The Devil You Dance With: Film Culture in the New South Africa.
Edited and with an introduction by Audrey Thomas McCluskey.Urbana: University of Illinois Press, March 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0252033865, $65. 240 pages.
Reviewed by Roberta Di Carmine, Western Illinois University
In The Devil You Dance With: Film Culture in the New South Africa, Audrey Thomas McCluskey interviews twenty-five artists who live and work in South Africa. The author’s choice to let filmmakers, producers, screenwriters, and actors from different generations and racial and ethnic background speaks to the hopes and struggles of creating a new culture. This provides the reader with an understanding of the complex reality of today’s post-apartheid era in South Africa.
In the interviews released to the author, there are two important critical observations that emerge: the filmmakers’ desire to tell stories that do not reflect a Western ideology but are meant to mirror the unique creative site of South Africa, and a willingness to forget what colonialism has left behind and find the next stage of what film culture represents in South Africa. These artists offer an insight into how today’s culture is formed through the political oppression and cultural annihilation endured because of colonialism. McCluskey’s compelling study introduces the reader to film culture in one of the most politically and culturally divided countries in Africa.
In an approach meant to discuss and better understand African cinema’s dilemma, the past two decades have seen an increasing scholarly interest in the subject. The works of Frank Ukadike, Manthia Diawara, Imruh Bakari, and Mbye Cham, for instance, have proven helpful in understanding the significant place that cinema has in Africa and the development of a consciousness in post-colonial black Africa. These scholars emphasize that a main task black African filmmakers deal with is the development of their own film language that also portrays the recovery of a culture appropriated for so long by colonialism. African filmmakers face ideological obstacles rooted in post-colonialism as well as problems with the production, distribution, and exhibition of their films. They also share the unfair competition represented by the domineering presence of Hollywood, and the urge to educate African audiences to accept representations that reflect their own realities. The need to better understand the ideological and artistic complexities behind film culture as cultural phenomenon in a continent as diverse as Africa is at the core of McCluskey’s study of South African film culture.
McCluskey adds a significant voice in the study of African cinema. Her analysis of current South African media fills a void in film studies by gathering the voices of those artists and peoples actively engaged in building a film culture in South Africa, a country which, after apartheid, had to recuperate traditions lost in political oppression and reinvent a new culture through films and television.
In the introduction to her book, the author offers an historical analysis of the general situation of African cinema, an important overview that gives the reader a better understanding of what cinema means in South Africa. The insularity of the country, the difficult process of recovering memories and identity after the apartheid, and the strong presence of European-descendant Afrikaners are some of the main issues discussed to suggest the presence of a film culture that is profoundly split.
Dividing the introduction into short sections and referring to the present state of cinema in South Africa as well as critical issues found in African cinema allows the reader to contextualize the past and current situations of film culture in South Africa and comprehend its uniqueness.
The diversity of the artists interviewed gives the reader the chance to learn about this film culture from a multiplicity of voices. Most of these artists share a common goal: the hope for a film culture that reflects and respects the diversity of the country. For instance, several artists highlight that much has been done in their own country since the end of apartheid, including the establishment of film schools and the presence of professional crew members trained in South Africa. However, they also raise important issues like gender inequality and the struggle to produce narratives that attract and entertain local audiences, both of which suggest a film culture still facing struggle.
McCluskey’s approach in her interviews ranges from practical questions about the difficulty of financing films or television programs to ideological ones about, for instance, the impact that American and European television has had in the past decades in South African youth culture. This results in an investigation of South African artists’ desires and hopes, as well as a testimony of the struggles in building their own culture while reflecting the spectatorship’s expectations, which often conflict with the filmmakers’ artistic beliefs and politics.
Regardless of the diverse experiences of these artists, one common element seems to emerge from these interviews. Film is an important tool because it lets people speak of different racial and linguistic groups, and ultimately helps people work out “who you are and who could be as human beings” (190). The strong belief in what cinema represents can also be found in several of these artists’ personal experiences. Although several of the people interviewed studied and worked in the United States, they all returned to South Africa. Their hope to build a culture combined with their willingness to make films that speak to the people still prevails over international and personal achievement.Film studies welcome such as significant work on today’s film culture in South Africa. By allowing the artists to talk about their personal experiences, the author effectively links the personal life with the public roles that artists have in building their own culture. In doing so, McCluskey succeeds in creating a dialogue among artists who envision a prosperous South African film culture. Their hope remains to find stories that entertain as well as educate audiences, and create a film culture that lets South Africans achieve national recognition and, most of all, appreciation.