The Empire Palace of Varieties
The Empire Palace of Varieties opened in Johannesburg in 1895 on the corner of Commissioner and Ferreira streets. It was run by Edgar Hyman where in May 1896 the first projected pictures were shown in South Africa.
(Image source: Cinema Souvenirs)

By Andrew Worsdale. Edited with additional reporting by Mary Alexander.

Gauteng’s largest city of Johannesburg, the powerhouse of the province’s economy, is only six years younger than the movies, while its second-largest city of Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, is 38 years older. Gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand reef in 1886. Within a decade the area changed from tent town to wood and iron shacks, then bricks and mortar.

Across the world in New Jersey, Thomas Edison constructed the world’s first-ever film production studio, the Black Maria, in 1893. Three years later the Edison Vitascope unveiled a programme of 12 short film subjects, including The Edison Kinetoscope Record of a Sneeze, also known as Fred Ott's Sneeze, as supporting entertainment at a New York Music Hall.

It was only natural that the world’s newest boomtown would be one of the first to experience “the most startling scientific marvel of the age” - animated photography.

In Johannesburg’s rough and ready early years entrepreneurs showed short film clips around the city’s goldfields. These were encouraged by authorities, being healthier than the other entertainments typically on offer in a gold-rush frontier town.

On 19 April 1895, when the city was only nine years old, the first Kinetoscopes - boxes in which people could see a moving image - were opened to the public in Herwoods Arcade on Pritchard and President Street.

The first presentation of film in South Africa was made on May 9 1896, a few months after the Manhattan presentation, at the Empire Palace of Varieties in Johannesburg’s Commissioner Street. That year the first South African film was produced: scenes shot from the front of a tram in the bustling city of gold.

It was as if New York and Gauteng had shared a sneeze, a new phenomenon- one man-made, the other a natural find. Film would change the world and gold would turn Gauteng’s sparse Witwatersrand hills into a global African city with a population of over 3-million people.

Early beginnings

Still from De Voortrekkers
Still from De Voortrekkers, showing Zulu warrior Sobuza, who converts to Christianity.
(Image source: The Bioscope)

The first cinema newsreels ever made were filmed at the front during the Anglo-Boer War, mainly by a colleague of Edison, WKL Dickson. The experience led him to the discovery of the use of film as both a record of history and a tool of propaganda.

In 1913 Isidore Schlesinger bought up several theatres and other companies and formed the African Theatres and Films Trusts, ensuring a monopoly on distribution throughout the country, which would extend across the region from the Cape to the Zambezi for 43 years.

But it was in 1915 when the mogul established a production house and built Killarney Film Studios in Johannesburg that moviemaking for real began in Gauteng.

The province’s first feature film over one hour was De Voortrekkers, made in 1916. Over the next six years Schlesinger’s African Film Productions made 43 films, most with themes of Boer and Britons united, and civilisation against barbaric hordes, with scripts developed from the work of British authors such as H Rider Haggard.

But after 1922 the intense competition with American and British films led to a decline in local production. Despite high technical standards, there was little interest in British and US markets.

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Money for white films

A 30-year lull was broken in the early 1950s by the director Jamie Uys, who persuaded the apartheid government to subsidise the production of local films, which continued until the late 1980s.

South Africa’s most commercially successful director, Uys is most famous for Animals are Beautiful People, which won the 1974 Hollywood Foreign Press Association award for best documentary, and the comedy The Gods Must be Crazy (1980), winner of the 1981 Grand Prix at the Festival International du Film de Comedy Vevey. Uys died in 1996, aged 74.

Sixty films were made between 1956 and 1962: 43 in Afrikaans, 13 in English and four bilingual. The result was a glut of films mostly out of Killarney Film Studios that were nothing more than visual extensions of popular Springbok Radio plays such as Taxi, The Men From the Ministry, Flying Squad, Gold Squad and even Dog Squad . In most of them Johannesburg was used as a perfunctory setting for the “big city”; there was very little subtext and few social revelations to be gleaned from the presentation of its urban sprawl.

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Township escapism

Still from Jim Comes to Joburg
A still from Jim Comes to Joburg.
(Image source: Barbican)

But around the same time, a clutch of films was made on the quiet with no state intervention or subsidy- most of them depicting the black experience in the city of gold for the first time on screen.

The first of these was Eric Rutherford’s Jim Comes to Joburg in 1949, which had the titular hero arriving by train from what was then the province of Natal in search of fame and fortune.

Despite being mugged on arrival in the city, Jim progresses from gardener to “house boy”, and thence to a waiter in a nightclub where his singing talents are recognised. He begins a singing partnership and relationship with Julie, a nightclub star played by Dolly Rathebe, an iconic 1950s singer and actress. As Julie, her first song in the movie is Egoli , a tribute to Johannesburg, the “city of gold”.

Jim was followed by a string of other films, including Zonk! (Hyman Kirstein, 1950), The Magic Garden (Donald Swanson, 1951), and Song of Africa (Emil Nofal, 1952). These all depicted a romanticised vision of life in South African townships – the impoverished dormitory settlements on the borders of cities to which apartheid legislation banished the urban black population.

The story lines were weak and most of the action was singing and dancing on stage, in nightclubs or in the streets. These movies were essentially musicals suggesting that townships were cultural melting pots where residents were spellbound by Hollywood films, Broadway musical and African-American jazz recordings.

For black South Africans these movies were, as movies often are, a means of escape, as a study of Johannesburg’s film and literature in the late 1940s and 1950s by Rhodes University’s Gary Baines highlights. “The Johannesburg of these films is ‘unreal’,” he says. “Crime is an aberration, and poverty can be overcome by good fortune such as the signing of a recording contract (Jim Comes to Joburg) or the discovery of a bundle of stolen money (The Magic Garden).”

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Facing reality

Come Back Africa
A still from Lionel Rogosin's Come Back, Africa (1959).
(Image source: Trash Can Dance)

Alan Paton’s 1948 novel Cry, the Beloved Country was the first major work of fiction to tackle the lure of the city for the rural poor. Johannesburg was paved with gold, but it was also a metaphor for the decay of modern society and the dehumanisation and personal tragedy caused by apartheid law. The book was adapted for the screen by director Zoltan Korda and screenwriter John Lawson in 1951, and the film shot clandestinely in and around Johannesburg and Sophiatown.

In the film a black church minister leaves his home in rural Natal to search for his sister and son in Johannesburg. In the city he discovers that she has turned to prostitution, while his son has been charged with the murder of a liberal young white man whose father is a wealthy farmer and, ironically, Kumalo's neighbour back in Natal.

Also filmed clandestinely was Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back, Africa (1959), widely regarded as a classic and perhaps the best portrait of Johannesburg at the time. Rogosin, a New York-based documentary filmmaker, entered South Africa as a tourist and lived in Johannesburg for almost a year before he felt ready to roll his cameras.

In April 1958 he applied for government permission to make a “musical travelogue”. After two months of palaver with six suspicious federal bureaus, Rogosin got his permit. He dashed off his script in less than a week, and then shot for three months with scarcely a day off.

The film tells the story of Zachariah who moves to the city and has a succession of jobs: mine worker, servant, garage assistant, and hotel waiter. His family later join him, but they face racial prejudice and institutionalised discrimination. A fight with a township thug ultimately leads to the death of his wife.

It is a bleak film, but filled with moments of energy and joy. Its most famous sequence takes place in a Sophiatown shebeen presided over by a tuneful Miriam Makeba – another 1950s icon – while real-life Drum magazine journalists Can Themba, Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane chew the fat about apartheid and white liberalism.

In 1973 Peter Hunt’s Gold was a serviceable piece of hokum based on a Wilbur Smith novel that had a pre-007 Roger Moore as the mine-manager hero who has to intervene when white industrialist baddies try to flood a mine in order to drive up the price of gold. Explosions, underground amputations, deceit, conspiracy, loyalty, betrayal, murder, sex, tribal dance and assorted heroics were all moulded together around Johannesburg as an exotic and fascinating place filled with financial power and racist exploitation.

The year 1976 was a watershed South African history. It was the year of the Soweto uprising, when black schoolchildren took to the streets to protest apartheid education to be met by a barrage of police bullets.

It was also the year the groundbreaking and influential anti-apartheid Market Theatre opened in Newtown in downtown Johannesburg, and the South African Broadcasting Corporation, also based in Johannesburg, began broadcasting television to South Africans for the first time. These were all major developments, but unfortunately none were reflected in the film industry, with few distinctive local films being made.

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Death throes of apartheid

Oliver Schmitz’s Mapantsula (1986) is the story of a petty criminal’s gradual coming to political consciousness.

A unique filmic depiction of Johannesburg only resurfaced in the mid-1980s in films that, like those made in the 1950s, were made underground and voiced opposition to apartheid.

Oliver Schmitz’s Mapantsula (1986) is the story of a petty criminal’s gradual coming to political consciousness, painting an extraordinarily vivid, and sometimes frightening, portrait of township life under apartheid.

Panic is a small-time crook who keeps his nose out of politics. The trouble is that politics touches everyone on the streets of Johannesburg, as Panic discovers when he is picked up by the police for questioning and dumped in a cell with a bunch of township militants, precisely the people he most despises.

The film captured the sights, sounds, smells and rhythms of Soweto far more accurately than Hollywood anti-apartheid films such as Cry Freedom (1987) and A World Apart (1988) and, after a premiere screening at Cannes, went on to play to critical acclaim abroad despite being banned in South Africa until the end of apartheid in 1990.

The year 1986 also saw the production of Shot Down, a relatively unknown film that was also banned at home. Made by Johannesburg-based group Weekend Theatre, the film depicted Johannesburg as a bohemian melting pot of white left-wing cabaret as it followed a state agent trying to infiltrate a subversive township performance group.

Reviewing the film, Time Out magazine said: “as a slice of South African cultural resistance Shot Down is extraordinary, full of self-mocking humour, and - in bursts- exhilarating”. The film gets its title from a song by James Phillips and his band the Cherry Faced Lurchers, and has historical value as it records the community of young white artists in Johannesburg’s Yeoville suburb during the state of emergency years that convulsed the death throes of apartheid.

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Strange days

Darryl Roodt's musical Sarafina (1992) featured South African singer Leleti Khumalo playing opposite Hollywood star Whoopi Goldberg.

Manie van Rensburg’s Taxi to Soweto in 1991 was the first film to show signs of the dawn of a post-apartheid South Africa. It concerns a bored, middle-aged, over-pampered Afrikaans woman Jessica (played by Elize Cawood), her workaholic husband (Marius Weyers) and a snappy street-sharp taxi-driver Richard (Patrick Shai), whose lives become entwined despite the chasm of South Africa’s racial divide.

When her car breaks down, Jessica is rescued by Richard, who in turn is hijacked at gunpoint, and she is thrown headlong into “black experience” of Soweto. Her restricted perspective of South African life changes forever.

In Taxi to Soweto there are no outcasts, nor liberal whites who fight for the rights of blacks or ultra-right-wing Afrikaner stereotypes. A human and amusing face, although critical, is given to both the black activists and the rich whites.

In 1992 Darrell Roodt, one of the most prolific South African directors of the modern era, helmed the movie adaptation of Mbongeni Ngema’s Tony-Award winning musical Sarafina. Featuring showstopper Leleti Khumalo in her screen debut as the young schoolgirl who, through the help of her teacher – played by Whoopi Goldberg – starts to understand the evils of the apartheid education system.

Based on the real children’s resistance movement in Soweto in the mid-1970s, the film unleashed vivid and telling images of now-archetypal facets of the South Africa political struggle: the funerals, the stone-throwing youths, policemen with teargas.

This township Fame meets a kid’s version of Cry Freedom displayed a wealth of heart in its showcase of amazing home-grown Gauteng talent - some of whom, not only Khumalo, are among the province’s top stars today.

Young white left-wingers were also the focus of Elaine Proctor’s Friends (1993), a sombre film about politics, without diatribe. The story involves three women who share a ramshackle Victorian house in Johannesburg, people who have to come to terms with the moral chaos of the time when one of them plans to plant a bomb at an airport.

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Crime sells

Dangerous Ground
In 1997 Darrell Roodt tackled the troubles of post-apartheid South Africa in his gangster film Dangerous Ground, starring Ice Cube and Elizabeth Hurley.

