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. UNomalanga and the Witch, directed by Palesa Shongwe

A beautiful short film that follows the intricate journey of two women. A church-going woman in a small South African town becomes intrigued and drawn to her neighbour, an eccentric, healing, independent and proud woman who is rumoured to be a local Witch who murdered her husband. This is a film about love, secrecy, forgiveness and a space of otherness where women draw from their intimate pains and traumas. A beautiful film about black sisterhood, healing and my most favourite – hair and the nostalgia of touch. This is a film about touch.

“This is not a murder mystery waiting to be solved, however. This is a film about feeling out of place, how women are labelled when they don’t conform to societal norms, and about the thrill that comes when you meet someone you have a genuine connection with, even when it happens in the least expected way.”

You can watch the whole film here:

Here are some other films that deal with otherness that I could not put into the list, though I so much wanted to:

  • Letters of Hope directed by Vusi Africa
  • Aya, directed by Khalid El-Jelailati (we also have done an amazing film review on this one)
  • Dis Ek, Anna directed by Sara Blecher (you can also have a look at her other work such as Ayanda, Mayfair and my personal favourite Otello Burning)
  • Meerkat Maantuig by Henneke Schutte (a beautiful film about Magic and Childhood).
  • The Story of Ellen Pakkies, directed by Daryn Joshua
  • The Forgotten Kingdom, directed by Andrew Mudge (not set in South African but a brilliant film set in Lesotho)
  • An Act of Defiance, directed by Jean van de Velde
  • Farewell Ella Bella, directed by Lwazi Mvusi
  • Back of the Moon, directed by Angus Gibson *the film, not the series (because shem), in his comeback which deals with a love story and the anti-hero/anti-gangster gangster, I suppose.
  • Five Fingers for Marseilles, directed by Michael Matthews

Also, we anticipate big things from DIFF this year so I encourage you all to keep a lookout for the great South African Feature line up at DIFF this year: