The recent success of Afrikaans teen comedies like Bakgat!, Vaatjie Sien Sy Gat and Poena is Koning � low-budget films that have found an audience and box-office glory � has angered many traditionalists who argue that these movies, like Leon Schuster�s comedies, are neglecting the tradition of Afrikaans art films that flourished in the late 60s, 70s and early 80s. Andrew Worsdale writes about the history of making money with �minority cinema�.

The various versions of the word Slapstick in Afrikaans include Hansworshumor (as in punch and judy), harlekyn (classic clown) humor, growwe (coarse) and lawaaierige (riotous) humor. According to Wikipedia, slapstick movies are said to work according to five conventions - Pain with no real consequence; Editing that makes a situation unrealistic; Impossible situations; Zooms to confuse the audience; and off screen use of sounds for impossible stunts and to create humorous tension.

They are techniques created by Mack Sennet, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges in Hollywood�s early days. But these �rules� ignore the recent phenomenon of Hollywood teen-sex farces made popular by movies like There�s Something About Mary and the American Pie series, a titillation for teenagers who convulsed themselves at embarrassing saucy antics and founded a new money-spinning genre in this form of bawdy- slapstick-riotous comedy. And that �lawaaierige� comedy is what a new breed of Gauteng-based Afrikaans filmmakers are producing with massive financial results.

The Afrikaner nation has always defined itself with a dedicated kind of artistic obsession, and the �powers-that-be� discovered the power of movies early on. When the Capitol Theatre in Pretoria opened in 1931, the gala premiere screened South Africa's first sound films - Joseph Albrecht's Sarie Marais and Moedertjie, both of which signalled a rise in Afrikaner nationalism. Seven years later, Albrecht was to make a celebration of the centenary of the Great Trek, They Built a Nation/Die Bou van �n Nasie, and there was a surge in Afrikaans filmmaking during the late 40s and early 50s.

Reflecting the rise of Afrikaner nationalism, African Film Productions, based at Killarney Film Studios in Johannesburg, produced a plethora of popular light-hearted Afrikaans fare. In fact Pierre de Wet, who went to work every day at what is now Killarney Mall, can be regarded as the father of the Afrikaans language motion picture, and especially comedies. It was he who unleashed the talented antics of pop-eyed comic Al Debbo and baritone Frederik Burgers in films from the late 40s and 50s such as Hier's Ons Weer, Dis Lekker Om Te Lewe, Alles Sal Regkom, Fratse In Die Vloot and the first Afrikaans musical Kom Saam Vanaand in 1949.

In 1956 Jamie Uys approached government about a subsidy for the film industry and, seeing the advantages of promoting Afrikaans culture through cinema, the Nationalist government pitched in. Of the 60 feature films made between 1956 and 1962, 43 were in Afrikaans, four were bilingual and the remaining 13 were in English.

The film subsidy system basically rewarded box-office success. Once a film had earned a specific amount of money at the box-office, it qualified for the subsidy, which paid back a percentage of costs. This percentage was initially higher for Afrikaans language films than for English productions, part of the state�s intention to promote the growth of the Afrikaans language.

After 1962 Afrikaner capital became a significant factor in the film industry when the insurance company Sanlam acquired a major interest in Ster-films, a distribution company, with the explicit intention of providing cinema predominantly for Afrikaner patrons. By 1969, Satbel (the Suid-Afrikaanse Teaterbelange Beperk) had been formed, and the financing, production and distribution of films in South Africa were now virtually in the hands of one large company. As academic Martin Botha has pointed out, �The white Afrikaans audience for local cinema was relatively large and very stable, guaranteeing nearly every Afrikaans film a long enough run to break even as long as it provided light entertainment and dealt with Afrikaner reality and beliefs.�

During this time Gauteng-born Jamie Uys thrived as a filmmaker producing several comedies starring himself and Bob Courtney which, although not overtly critical of the apartheid government, made a lot of fun out of the vexing question of the British/Afrikaner divide. Films like Lord Oom Piet and Hans En Die Rooinek were highly successful and Uys started building his position as South Africa�s most successful filmmaker. He would move into candid camera territory with the Funny People series and eventually reach international success and some critical derision for his 1980 smash The Gods Must Be Crazy.

