Producer Tonie Van Der Merwe has been awarded with the Simon Sabela award for “outstanding achievement and excellence within the South African film industry”. During the Apartheid, he opened the doors of the film industry to a whole generation of black ac

The last edition of Durban International Film Festival honoured South African filmmaker Tonie van der Merwe with the Simon Sabela Award for outstanding achievement and excellence within the South African Film industry, inserting him among the four “heroes and legends”.

Awarded for the first time, van der Merwe is considered one of the fathers of the Blaxploitation genre, with over 400 movies in his career. “Without being racist, I thought a white guy won’t easily win a prize, but I was wrong, I thought anything before the 1990s is not easily recognized by the present government. We didn’t exist. We didn’t do anything”, he remarked receiving the prize.

Perhaps the rehabilitation of van der Merwe and his oeuvre is the sign that the time is ripe to start considering South Africa artistic production separately from its political framework. “We’re beginning to have sufficient distance from that old black-versus-white grand narrative to re-examine old documents like these films,” said Keyan Tomaselli, critic of the apartheid government’s cultural policies, also named a “hero and legend”. Who added “Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever share a stage with him. Whether or not he was a supporter of apartheid, that’s the way we saw him.”

Mr. van der Merwe figure is in fact somewhat ambiguous as he was operating within the apartheid policies.It is thanks to him that the so-called B-scheme, a subsidy for black films, came about, giving birth to 1,600 movies promoting apartheid values.

Though unlike other B-scheme filmmakers, who explicitly advanced government messages, van der Merwe’s scripts were less coloured.

His first feature Joe Bullet (1972), South Africa’s first film with an all-black cast, was in fact banned after only two showings for showing black men driving sports cars, using firearms and dressing smartly, all things forbidden by the apartheid policies.

Van der Merwe was simply not interested in politics, he just wanted to make movies, and spotted in the yet unexplored market of films for black audiences a business opportunity. At the age of 30 he left the constructions field to shoot movies using his own money, his own car, tractors and airplane as production props, and tour them in the country: 14 flatbed trucks loaded with two projectors apiece would bring his movies to the most rural areas. “Most of these places didn’t have electricity, let alone a cinema,” says Van der Merwe.

His movies stretched the confines of apartheid, as star Innocent Gumede, aka Popo Gumede, remarked. They not only opened the doors of film industry to a whole generation of black actors and technicians, but they finally portrayed the lives of blacks, created black heroes and brought rare entertainment to blak townships.

After the subsidy was abolished in 1989, Tonie van der Merwe entered the hotel industry. Until the recent and fortunate meeting with Benjamin Cowley, chief executive of Gravel Road Entertainment, a Cape Town movie production company, who set up Retro Afrika Bioscope to restore the B-scheme movies, and who offered van der Merwe the opportunity to shoot his first new movie after 25 years.

April 23, 2015
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