Documentary Review: Creating a Township Cinema — “Film School Africa”

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In America and much of the Western world, film schools are an indulgence of the children of privilege. Talent from other classes occasionally makes its way in, but by large, that’s who you see there.

In South Africa, in the townships formed by the nation’s long history of Apartheid, most kids have never seen a camera, much less dreamed of telling their stories with one.

Katie Taylor, an American woman working her way up the ladder in the casting side of the movie business (rounding up supporting players, bit players and locals for films like “Babel,” discovered that on a visit there in 2008. She decided that this was a problem she could do something about, and that it almost certainly was going to be more rewarding than a lifetime looking at headshots and rounding up actors for other people’s movies.

“I figured, I could get a couple of cameras and a couple of laptops” and show the young people of Kayamandi Township that they, too, could get their stories on the screen.

“Film School Africa” is an upbeat documentary about that school, its students, the stories they tell from the tough lives they’ve lived. It’s about the methods Taylor and fellow teacher Marie Midcalf use in the classroom, and about how the students use what they’ve learned to make short dramas torn from their lives, or documentaries about the world they live in.

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Gasthon Lewis talks about how “God told me to make a movie,” and bubbly Tk Shikwambana describes falling for film school after taking up the study of performing arts. Odwa Nomavuka is described as having an artist’s eye for telling stories with moving pictures.

And we sit in the classroom, watching how the democratization of cinema brought on by cheap video cameras and computer software impacts a tiny film school in a country more known for providing cut-rate, colorful locations for Hollywood studios wanting to make “Bulletproof 2” on the cheap.

Midcalf critiques work with “We need to do an exercise on why NOT to film in front of a really bright window.” Sound design is taught, just a teacher with her laptop showing kids how they can edit in layers of natural sound and effects underneath their footage.

The obstacles here are only the most obvious. The kids zero in on “mob justice” as an issue, because of the violent world where they live. A white South African kid adjusts to being “challenged” by the environment. And the teachers are celebrated for doing not just good work in their chosen field, but righteous work.

“If I’m able to enrich somebody else’s life, I feel enriched,” the white South African Midcalf says.

While there is a touch of tragedy to the story, “Film School Africa” lacks the fireworks and hyped drama of a “SEE what these kids OVERCOME” documentary. As such, it’s a trifle bland in that “Shiny Happy People” way. It’s still smart, thoughtful and hopeful, a film school start-up tale with a lot of South Africa about it.

And perhaps one day we’ll see the products of their labors the way we can see Nigerian or Kenyan films today, all over Netflix.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, recreations of violence

Cast: Katie Taylor, Tk Shikwambana, Odwa Nomavuka, Gasthon Lewis, Marie Midcalf, Juan van der Walt.

Credits: Directed by Nathan Pfaff. A Global Digital release.

Running time: 1:30

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