But it was not all hysterical laughter on the big screen. During the 60s, 70s and 80s, some Afrikaans filmmakers used the medium to explore the psyche of their nation. The films by Jans Rautenbach and Emil Nofal, Die Kandidaat, Katrina and Jannie Totsiens, dissected the psyche of white Afrikanerdom and issues of race and identity. Rautenbach was the equivalent of the literary group the �sestigers� � intellectual Afrikaners struggling with pertinent moral, ethical and racial issues.

His natural successor was Manie Van Rensburg who, with the introduction of television in 1976, made several revisionist dramas including Verspeelde Lente and Die Perdesmous. As interesting was The Guest, Ross Devenish�s 1977 collaboration with Athol Fugard, which had the playwright playing Eugene Marais, an outcast and morphine addict who is widely credited as one of the founders of Afrikaans literature. Although awash with the art movie aesthetics of Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave, the film failed at the box-office despite critical praise � many complained about the English dialogue that compromised the Afrikaans story.

Other films in the 80s, like Rautenbach's Broer Matie, an exploration of the tri-cameral parliament and Johan Blignaut's Mamza, about a shebeen queen in Joburg�s �coloured� township of Coronationville, became minor watersheds in local cinema. Katinka Heyns�s directorial debut Fiela Se Kind in 1987 explored race and issues of identity and chauvinism while Frans Nel�s �n W�reld Sonder Grense took a critical and humanistic view of the border war.

But the tradition of slapstick continued, even finding form in propagandistic fare like Regardt Van Der Bergh�s Boetie Gaan Border Toe, which attempted to make the life of a military recruit in the country�s apartheid war an object of fun. At the same time Comedy maestro Leon Schuster emerged as the natural successor to Jamie Uys and Al Debbo with candid camera hits like Oh Schucks It�s Schuster in 1989 and Oh Shucks Here Comes Untag in 1990, both among SA�s top grossing local films of all time. A position that Schuster holds supreme � last year�s Mr. Bones 2 grossed nearly R35 million and holds top spot, and Schuster�s movies take the first eight places in top grossing local movies.

But many pundits loathe his gross-out form of comedy. On Channel24.co.za a case of movie rage was posted by �notshuster� as a comment on the worst films of 2008, �How does Schuster get away with it? Why does he only appeal to the dumbed down, beer drinking, 4X4 driving, klippies (brandy) and Coke crowd? Pulling faces and fart jokes it seems are all it takes to get a laugh from his target market. What does that say about our movie industry? or it's viewership? Are we all that stupid? Will this country ever move away from its �Al Debbo� style of Afrikaner comedy?�

Dr. Sotha of influential movie-fan website Ain�t It Cool News disagrees, saying that Schuster�s films are, in a sense, political. �There's more to him,� he writes, �than meets his detractors' eyes. His roots, for me, are in the Jamie Uys movies in that South Africa is a central metaphor rather than a real place. Uys, though, tended to be a mythmaker of the old South Africa. Schuster, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, is a merry prankster in the new one.�

Comedy writer Willie Esterhuizen, who worked with Schuster on Oh Shucks Here�s Comes Untag! confirms that he is Uys�s successor: �Leon and I decided�that we were going to put a little jewel in every set-up so that when the movie was finished we would have a whole jewellery store. It is a technique that Jamie Uys used to employ.� And so, Afrikaans comedies largely work as a series of vignettes that poke fun at South African society without getting too politicised.

In 1990, the failure of Manie van Rensburg�s The Fourth Reich at the local box-office, came as a shock to serious followers of Afrikaans cinema. This historical saga about the rise of Afrikaans nationalism during the early 1940s cost over R15 million and opened wide with a saturated media and impressive reviews. But despite the acclaim, the film, perhaps one of Afrikaans cinema�s masterpieces, bombed out with the public.

Serious Afrikaans cinema virtually died out until Heyns scored a hit with Paljas in 1997, a whimsical drama about the isolation and deterioration of a family in a small town that is alleviated by the arrival of a circus clown. Although there was no �harlekynhumor,� the film�s lyrical sense of place and Fellin-esque images struck a chord and many pundits name it as their favourite Afrikaans film.

