Oliver Schmitz’s ‘Mapantsula’: Yesterday, Today, And Tomorrow
When the Berlin Film Festival chose Mapantsula for the 2023 Berlinale Classics, writer/director, Oliver Schmitz was given the final push to restore the controversial film he made during the anti-apartheid struggle in 1988. The remade film will be screened at the Durban International Film Festival in July this year, and in parallel it will be screened at 10 South African cinemas.
Making Mapantsula at the height of repression by the apartheid regime was a risky business for Schmitz and everyone else involved because the message of the film – revolution and the downfall of apartheid – was viewed as seditious by the government.
As an anti-apartheid filmmaker, Schmitz had a mission that was bigger than the film. “I felt compromised as a human being by my identity as a white South African, and I felt unwillingly co-opted into a system of racial superiority. For me personally, it was important to take a stand.”
“It was also a moment in South African history where there was a groundswell of defiance, so the film is really a lens on a moment in time in South Africa,” Schmitz says. “Sometimes you don’t think about the risk; you are driven, and you think this is what you need to do.”
Schmitz knew that making the film would be difficult. Mapantsula is one of the few or the only really big anti-apartheid films for cinema made in South Africa in those years. “I knew I would need a cover story, so I had somebody help me write a dummy script with the same character names but a completely different story,” Schmitz explains.
Ironically, the dummy script was used to raise the funds to make the film.
In the wake of economic sanctions, the South African Government created tax incentives for any business producing an export product, Schmitz says. An American film company named Cannon realized that film was an exportable product and started making B movies in South Africa. Others caught on and suddenly there was a boom in the South African film industry.
Most of the films were terrible but this wasn’t a concern because it was a money-making scheme. According to Schmitz, the South African government dished out millions because it suddenly became convinced that South Africa was in an export boom via the film industry, despite sanctions. “So, what did we do? We used the system, obviously not with the real script, and that is how the film was financed.”
The cast and crew had several close encounters with soldiers and police while filming in Soweto. Schmitz describes a time when one of the actors, who was wearing a union T-shirt approached the police and gave them a whole story about how the film was actually against the unions and showed how bad they were and was actually a film for the government.
“During the editing process, some very weird people arrived and said they were journalists, Schmitz explains. “The thing is that South African security police always used to wear a very particular kind of shoes and you could spot them by their shoes. They wore grey shoes. It was a certain weird sort of code, so we realized these people were not from the normal, halfway-liberal press. It just didn’t fit.”
Schmitz suspected that somebody in the film lab informed the security police and there were efforts in the film lab to sabotage some of the material when the security police asked for a copy of the film.
He put the negative in a bonded warehouse and physically took the reels to London.
The team’s lawyers said they would have to give a copy to the security authorities, so they did. “The funny thing is, we never heard anything back,” Schmitz says. Much later the lawyers advised that the authorities had lost the copy of the film and were too embarrassed to admit it.
“We had angels over us throughout this whole production,” Schmitz asserts.
When Schmitz and his team were invited to the M-Net AA Vita Awards, a slightly more liberal head of the censorship board had been appointed. “You could see the dynamics within the National Party between conservatives and others trying to be more liberal. But there were members of the police and the army on the censorship board, and they had a fit when they saw the film. They didn’t want to show the film, but the head of the censorship board said that the film could be shown with cuts.”
The cuts would have destroyed the sense of the film. The lead producer, who had done so much for the film, wanted to make the cuts and the rest of the group refused; this led to tensions within the group. Eventually, it was decided to let the film be pirated in South Africa rather than make the cuts.
“It wasn’t a financially sound thing to do but it was the only way the film would be seen. That is why it never had a proper premier back in South Africa,” Schmitz explains.
Restoring the film has been a massive undertaking. There were two negatives. One of them had been sitting in London for years. Schmitz had been meaning to do something about it but didn’t have the funds. “Twenty years ago, it was already clear that anything that doesn’t transition into the digital realm gets lost in time. It has always been a money issue for me, but I finally have a partner in London, a company called What the Hero Wants and he pushed me into this, and I am glad he did,” Schmitz says.
The negative was scanned in London and the restoration work was done in Canada and Berlin.
“It’s an incredibly complex process,” Schmitz explains. “You think that maybe 35 years isn’t such a long time when you consider the problems with restoring old black and white films from the’ 20s and ‘30s, but 35 years for film stock to just lie there, is a very long time.”
“The color changes; there is dust; there are scratches; the film material shrinks, the focus even changes within the emulsion of the materials,” Schmitz says.
At first, he thought it was too late, but fortunately, it wasn’t. “But you have to coax everything back and work with colorists at the other end of the world and explain why certain colors are important.” Luckily, the Canadian colorists understood and were successful. “It was fantastic,” Schmitz says.
The restoration took so much of Schmitz’s time that it was a huge investment. It was almost like making the film again. “I had to go through it shot by shot and look at all these issues. The film was mono because we couldn’t afford a Dolby license back then, so I tracked down the original stereo version of the music and so the film has a kind of a stereo mix on it now as well.”
The copies of the film available on the internet are in the wrong framing because of the overly simplistic scanning that was used back in the day for airlines and old TV screens. “It was a kind of a box format which is not the right format for the film,” Schmitz says.
It’s been a long haul but according to Schmitz, Mapantsula has been restored to its original glory. “The version that will show in Durban and the cinema in South Africa is nothing like what’s been around. It’s the real film,” he says.
The book, Mapantsula will be released later this year. Schmitz suggests that he should dig up a copy of the dummy script. “It might just be an interesting, absurdist companion piece to the actual script,” he speculates.