Johannesburg is only seven years younger than the movies. Gold was discovered on the reef in 1886 and within a decade the area changed from tent town to wood and iron shacks, then in a flash to bricks and mortar. Across the world in New Jersey, Thomas Edison constructed the Black Maria in 1893 the world’s first ever film production studio. Three years later the Edison Vitascope unveiled a program of 12 short film subjects, including “The Edison Kinetoscope Record of a Sneeze”, as supporting entertainment at a New York Music Hall.


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It was only natural that the globe’s newest boomtown would be one of the first to experience the wonder of mankind’s latest entertainment and art form. The first presentation of film in South Africa was made on May 9th 1896, a few months after the Manhattan presentation, at the Empire Palace of Varieties in Johannesburg’s Commissioner Street. In the same year the first South African film was produced consisting of scenes shot from the front of a tram in the bustling city of gold.

Entrepreneurs showed short film clips around the city’s goldfields throughout these early years and Johannesburg was certainly one of the first cities in the world to see and hear motion pictures. When the city was a mere nine-years old its first Kinetoscopes (boxes in which people could see a moving image) were opened to the public on 19 April 1895 in Herwoods Arcade on Pritchard and President Street. It’s as if New York and Joburg had shared a sneeze, a new phenomenon – one man-made, the other a natural find.

Film would change the world and gold would turn the sparse Witwatersrand hills into a global African city with a population of over three million people.

The first cinema newsreels ever made were filmed at the front during the Boer War mainly by a colleague of Edison, W.K.L. Dickson who with his footage discovered the use of film as both recorder of history and maker of propaganda.

In 1913 Isidore Schlesinger bought up several theatres and other companies and formed the African Theatres and Films Trusts thus ensuring a monopoly on distribution throughout the country, which would extend across the region from the Cape to the Zambezi for 43 years.

But it was in 1915 when the mogul established a production house and built a film studio in Johannesburg’s suburb of Killarney that moviemaking for real began in the city of gold.

The first feature film over one hour was De Voortrekkers in 1916 and Schlesinger’s African Film Productions ended up making forty-three films between then and 1922 in South Africa. Themes were primarily Boer and Britons unified, and stories showing civilisation against barbaric hordes (mostly from British authors like H Rider Haggard). Production declined after 1922 because, despite high technical standards, there was very little interest in British and US markets and the industry couldn’t sustain itself.

A 30-year lull was broken in the early 1950s by Jamie Uys, South Africa's most commercially successful director (The Gods Must be Crazy), when he succeeded in attracting Afrikaner-dominated capital to establish independent production. He persuaded the government to provide a subsidy for the making of local films, which continued until the late 1980s.

Sixty films were made between 1956 and 1962, of which 43 were in Afrikaans, four bilingual and 13 in English. Lionel Friedberg, for many years chair of the South African Film and Theatre Technicians Association, wrote in a newsletter: "Almost overnight, butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers were becoming film-makers." The result was a glut of films mostly out of ‘Killarney Film Studios’ that were nothing more than visual extensions of popular Springbok Radio plays like Taxi, The Men From the Ministry, Flying Squad, Gold Squad and even Dog Squad. In most of them Johannesburg was used as a perfunctory setting for the ‘big city’ – there was very little sub-text and few social revelations to be gleaned from the presentation of its urban sprawl.

But around the same time, a clutch of films was made on the quiet with no state intervention or subsidy – most of them depicting the black experience in the city of gold for the first time on screen.

The first of these was Eric Rutherford’s Jim Comes to Jo'burg in 1949, which had the titular hero arriving by train from Kwa-Zulu Natal in search of fame and fortune. Despite becoming a victim of a mugging, Jim progresses from a gardener to a ‘house boy’, and thence to a waiter in a nightclub where his singing talents are recognized. He enters into a singing partnership and relationship with Julie (a true-to-life role played by Dolly Rathebe), a nightclub star whose first song is a tribute to Johannesburg the ‘Golden City’ (Egoli).

Jim was followed by a string of other films - which included Zonk! (Hyman Kirstein, 1950), The Magic Garden (Donald Swanson, 1951), and Song of Africa (Emil Nofal, 1952) - all of which depicted township life in a highly romanticised fashion. Their story lines were weak and most of the action consists of singing and dancing on stage, in nightclubs or in the streets. They were essentially musicals that suggest that the townships were cultural melting pots where residents were spellbound by Hollywood films, Broadway musical and African-American jazz recordings.

Professor Gary Baines of Rhodes University in a study of Johannesburg and Film and Literature of the late 1940s and 1950s says, “The Johannesburg of these films is 'unreal': crime is an aberration, and poverty can be overcome by good fortune such as the signing of a recording contract (Jim Comes to Jo'burg) or the discovery of a bundle of stolen money (The Magic Garden).”

Alan Paton's 1948 novel Cry, the Beloved Country was the first major work of fiction to tackle the lure of the city for the rural poor. Johannesburg was not only paved with gold, it was also evil and a metaphor for the decay of modern society. The book was adapted for the screen by director Zoltan Korda and screenwriter John Lawson in 1951 and the film was shot clandestinely in and around Johannesburg and Sophiatown.

In the film a black minister Stephen Kumalo (Canada Lee) goes to Joburg in search of his sister and son. He discovers that she has turned to prostitution and his son has been charged with the murder of a liberal young white man whose father is a wealthy farmer and, ironically, Kumalo’s neighbour.