Sollywood: the extraordinary story behind apartheid South Africa's blaxploitation movie boom

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It pumped out hugely successful cowboy films, heist dramas and Bond-style thrillers. It launched a Hollywood career and made the world’s first Zulu-language film. So does it matter that the explosion of black cinema in apartheid South Africa was funded by Pretoria – and led by an Afrikaner construction boss?

Last year, Tonie van der Merwe clutched that most Afrikaans of drinks, a double-brandy and Coke, as he accepted his Simon Sabela award as one of four “heroes and legends” at the Durban international film festival. “Without being racist, I thought a white guy won’t easily win a prize, but I was wrong,” he said from the stage, in his tux and big owlish spectacles.

Certainly, few white guys in the new South Africa receive awards for films they made under an apartheid subsidy scheme to create films for black audiences. Yet here he was – 20 years after apartheid – his massive yet ambiguous role in South African film finally being acknowledged.

To many, the “B-scheme” movies he’d made – escapist fantasies, boys’ own adventures, morality plays – were the film equivalent of apartheid’s watered-down “native beer”, sold in government beer halls; a cynical National party-sponsored diversion designed to encourage the native population to stay on the reserves. At the end of one such movie, its star, Popo Gumede, turns to the camera to say: “All this violence could have been avoided if we just sat down and talked about it.” Others point to how seminal Van der Merwe was in setting up any kind of black film industry at all; to how seeing so many black faces on screen inspired a generation.
Tonie van der Merwe receives the Heroes and Legends award at the Sabela Films awards ceremony, at the Durban international film festival in 2014.

All this, from a man who, at the age of 30, had seemed happy enough running a construction company in Johannesburg. It was on a construction job that Van der Merwe met Louis and Elmo de Witt, film-making brothers who inspired him to try his own hand. More entrepreneur than auteur, he’d already spotted a business opportunity after watching his 200 workers hoover up US blaxploitation flicks at Saturday night on-site screenings. Blaxploitation in the land of black exploitation? Well, why not?

“It was clear to me that this was the market of the future,” Van der Merwe recalls from his offices in suburban Cape Town. Now aged 74, he is full of bluff old-world Afrikaner courtesy. “So I financed the whole thing. And we used all of my equipment as props. My diggers. My airplane. My cars.”

Joe Bullet was the result. Van der Merwe produced, Louis de Witt directed, and the cast was entirely black. Ken Gampu, who later found success in Hollywood, starred as Bullet alongside singer Abigail Kubeka. Modelled on something between Shaft and James Bond, Joe Bullet had Gampu drinking, doing karate, driving sports cars, throwing knives, climbing up mineshafts and shooting guns.

The movie was a big hit in Soweto – for slightly less than a week. The censors decided that this swish thriller portrayed black people in far too aspirational a light. The film was banned, and for Van der Merwe, who’d spent 18 months making it, that spelled financial disaster.

Undeterred, he spotted another opportunity, and successfully lobbied the government to set up a subsidy for making black films: the so-called B-scheme. The catch was that it meant making the sort of films Pretoria liked to see. In all, Van der Merwe had a hand in around 400 such movies. At his peak, he was churning out one a month. The subsidy created a mini-goldrush where, according to Darryl Els, a Johannesburg independent cinema owner: “It was pretty much the best investment you could make if you had a spare 10,000 rand lying around. Many of these films could gross 70,000. So the returns were excellent.”
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