With the arrival of a new South Africa in 1994, Willie Esterhuizen, who had found major success with his TV series and feature films Orkney Snork Nie, made the first Afrikaans sex-comedy Lipstiek Dipstiek, which followed the travails of a bridegroom who accidentally burns his scrotum days before marrying his virgin bride.

Esterhuizen tells me: �To make Lipstiek, Dipstiek was great. The box office proves that it did not shock people. We gave people what they wanted. A good Afrikaans laugh and some boobs.� As for what has been called the dumbing down of Afrikaans movies he says: �You must remember, when Orkney first appeared, the press called me the �king of common�. Some people wanted the series banned and some even threatened to have me killed. Today that series is �volks-besit� (a national treasure). The series had heart and the viewers saw that, and loved it for its honesty. Orkney certainly crossed boundaries and made people laugh in Afrikaans.�

Other directors followed suit and Koos Roets had success with Kaalgat Tussen Die Daisies in 1997. The story of a church minister who loses his job and ends up running a strip club � the film shocked some but also showed there was a new Afrikaner able to laugh at his sexual foibles as well as at the political situations in the country.

Other films since 1994 that investigated the Afrikaner and post-apartheid politics were shot in English and Afrikaans and included Jason Xenopolous�s harrowing and widely praised Promised Land in 2002 and Forgiveness in 2004, where Ian Gabriel took a psychoanalyst�s approach to this truth and reconciliation thriller.

Last year saw Triomf, Michael Raeburn�s adaptation of Marlene Van Niekerk�s landmark novel about a dysfunctional Afrikaans family on the eve of South Africa�s first free election. It was gritty, depraved, ugly, scary and even sometimes funny. Raeburn, who was born in Cairo and raised in Zimbabwe, came into flak for daring to make the film but said: �There wasn't a queue for Marlene's book, you know. Where are the Afrikaans language film directors? Why didn't they do it? I don't know, I can't answer that question. It's odd to me, but what are they doing? Skiet, skop en donder films for teenagers.� The film went on to win awards but struggled on its release of 3 prints, two of which Nu Metro pulled after a week. The remaining one played a respectable art-house run at Cape Town�s Labia, earning over R50 000.

By way of contrast Bakgat, a raucous high-school comedy by Henk Pretorius, earned almost R3 million on a release of 41 prints, even if box-office gold contrasted with its universally negative reviews: Theresa Smith of The Star Tonight! said the movie got its rugby sequences down but that it �sucks swampwater on almost every other level.�

�Bakgat! is about finding yourself despite the pressures and challenges of high school,� says Pretorius, �It's a universal theme that Danie and I wanted to explore in Afrikaans. It was conceived and put together by a team that wanted its audience to sit back and enjoy.�

The Mail & Guardian�s Shaun De Waal thought the film suffered because of its attempts to be mainstream, �this is a sanitised, deracinated kind of Afrikanerdom � a Dainfern of the mind. It�s suburban, pastel-hued, bleached of any real cultural specificity.�

South African film historian Peter Davis doesn�t think local filmmakers should try being universal. �Personally, I think it is to court disaster for marginal film-making countries to think in world terms. I think it is essential to secure the home base first. This was always the Jamie Uys strategy�he was, after all, the most successful African filmmaker ever, for all his political ambiguity.�

This year saw the release of Hond Se Dinges, which surprised by only making about R650 000, but it earned better reviews. The Mail & Guardian�s De Waal wrote, �It's a comedy�entirely populist in its intentions, and it fulfils that brief very competently. It's not a gross-out farce like Poena Is Koning or a pallid imitation of the American school-sports genre like Bakgat -- it may even be made for adults.� He went on to say that the film worked in tradition of Afrikaans homegrown comedy like Lord Oom Piet. �Hond Se Dinges is frequently very silly, but it does make one laugh. Afrikaans filmgoers seem more committed to the cinema than any other population group in this country, so it even stands a chance of making money.�

Perhaps the movie�s poor box-office was because it lacked bawdiness and didn�t appeal to the all important 18 - 25 year-old demographic. For that, films like Poena is Koning from 2007 and Vaatjie Sien Sy Gat a year later by Esterhuizen cornered the market for Afrikaans �low-brow� comedy. Esterhuizen told the press that he set out to make a youthful, local, urban comedy for those in the 16 to 25 age group. �We saw how well American Pie did in this country and all over the world. Our goal was to make a movie in that same genre for young Afrikaners.�

