Renate Stuurman, Mmabatho Montsho and Khanyi Mbau
Renate Stuurman, Mmabatho Montsho and Khanyi Mbau played the three central characters in Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, one of South Africa's biggest earning films to date by a black director. (Image: Happiness is a Four-Letter Word on Facebook)

Female power asserted itself in South African film in 2016, with women directors, producers, scriptwriters and actresses - many of them based in Gauteng - leading the way both on the screen and behind the scenes.

Women's stories came to the fore in three of the year's standout local productions - Mrs Right Guy, Happiness is a Four-Letter Word and Dora's Peace - all of which showcase emerging female talent, and all of which were filmed in and around Johannesburg.

And while Fulu Mugovhani made sure that the 2016 Africa Academy Awards weren't entirely dominated by Nigeria, Terry Pheto kept the SA flag flying internationally with a British Independent Film Awards (Bifa) nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

There's also an extraordinary, little-known story of a woman who goes to prison every week to help offenders "escape" from hopelessness through the medium of writing for film.

Check out our female-centric highlights of the year 2016 in film!

Breaking new ground at the box office

Romantic drama Happiness is a Four-Letter Word broke new ground at the local box office in 2016, grossing almost R13-million as it became one of SA's biggest earning films by a black director.

Mmabatho Montsho in Happiness is a Four-Letter Word
Determined to live out her dream: Mmabatho Montsho in Happiness is a Four-Letter Word. (Image: Happiness is a Four-Letter Word on Facebook)

Sadly, though, it also turned out to be the penultimate movie by South African film stalwart Junaid Ahmed, who passed away on 1 November at the age of 57.

Part of the NFVF/Junaid Ahmed Productions slate of movies that aim to develop black filmmaking talent, Happiness was directed by Thabang Moleya and produced by Ahmed, Helena Spring and first-time feature film producer Bongiwe Selane. Busisiwe Ntilintili adapted it for the screen from the award-winning novel by Cynthia Nozizwe Jele.

Speaking ahead of the film's release in February, Ahmed said: "It's important for us to grow black excellence in the film industry. The fact that Happiness is a story about ambitious black women is an added and much-welcomed layer."

Khanyi Mbau, who stars in the movie alongside Mmabatho Montsho and Renate Stuurman, told Sowetan that Happiness was the first South African film "to compete with international movies such as Why Did I Get Married. A Think Like a Man kind of a film," she said.

Filmed in and around Joburg, Happiness is a Four-Letter Word was produced by Blingola Media with support from the GFC, National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

  • The final film produced by Junaid Ahmed, Keeping up with the Kandasamys, will be released in cinemas nationwide in March 2017.
Dineo Moeketsi as unlucky in love Gugu Hlatshwayo in Mrs Right Guy
Dineo Moeketsi stars as unlucky in love Gugu Hlatshwayo in Mrs Right Guy, alongside Thapelo Mokoena as serial seducer Dumile and Lehasa Moloi as regular good guy Joe. (Image: Mrs Right Guy on Facebook)

Showing how it's done in Mrs Right Guy

Romcom Mrs Right Guy hit local screens in May, ticking every box for escapist romantic fantasy. Funded by the NFVF in association with the GFC and DTI, and shot in the space of a month in Joburg, Mrs Right Guy passed the R1-million mark on its opening weekend and went on to gross over R4-million locally.

The film provided the perfect vehicle for the big-screen debut of popular TV actress, singer, dancer and presenter Dineo Moeketsi, who turned out to be an inspired piece of casting by Nigerian-born director Adze Ugah.

Female power onscreen was matched behind the scenes by a team of highly experienced film and television women: producer-writer Mokopi Shale, producer-writer Cati Weinek, and producer Kethiwe Ngcobo.

The three women are the co-founders of Joburg-based Fuze Films, which was recently awarded a contract for a slate of films by the NFVF.

"Our mission is to generate uniquely African content, made by women, that is market and profit-driven, while challenging the established benchmark of quality and production," the three said following this award. "We are new voices that can reflect on previously unseen aspects of life in South Africa."

Helen Kuun, CEO of Indigenous Film Distribution, which is distributing the film in SA, said: "It's encouraging to see light-hearted, upbeat films being made by a team of strong women who had their own unique take on the script and the production."

Khabonina Qubeka as Dora in Dora's Peace
Khabonina Qubeka as Dora in Dora's Peace. (Image: Dora's Peace on Facebook)

Not just romantic comedies, either...

Offering a grittier take on Johannesburg was crime drama Dora's Peace, which won the award for Best South African Feature Film at the 5th Jozi Film Festival in September.

Starring Khabonina Qubeka as a Hillbrow prostitute who takes on the local crime bosses in aid of a gifted 12-year-old boy, the film hit SA cinemas in August, earning critical praise for first-time director Kosta Kalarytis - but especially for Qubeka in her first lead role in a feature film.

Safta and Naledi-nominated multiple times for her roles in Muvhango, The Lab, The Wild and Rhythm City, Qubeka is a familiar face on local TV. In Dora's Peace, however, she embraced a challenge of a new order.

