By Stephen Aspeling8 September 2023
Local movie round-up: 15 SAFTA-nominated films, ranked
This year’s SAFTA ceremony is just around the corner, an annual reminder to celebrate local and honour the best of the best. Before the red carpet is rolled out and the Golden Horns are engraved, it’s a good time to look back at some of the most-nominated films so that you can start checking them off your movie bucket list.
South African films are underrated and underappreciated. Love or hate them, they’re not always centred on apartheid or candid camera hijinks, a misconception that should rank with lions prowling our city streets. The truth is that our microcosm for the world is full of exciting and powerful stories waiting to find the right storytellers. Here are some of the films that have made the biggest splash at the SAFTAs.
Jahmil XT Qubeka‘s sports action drama Knuckle City packs a punch, which seems only fitting for a knock-out movie about boxing! Intense and visceral, this tale is set against the backdrop of a tough love township with a make-it-or-break-it propensity to spit out prize-winning fighters or money-grabbing criminals. Set in Mdantsane near East London, Knuckle City centres on an ageing boxer and his career-criminal brother who fall on either side of this spectrum, played by Bongile Mantsai and Thembikile Komani.
Their exciting SAFTA-winning Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor roles are a highlight of this entertaining, edgy and relentless film from Qubeka, who took home a Golden Horn for his direction. Adding wins for Editing, Production Design as well as Makeup and Hairstyling from 10 nominations, it’s no wonder Knuckle City was our official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film.
Noem My Skollie (or Call Me Thief) is based on a true story about a young boy who became a gangster on the Cape Flats. Authentic production design and styling makes for an immersive storytelling experience as Daryne Joshua crafts a vivid character portrait turned crime saga from John Fredericks’ heartfelt and honest autobiographical screenplay. Set in the 1960s, Noem My Skollie focuses on a small gang that were separated by a two-year stint in Pollsmoor prison.
Landing 10 SAFTA nominations, this passion project was selected as South Africa’s submission for Best Foreign Film. A wistful tone and fine performances from a game cast help anchor the crime drama in a forgotten time. Underscored by SAFTA-winning performances from Dann Jaques Mouton as the lead AB and Abduragman Adams in a supporting role as Mr C, there’s also an unforgettably terrifying performance from David Manuel as Gums. This transportive drama takes its time to capture a slice of life and swathe you in Abraham’s life, from his gang to prison politics.
Toorbos (or Dream Forest) is an enchanting and poetic period drama romance from Dalene Matthee in the realm of My Fair Lady and The Grapes of Wrath. Set in the 1930s around Knysna, the film journeys with the uprooting of a young forest-dwelling woman and her “bosmens” community, who share a deep connection with the forest. But then a dapper gentleman arrives on the scene to rescue Karoliena from her situation only for her to discover her true identity. Written and directed by Rene van Rooyen, this passion project took 10 years to make and more than earned its official selection for Best International Feature at the Academy Awards.
Starring Elani Dekker and Stiaan Smith in strong co-lead roles, a heartfelt turn from Ivan Abrahams as the mythical Bothatjie and Ira Blanckenberg’s almost unrecognisable performance as Meliena border on documentary realism. While the ensemble’s solid efforts in Toorbos remain underrated, this lush production did garner 9 SAFTA nominations with wins for script writing and its immersive score. Raising the bar for local filmmaking, classic narrative elements in this adaptation make for an entertaining and hauntingly beautiful window into the past.
It seems that a new wave of award-winning horror films are emerging from South Africa. Gaia is one such pioneer, demonstrating we have everything we need to make world-class horror movies. Set in the Tsitsikamma forest, this eco-horror from Jaco Bouwer tracks two rangers on the run from an unknown entity when a routine expedition breaks down. Discovered by survivalists, Gabi finds herself at the mercy of her rescuers as the forest encroaches.
Having won 5 Silwerskerm Festival Awards from 12 nominations, Gaia is one of the forerunners at this year’s SAFTAs with 9 nominations. Gaia features a sharp and underrated local cast including: SAFTA-nominated actors Monique Rockman (Nommer 37), Alex van Dyk (The Harvesters aka Die Stropers) and award-winning actor Carel Nel (Rage). An eerie and skin-crawling horror with a timely ecological slant, it’s bound to grow on you.