The province of Gauteng was officially established in 1994, the year South Africa voted its first democratically elected government into power, a government headed by Nelson Mandela. Before that, the region was known as the PWV – Pretoria, the Witwatersrand and Vereeniging, the small but powerful epicentre of the South African economy. As a name for the place “PWV” was rather inelegant, so a new name was chosen: Gauteng – place of gold.

A year later Darrell Roodt directed a skilful remake of Cry, The Beloved Country. Two years after that, in 1997, he tackled the troubles of post-apartheid South Africa in his gangster film Dangerous Ground. Starring American rap-star Ice Cube and featuring Elizabeth Hurley, the film tells the story of a man exiled by apartheid who returns home to Johannesburg to find himself trying to save his younger brother from the clutches of Nigerian drug-dealers in the inner city.

Dangerous Ground was the first in what would become a particular South African and Gauteng-based genre - the crime-wave movie. A less stereotypical and more perceptive insight into the new South Africa and Johannesburg’s place in it was Les Blair’s Jump The Gun (1995).

With the slug “Living in Hell – and Loving it”, Jump the Gun explored the tangled lives of six working-class people trying to succeed in South Africa’s promising but often disappointing post-apartheid society. It’s one of the finest portraits of Johannesburg as a melting pot of sex, class and race.

Ntshaveni wa Luruli’s Chikin Biznis (1999) was a welcome change from stories driven by politics. An engaging comedy penned by Mtutuzeli Matshoba, the film had Fats Bookholane in an award-winning performance as a messenger at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange who gives up his job to start selling chickens as a way to gain his independence. Filled with Soweto street-cred and an ironic sense of humour, the film won many international awards and is a delightful whimsical slice-of-life piece about what it takes to get ahead in Gauteng.

The year 1999 saw a much more grim view of Gauteng with the feature documentary Hillbrow Kids by Michael Hammon and Jacqueline Gorgen. A shocking look at the lives of street children, it tells its story without a single talking head and no voice-over, documenting teenage children’s lives in an urban playground where malnutrition, rape and child prostitution are everyday.

Perhaps inspired by Hillbrow Kids , German director Stefanie Sycholt came to the Johannesburg in 2001 to write and direct Malunde, a film about a 11-year old Hillbrow street kid who accidentally hooks up with a former apartheid-era Defence Force soldier, who saves him from gangsters. The result is a South African road movie with heart, a story that explores reconciliation and pulls the heartstrings without dogma or overt sentimentality.

Oliver Schmitz’s Hijack Stories (2001) is a snappily directed, entertaining and exciting movie about life in contemporary Johannesburg that played as an understated dark comedy while saying some pertinent things about the worlds of the new upwardly mobile black middle-class versus that of township criminals - both lifestyles that thrive on glamour.

In it Tony Kgoroge plays an actor who lives comfortably in the northern suburbs who has to return to Soweto in order to pick up enough ghetto street smarts in order to land a plum gangster role in a new TV series. Filled with great dialogue courtesy of dissident poet Lesego Rampolokeng who co-wrote the film, Schmitz injects a comic spirit into a simple story that makes a caustic observation of class distinctions and the new social divide making up life in the highveld in post-apartheid South Africa.

In 2003 Canadian director Bronwen Hughes was a surprising but astute choice to direct Stander, the action-thriller based on the true story of one of Gauteng’s most infamous criminals, Andre Stander. A homicide and robbery police captain, Stander became a notorious bank robber in the mid-1980s.

He and his gang would rob as many as four banks a day, after which he would return to work, sometimes investigating his own crimes within hours of committing them. With Hollywood star Thomas Jane doing a serviceable job as the Robin Hood-like anti-hero, this irony-tinged heist drama is especially notable for its visual style - Johannesburg is given a distinct look with bleached colour imagery and a heavy use of filters.

Being an outsider, Hughes and her crew where quick to notice what makes the city unique. “When we arrived and started doing location recces," she says, "we saw things in the architecture that the local scouts didn’t even realise were there: the curved lines, the structures of government buildings, all the ceramic walls. Visually it’s a unique city and I wanted to explore that in the style of the picture.”