When I ask him if he thinks this new genre sells-out any artistic relevance in Afrikaans cinema he�s completely blunt: �What a load of �kak�. You must remember that both Jans Rautenbach and Manie van Rensburg made movies in the grand old days of 100% subsidy from the Government for every cent earned at the box office. If they had to make movies today, not one of their great works would make one-cent profit. It is cool to make art if you are paid to do so. We make the kind of film that holds its own at the box office, with no help or finance for any other source. I make ethnic minority films, and if I can make a living out of it, great. It beats working.�

And does he take the critical jibes against his movies seriously? �The press should not judge my movies against the multi-gazillion budget movies from America or Europe, but rather against the other movies made in Africa, done by Africans with their own unsubsidised budgets.� It�s true that these films have higher production value, better acting and better storytelling than say most Nollywood product. �I care sweet blue bugger all about the opinions of the press. I never read any reviews about my movies. As a matter of fact, the more they knock my work, the better it does at the box office. I give the writings of all movie critics the attention their work deserves, the only problem is�the newsprint stains my ass!�

Producer, film critic and academic Leon Van Nierop agrees that these new films are taking on the legacy of Jamie Uys and Al Debbo. �They are making the same films but are exploring the flipside of the Afrikaner innocence of that time. They now have the freedom to explore, name and often exploit everything that was forbidden but occasionally take their adolescent obnoxiousness too far.�

He�s disappointed, however, by the state of the Afrikaans �art movie�. � �ART� is a dangerous etiquette. The more sophisticated Afrikaans movie seems to have disappeared with Heyns not exploring these avenues any more. We need more realistic, bold and true-blood Afrikaans films that don�t only try to please their audience but want to make a statement. Art or Sophistication isn�t necessarily dinosaur speak. It should be re-invented.�

Meanwhile, the latest home-grown comedy Karate Kallie � Die Hele Movie made the number eight spot in Ster-Kinekor�s Top 8 for the week 18 to 24 September, having generated box office of R173 778,00 in its first week of local release. Directed by Willem �Wimpie� van der Merwe, this Afrikaans-language film is the feature version of the popular student short film, Karate Kallie about a youngster�s struggles with the school bully and his sexy, jilted girlfriend.

Director Regardt Van Der Berg has made some �inspirational� films such as Faith like Potatoes, Hansie and Tornado and the Kalahari Horse Whisperer that perhaps might have supplanted the Afrikaans art film of political and ideological import.

The bottom line however is that Afrikaans cinema is actually booming. There is talk of a low-budget love story Jakkalsdans from writer Deon Meyer to star local music star Theuns Jordaan and even an adaptation of Eben Venter�s shockingly striking post-apocalyptic South African novel, Horrelpoot.

Evidence of the boom can also be seen in the success of Afrikaans pay-tv channel kyk-Net, which celebrates its tenth year next month. After its launch, it quickly became DStv's third-most-watched channel after M-Net and BBC Prime. kyk-Net stepped in to target the 804 000 Afrikaans speakers who subscribe to DStv, all of whom are in the upper income range. Newly appointed head of the channel, Afrikaans artist and entertainer Karen Meiring, one of the initiators of the wildly successful premiere Afrikaans arts celebration the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstfees, says, �kyk-Net is an extraordinary success story�in the long term, I must aim to steer it towards even greater heights.� Perhaps her artistic background will lead to more �artistic� productions, one-off dramas that may restore some visionary, explorative focus to Afrikaans film and television.

Meanwhile those worried about the demise of Afrikaans cinematic culture need look no further than next week�s Sexpo Exhibition in Midrand where the first all-Afrikaans full length porno movie will be unveiled. Called Kwaai Naai, the movie asserts that it�s a first for the nation - either way it�s sure to ruffle feathers and perhaps quicken the pulse in the heartland.

And the comedies will continue because these days it�s safe, even fun, to talk about knickers & �naai-ery�. I�m sure Jamie Uys and Al Debbo would be having a big laugh if they were here.