Dis Ek, Anna (or It’s Me, Anna) is an edgy, provocative and timely crime drama from Sara Blecher, which explores the aftermath of a cold-blooded murder and its ensuing court proceedings after a woman shoots her stepfather. Using flashbacks to chronicle a childhood deferred, this emotive and haunting drama is as disturbing as it is eye-opening. Well-balanced and well-acted, Blecher wields heavy themes with great dexterity, earning her Golden Horn for Best Directing amid 8 nominations including Best Feature Film.
This star-studded film features Charlenè Brouwer, Elize Cawood, Dawid Minnaar, Hykie Berg, Nicola Hanekom, Morne Visser, Izel Bezuidenhout and screen legend Marius Weyers in a SAFTA-winning turn as Detective Windhond Weber. Heartfelt and chilling, the screenplay from Tertius Kapp bristles with intensity as this subtle and sensitively handled film weaves together a beautifully composed and devastating film.
Sink is a taut domestic drama written and directed by Brett Michael Innes (Fiela se Kind) starring Anel Alexander, Shoki Mokgapa and Jacques Bessenger. Past and present converge as a Mozambican domestic worker must decide whether to go home or stay on working for employers after a tragedy. A powerful drama of weighty themes and prickly social issues, this contemplative and moody film offers a kitchen-sink realism.
A female-led character study, it benefits from strong performances and great chemistry between Alexander and Mokgapa as the truth behind their fractious present-day relationship is slowly revealed. Testament to its pristine film-making and haunting power are 8 SAFTA nominations, and it ultimately won Best Feature Film, Script Writing, Editing and Best Actress for the late Shoki Mokgapa.
Poppie Nongena is an important and powerful adaptation of Elsa Joubert’s acclaimed novel, The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena. This is the story of a South African woman who tries to find stability for her family amid upheaval in the build up to the 1976 Soweto riots. Poppie Nongena is directed by acclaimed filmmaker Christiaan Olwagen, whose work also includes SAFTA-nominated films Kanarie and Die Seemeeu.
Known for his free-ranging camera eye style, this historical and biographical drama has clout, summoning up a sense of chaotic urgency at times with some glimmers of brilliance in the quieter moments. Having won a landslide of awards at the Silwerskerm Festival, Poppie Nongena went on to garner 8 SAFTA nominations, winning Golden Horns for Clementine Mosimane and Anna-Mart van der Merwe in a defiant lead and supporting role.
Small-town murder mysteries are riveting as works of fiction and terrifying when based on actual events. Griekwastad was rocked by the Steenkamp family murder in 2012 when what seemed like a farm attack left three dead with one survivor. A media sensation, the events of this time were captured by Jacques Steenkamp’s true-crime novel, which forms the basis for this intense cat-and-mouse crime drama starring Arnold Vosloo, Alex van Dyk and Jane de Wet.
Featuring solid performances from its lead trio, Jozua Malherbe’s gritty film ratcheted up 7 SAFTA nominations, winning Best Feature Film, Directing and Editing. An atmospheric, grim and unsettling psychological drama thriller, Griekwastad has a driving determination at its core as a detective tries to sift the truth from several swirling theories.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, considered to be one of the best films ever made, is lovingly translated into a South African context in the visceral gangland crime drama thriller, Nommer 37 (or Number 37). Entertaining and enthralling, the well-crafted thriller focuses on a wheelchair-bound man who attempts to blackmail a notorious criminal after witnessing a murder from his apartment block window.
Starring Irshaad Ally and Monique Rockman, this tense thriller centres on a couple adjusting to the onset of a disability with the claustrophobic conditions of being house-bound. Solid and earnest co-lead performances ground the Hitchcockian story as Nosipho Dumisa builds on her award-winning short film in this stunning directorial debut. Roping 7 SAFTA nominations, Nommer 37 was unlucky not to take home more Golden Horns, only getting the nod for its breathless editing.
It’s incredible to think about the small miracle that is Glasshouse, a dystopian chamber drama made from a modest budget and essentially a first draft script. Blending the timeliness of the pandemic with a remnant from the past, this curious sci-fi horror drama recalls The Beguiled as a handsome stranger infiltrates a tight-knit community. Directed by Kelsey Egan, who co-wrote the script with Emma Lungiswa De Wet, this beautifully crafted film uses its cinematography and score to sweep you into a lush otherworldly dimension.
Atmospheric, haunting and intriguing, Glasshouse would be a breath of fresh air if it weren’t for the airborne toxin known as The Shred. The claustrophobic, eerie and unsettling film stars Jessica Alexander, Hilton Pelser and Adrienne Pearce, who add gravity to a layered and thoughtful script, while the iconic visuals immerse audiences with 5 barnstorming SAFTA wins for Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Costume Design as well as Makeup and Hairstyling out of 6 nominations.