Teddy Mattera’s feature film debut Max and Mona in 2004 took the classic tale of small town boy comes to the big city to a bright new comic level. It followed the fortunes of a country bumpkin who has inherited a talent as a professional mourner - he can reduce the stoniest heart into a flood of tears.

Max, however, has to follow his calling to study medicine in Johannesburg. But once there he cannot pay his fees in time and, on top of this, he is saddled with a complaining sacred goat, called Mona. Max tries to get money from his Uncle Norman, a shady township character. His uncle agrees but only if Max helps out for ill-gotten gains at various city funerals with his God-given talents. Naive in style and tone, this comic-fable does feature low-level crime, but above all it is a touching tale about finding fortune and eventually true love in Johannesburg.

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Reinventing the past

Drum magazine
Zola Maseko's Drum (2004) looks back at 1950s Johannesburg, a time of ferment that saw both the flowering of black journalism in Drum magazine and the brutal destruction of Johannesburg's edgily cosmopolitan suburb of Sophiatown.
(Image source: Marie Clairvoyant)

Also produced in 2004, Zola Maseko's Drum looks back at 1950s Johannesburg, a time of ferment that saw both the flowering of black journalism in Drum magazine and the brutal destruction of Johannesburg's edgily cosmopolitan suburb of Sophiatown. In the film, American star Taye Diggs plays real-life journalist Henry Nxumalo, who tires of writing lightweight stuff and begins to report apartheid atrocities, landing him in trouble with the authorities.

Despite a limited budget Maseko managed to evoke the vibrant spirit of the time. Honest and compassionate, the film is a valuable document of an important time in Johannesburg’s history, and a worthy companion to Lionel Rogosin’s classic 1950s film Come Back, Africa, which was filmed on the same streets Maseko’s movie recreates.

The following year, 2005, was a landmark in South African film history, with the production of Gavin Hood’s film adaptation of Athol Fugard’s 1960 novella Tsotsi, which went on to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The film updates the story to post-apartheid Johannesburg where the divisions of class have replaced racial divides and Aids is the major threat to human life.

The film tells the story of a vicious thug roving the streets of Soweto and downtown Joburg, impressively played by Presley Chweneyagae. He has been hardened by years of parental abandonment and his cold-blooded crimes. After beating one of his crew nearly to death, Tsotsi runs away, eventually carjacking a rich woman, shooting her, and unknowingly taking off with her infant son.

Captivated with the purity of spirit in the child, he is soon confronted with his own conscience, and he tries to change his criminal ways, looking to the baby as a second chance at a life of decency. With its gritty, authentic use of locations, dense panoramic lensing by talented cinematographer Lance Gewer and a hard-edged kwaito soundtrack, Tsotsi earned comparisons to the Brazilian gangster-flick City of God.

The same year also saw Khalo Matabane’s Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon which received an equal amount of international critical acclaim. This docu-drama begins with a poet’s curiosity about a lonely Somalian woman in a Johannesburg park and expands its scope to include a look at exiles living in the city, which has become a haven for refugees from across the continent and, in fact, the world’s war-ravaged zones.

Compelling and unique, the movie plays like street theatre, giving a human face to the problems of xenophobia and is a valuable insight into the many lives of this thriving African city, the meaning of South African identity, and the multi-faceted nature of the African diaspora.

Nelson Mandela holds Tsotsi Oscar
Former South African President Nelson Mandela holds the Best Foreign Language Oscar earned by Tsotsi, flanked by the film's stars, Presley Chweneyagae (left) and Terry Pheto.
(Image source: Tsotsi)

In 2006 John Barker’s improvisational comedy Bunny Chow steered clear of crime, violence and politics in a realistic and very funny portrait of life in Johannesburg. The loosely structured film follows the fortunes and romantic mishaps of three stand-up comedians trying to make their way to the Oppikoppi music festival.

Starring real-life comics David Kibuuka, Kagiso Lediga and Joey Rasdien, it’s an engaging, ribald modestly-conceived charmer that lived up to its title - "bunny chow" local street food where the inside of a loaf of bread is scooped out and replaced with a curry of your choice - much like the melting pot that is Gauteng.