Cape Times reviewer Steyn du Toit wrote: "Thanks to the spot-on casting of its lead actress, a new breed of local silver screen icon has the potential to be born."

The Star's Theresa Smith was no less fulsome. "This is Qubeka's film, her performance is magnetic … [She] creates a complex character, eschewing stereotype to show us an older woman who has learnt to survive."

And for Emmanuel Tjiya of the Sowetan, "Qubeka's genius in her portrayal is that she manages to capture a strong character, with countless demons, but at the same time bring to the table so much heart and vulnerability that it's sure to resonate with a female audience".

Filmed on location in Joburg, Dora's Peace was produced by One Man Band in association with the NFVF, DTI and GFC.

  • SA audiences can catch Qubeka on the big screen again in mid-2017, when she takes on a new challenge in Gersh Kgamedi's musical She is King.
Fulu Mugovhani receives the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role at AMAA 2016
A delighted Fulu Mugovhani receives the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the 12th Africa Movie Academy Awards. (Image: Africa Movie Academy Awards on Facebook)

Flying the SA flag on the continent

Three South African films - all of them made in Gauteng - bagged four awards between them at the 12th Africa Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria in June.

Fulu Mugovhani made sure that Nigeria didn't hog the limelight, scooping the coveted award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of 21-year-old Afro-hipster Ayanda in the highly successful 2015 film of the same name by Sara Blecher.

The award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role went to another South African, Thishiwe Ziqubu, for her part in Tell Me Sweet Something, which also won the award for Achievement in Screenplay, while dance feature film Hear Me Move came away with the Achievement in Editing award.

Flying the SA flag internationally

Terry Pheto continues to fly South Africa's flag internationally, her latest achievement being a British Independent Film Awards (Bifa) nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in A United Kingdom.

Terry Pheto as Naledi Khama and Rosamund Pike as Ruth Williams in A United Kingdom
Sisters-in-law: Terry Pheto as Naledi Khama and Rosamund Pike as Ruth Williams in A United Kingdom. (Image: A United Kingdom official trailer)

Amma Asante's epic film is based on the true story of the love affair that scandalised the British establishment of the 1940s, between Prince Seretse Khama, who went on to become the first president of Botswana, and London office clerk Ruth Williams.

Pheto, who plays the role of Khama's sister Naledi, stole the limelight at the October premiere of the film at the prestigious BFI London Film Festival, where she graced the red carpet in a stunning Marianne Fassler dress.

Earlier this year she was signed up by US talent agency Paradigm, joining the likes of Hollywood stars Jada Pinkett-Smith, Laurence Fishburne and Antonio Banderas. Paradigm reportedly signed Pheto after seeing her play Winnie Madikizela-Mandela alongside Fishburne as Nelson Mandela in Black Entertainment Television's mini-series Madiba.

And early next year, local film fans will get to see Pheto on the big screen once more in Cuckold, in which she teams up once more with actor-director Charlie Vundla of How to Steal 2 Million fame.

  • The 2016 Bifa winners will be announced at a ceremony in London on 4 December. A United Kingdom is due to be released in SA cinemas on 9 December.
Greenlight District Project co-ordinator Pippa Dyer
"There is so much fear about offenders. There is a need to demystify them so that we get to understand them better" - Greenlight District Project co-ordinator Pippa Dyer. (Photo: Rudo Mungoshi)

Giving offenders another way out

Actor, musician, publisher, author and film writer Pippa Dyer is the tireless co-ordinator behind the Greenlight District Project and founder of the Greenlight Foundation, a non-profit organisation that equips inmates with creative writing skills geared for filmmaking.

For the last three years, Greenlight has been using the medium of film writing to help turn around the lives of offenders inside Meredale Correctional Facility south of Johannesburg, the prison commonly known as "Sun City".

In February, the GFC entered into a partnership with Greenlight, providing funding to help sustain and ultimately extend the project, which provides a vehicle for offenders to start believing in themselves as potentially productive members of society once more.

Attending one of Dyer's classes in April, reporter Rudo Mungoshi struck up a conversation with Joseph Totopooi, a 38-year-old serving out his third sentence behind bars. Taking part in the course has given Totopooi hope of a life beyond prison.

"I started to think of myself differently," Totopooi said. "This course has helped me express everything that I have bottled up. My grammar has changed, including the way I speak English. I am now able to relate to people, something that I was not able to do in the past."

Greenlight District Project's Class of 2014
Greenlight District Project's Class of 2014 show off their certificates of progress and achievement at the end of their awards ceremony. (Photo: Greenlight District Project)

Dyer told Mungoshi that she was scared to begin with, "but once I got to know the students better, I realised that they were amazing people who just made bad choices in life. I have not seen a person that does not want to change their lives."

During a graduation ceremony held at Meredale in May, 12 of Dyer's students received certificates in filmmaking and creative writing, marking their successful completion of the two-year course.

Dyer is planning to start a similar class for female offenders, and depending on how that goes, will look at introducing the course in other correctional facilities.

Source: staff reporter

Contact the Gauteng Film Commission