Grindhouse sci-fi horror never looked as good as in Ryan Kruger’s feature film debut, Fried Barry. Kruger was once a purveyor of rock music videos, and the same dark energy has been contorted into a pulsating neon movie about a body-snatching alien that takes a no-good slacker’s vessel for a test drive. A feast for the eyes and ears, Fried Barry is a disturbing and visceral film experience that compels through its trashy flamboyance, psychedelic mood and hedonistic appetite.
Led by the one-and-only Gary Green, his absolute conviction and physical performance almost single-handedly justifies the film’s existence. Reinforced by the creative force that is Kruger, this nightmarish day-in-the-life “Thing” is a double-barrel shotgun blast of maniacal energy that ensured 6 SAFTA nominations, taking home Golden Horns for its rip-roaring score and immersive sound design.
If you’re looking for a full-tilt Bonnie & Clyde action thriller with an African twist, you won’t do better than Hard to Get. Arguably South Africa’s best action movie to date, this gritty, slick and street-smart film from Zee Ntuli features sharp performances, vivid cinematography, a driving soundtrack, zippy dialogue and a quick-fire edit to keep you entertained. From oddball gangsters to charming and witty co-leads, great chemistry fuels this edgy and spirited caper.
With a stellar local cast, Hard to Get features the talents of Thishiwe Ziqubu, Pallance Dladla, Israel Matseke-Zulu, Paka Zwedala and Jerry Mofokeng. Adding their screen presence to the mix with impassioned performances, Hard to Get garnered 3 SAFTA acting nominations with a win for Ziqubu. From a Wild West temperament to quick-paced action crime romance, it’s an absolute blast from start to finish.
Ellen: Die Storie van Ellen Pakkies is a powerful social drama from Daryne Joshua (Noem My Skollie) based on the true story of a woman who was pushed to the edge. Living in the crime-riddled Cape Town suburb of Lavender Hill and trying to cope with a drug-addicted son, this heartrending character portrait tells of a mother’s excruciating struggle after she turns herself into the police. A compelling character study, Ellen adopts a docudrama feel thanks to its honest approach, bypassing pretence in favour of giving focus to its thoughtful and timely social message.
Jill Levenberg and Jarrid Geduld are devastatingly good as mother and son, capturing the lived experiences of many affected by gangsterism and drugs. Their gritty, hard-earned performances form the emotional core of this tough drama, and they were each honoured with Golden Horns at the SAFTAs. Guided by Joshua’s sensitive direction and a vivid score from Quinn Lubbe, it’s no wonder Ellen landed all four of its SAFTA nominations.
Indemnity is a relentless man-on-the-run thriller that aspires to films such as Enemy of the State and The Fugitive, as a firefighter finds himself wrongfully accused of murder. This action-intensive thriller from Travis Taute creates suspense as a family man and local hero struggling with PTSD stumbles upon a conspiracy that reaches the upper echelons. Trying to stay one step ahead of the police and a band of ruthless mercenaries, he inches closer to the truth.
Jarrid Geduld was a revelation in the gut-wrenching drama Ellen and remains compelling as everyman Theo Abrams. Aiming to land the same thrills as a Hollywood blockbuster, Indemnity works hard to create suspense and a sense of urgency with a rabbit-hole plot, action choreography and prime locations. Testament to its lofty ambitions and noble effort is 5 SAFTA nominations, including Best Actor for Geduld’s pure conviction.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has firmly planted drag into the mainstream, which makes the dark comedy turned thriller Stiekyt more accessible if slightly less provocative. Taking a Birdman view of a failing drag club, this colourful and edgy film centres on a struggling actor moonlighting in order to pay the bills. When his wife discovers his new gig, the actor attempts to pull off the best performance of his life to save his career and marriage.
Written and directed by Etienne Fourie (Liewe Kersfeesvader), Stiekyt’s ensemble includes: Paul du Toit, Illse Roos, Jacques Bessenger, Albert Pretorius, Wessel Pretorius and Cintaine Schutte. A campy, elusive and rollicking joyride into the backroom politics of a dilapidated drag club, this is a bold and unforgettable fish-out-of-water comedy turned crime thriller. A dark horse with 5 SAFTA nominations, it was unlucky not to be submitted as last year’s South Africa’s official Academy Awards submission.
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