It may be too early to speak of a local movie culture emerging. And, certainly, the Hollywood hegemony is kept intact through an almost indestructible distribution network that ensures 92% of all movies shown in South Africa emanate from America. But Cape Town audiences proved that they are more than willing to let World Cinema thrive in a Hollywood soaked-and-choked movie landscape.
The numbers speak volumes. From audiences of 3000 in 2003, attendance rose to over 15000 this year at the Cape Town World Cinema Festival from November 10 to 21st. Festival director Jacky Lourens believes that is proof that the 10-day fest is a welcome innovation for movie-goers looking to stimulate their palettes.
Audiences packed into the 520-seater Main Theatre at Artscape for a string of new South African movies. Interestingly, a film by Pedro Almodovar was completely full, but Charlize Theron in the ordinary Hollywood issue, Head in the Clouds, had audiences leaving their seats and breaking for cover.
During the festival audiences look for movies that are specifically not out of the usual Hollywood mould. They were attracted by a broad spectrum of movies both in and out of competition, spiced with a week of red-carpet premieres for each of the 19 movies in competition, 10 of them alluringly South African. Capetonians caught a little of the gala night atmosphere with local stars in glamorous attendance, but mainly they came to see movies made in South Africa, by South Africans, with South Africans in starring roles.
There was plenty to feel good about. Of the eleven Proudly South African movies, the Cape had a surfeit of local producers and directors, cast and crew, as well as the lion share of cine-visual landscape, lavishly captured in movies like In My Country, Twist, Story of an African Farm, Red Dust, Forgiveness and Cape of Good Hope.
The director of Twist, 34-year-old Tim Greene, seemed to personify the Cape effort. A product of Westerford High, Greene shot his feature film debut entirely on location in the Cape, with an all-local cast drawn from celebrity actors to street kids. Tickets to Twist were sold out a week before opening mainly - it has to be said - to people who had a vested interest in his project. But the fact that a thousand backers had given the first-time director a thousand rand each to make his dream was testimony of a popular will to invest in the cinematic potential of the Cape.
Something new happened the night Twist played to Cape Town audiences. People saw themselves in their own landscape and appreciated "the integrity of the representation of Cape Town," said Greene.
"Seeing yourself represented on film gives you a sense of yourself and that is what we are struggling to achieve here - a sense of self," he said. "People are expressing a sense of satisfaction seeing the Cape for what it is, in all its glory and all its grittiness."
Story of an African Farm, produced and written by Bonnie Rodini, used the Karoo as a backdrop for Olive Schreiner's classic. And it also benefited from the performance of Richard E. Grant brought in from the South African Diaspora. Thousands of schoolchildren from the Cape Flats had a chance to see a school set work come to life on the big screen.
An animal rescue center in Hout Bay was one of the locations for another tale from the city. Cape of Good Hope stood out as a strong human drama without the political hoopla.
That's not to say audiences don't want to watch stories about politics. Films like Red Dust, In My Country and Forgiveness, which deal directly with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), have touched a nerve locally and abroad.
Even when these films fade to black, the real winner has been the film industry which is growing from strength to strength each year.
Chief Executive Officer of the Sithengi Film & Television Market, Mike Auret, said this year's industrial hub had drawn over 2300 delegates, up from 1400 a year ago. "It's an unprecedented turnout," he said.
The turnaround has been helped by the new clutch of South African films that have plied the international film festivals in Venice, Berlin, Gotheborg, Rotterdam and Toronto. These have raised the profile of the South African film industry.
But more compelling in the long term has been the infrastructure and policy changes that have taken place at Sithengi 2004, and which prepare the ground for more business.
In the past year since an Italian co-production treaty was signed numerous deals were brokered with South African producers. This year the German government signed up. The Brazilian and Swedish government are close to sealing protocols. These bilateral arrangements allow producers to go beyond single country investment, and the alliance with European countries swells the pot to include funds divested from the EU member states as well.
In Cape Town, the Table Mountain Motion Picture Studios in Milnerton added further fuel to the Cape's growing film engine which is likely to receive a turbo-charge with the addition of Dreamworld, the dream child of Durban-based producer, Anant Singh.
Auret also introduced a Talent Campus for the first time this year, a collaboration with the Berlinale Talent Campus. More than 50 young and experienced film hands began to tackle the business of shifting product beyond the imaginary borders of the Cape peninsula to a world market that is hungry for product.
SABC and Mnet handed out Christmas presents to local producers in the form of explicit briefs for broadcast requirements.
Martin Cuff of the Cape Film Commission reckoned that "you'd have to live on Mars not to have seen the amount of film activity" that has been taking place.
Minister of Arts & Culture, Dr Z. Pallo Jordan has been a regular visitor to the film fair, not just on official business but because he has taken a personal interest in seeing the industry thrive. He had festival staff scurrying for seats when he turned up unofficially to see a movie in the main theatre. Cape premier Ibrahim Rasool was the festival guest but has appeared at several screenings to emphasise his drive to make the Cape the ultimate film province of South Africa.
And the business does not end here. There are at least three new movies from the Cape slated for 2005. Platon Trakoshis of Big World Cinema in Cape Town has produced Proteus, a period drama set on Robben Island. Maganthrie Pillay becomes South Africa's first black woman feature director with a Cape story, 34 South, breathing new life into this chunk of Africa. And Videovision has just completed filming a gangland movie, Dollars and White Pipes, in the realistic urban landscape of Hanover Park.
A sea change has taken place in the Mother City. And audiences are sitting up in their seats to watch the new wave gather pace. As far as South African cinema is concerned, the surf's up!