Ralph Ziman’s Jerusalema (2008) is a tough action thriller about a young hoodlum's rise from a small-time criminal to a powerful crime entrepreneur during the turbulent years before and after the fall of apartheid, becoming a slum landlord and literally hijacking whole buildings. Also known as Gangster's Paradise, the film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2008, and after its commercially release in South Africa was well-received by critics and audiences, grossing US$400 000 (R2.8-million) at 14 theatres in the course of a month.

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Big studios tell South African stories

District 9
A still from District 9 (2009) - part science fiction thriller, part satire of apartheid.

Recent years have seen an explosion of big studio-backed movies filmed in Gauteng, with the province supplying not only the locations but also the stories. Many inevitably focus on the familiar themes of apartheid atrocity, reconciliation and forgiveness, such as Catch a Fire (2006), starring Tim Robbins, Goodbye Bafana (2007) with Joseph Fiennes, and Endgame (2009) with William Hurt.

Also with an apartheid theme, but with a different take, is the science fiction thriller District 9 (2009), which opened in the US to critical acclaim and huge audience popularity, earning $37-million (R255-million) in its opening weekend.

The film tells the story an Afrikaner bureaucrat assigned to relocate a race of extraterrestrial creatures unexpectedly stranded on Earth, referred to as "prawns", from District 9, a military-guarded slum in Johannesburg, to an internment camp outside the city. It was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2010, including best picture, best adapted screenplay, best visual effects and best editing.

While largely a thriller, to South African audiences District 9 was also hilarious satire of the type of patronising apartheid bureaucrat whose well-meaning implementation of the racist policy caused enormous human suffering.

Invictus (2009), directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon has reconciliation after apartheid at its heart.

The movie tells the story of how Mandela (Freeman) used the opportunity of South Africa’s hosting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to build bridges between the races. Newly made president, he deliberately sought to reconcile the previously powerful, conservative Afrikaner community resentful of the new black government with a long-oppressed black majority eager to overthrow symbols of the past – such as rugby.

Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, captain of South Africa's national rugby team, in Invictus.

The Bang Bang Club (2010) is a drama based on the true-life experiences of four combat photographers capturing the final days of apartheid in South Africa, directed by Steven Silver and starring Ryan Phillippe.

With South Africa hosting the Fifa World Cup in 2010, the year saw the production of two feel-good soccer-themed movies: Themba: A Boy Called Hope, and Africa United. Themba is the story of a young boy who rises from rural poverty to reach his dream of playing for Bafana Bafana, South Africa's national soccer team. Africa United, described as the African Slumdog Millionaire and selected for both the London and Toronto film festivals, follows three Rwandan kids as they walk 3 000 miles to the Fifa World Cup in South Africa.

Currently in production and due for release in 2011 is Winnie, the controversial story of Nelson Mandela's second wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Directed by Darrell Roodt, the film stars Jennifer Hudson as Winnie and Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela.

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Learning to laugh

White Wedding
Tumi (Rapulana Seiphemo) and Rose (Jodie Whittaker) on the road with a goat in White Wedding.

But recent feature films made in Gauteng are not all about apartheid and its aftermath; there's also been plenty of comedy. Gums and Noses (2004), directed by Craig Freimond, hilariously explores the crazed fantasy world of cocaine use, while Footskating 101 (2007), based on popular MTV shorts, hilariously explores the crazed fantasy sport of footskating - skateboarding without the board.

South Africa's most internationally successful comedy to date is White Wedding (2009), which opened in North America in late 2010 to solid critical and audience success.

The film follows two black men - a young groom and his best man - in the company of a young white woman on an insane road trip across the deeply conservative South African countryside as they try to get to Cape Town for the groom's wedding.

In Finding Lenny (2009), a vehicle for acclaimed South African stand-up comedian Barry Hilton, Lenny Vincent has a fairly foul 50th birthday when he's fired from his job, left by his wife, and caught in a gang heist at a restaurant. He ends up being hijacked and dumped in a rural village.

Described as a love story about the city of Johannesburg, Jozi (2010) is also a hard-luck comedy, telling the story of James, a successful comedy writer. The problem is, James has lost his sense of humour - because he lives in Johannesburg.