B-Schemes

An Archive Project and Film Program on Film Productions for Black Viewers in 1970s and 1980s South Africa

The "B-Schemes" project is dedicated to carrying out detailed archive research on a corpus of South African films that has still not received significant research attention to date, with the goal of carrying out a critical reappraisal of these films and giving them new visibility. The films in question are those made under "B-Schemes", a state program to promote "black films for black viewers" which coincided with the most repressive period of the Apartheid regime.

Background

The history of South African cinema begins with the birth of cinema itself in 1895, as the period of colonially motivated industrialization brought film with it almost straight away. Yet cinema has always played a critical role in the imagination of the South African public, regardless of whether being grasped as an agent of state ideology or functioning as a subversive counterpart to this ideology. The different political phases in the history of South Africa are indeed reflected in its cinema, not least due to the state’s active interest in the medium with regards to monitoring its effects and thus also its viewers. It is thus no surprise that since the end of Apartheid, past films and film genres in particular have been treated with skepticism by South African academics with regard to their relevance and alignment, even while avoiding outright rejection.

This is also the case for a corpus of South African films produced between 1972 and the end of the 1980s, the so-called "B-Schemes" films. During the Apartheid regime’s most repressive phase, the state initiated a subsidy program whose goal was to produce "black films for black viewers". The program was called "Bantu Cinema" and soon became known as "B-Schemes". It involved the production of hundreds of films being set in motion and funding being allocated accordingly.
Comparisons as those with the Blaxploitation films in the USA of the same period or the film movements that formed part of the processes of decolonization (such as in Algeria, Senegal or Mozambique) only serve to reflect the unique nature of the B-Schemes films and South Africa’s increasing isolation under Apartheid.

This phase in South African film history still remains largely unknown to this day. The research and curatorial work being carried out with this material does not only seek to make an important contribution to film history but also forms part of more general critical reappraisal of the past by opening up the films to today’s public and thus also to new forms of perception.

The research process begins in the National Film, Video and Sound Archive (NFVSA) in Pretoria, which is dedicated to carrying out comprehensive archival work and represents the most abundant source of South African films. Most of the archival data stems from the initial research carried out at the NFVSA. As the project progresses, the search will possibly extend to include other archives and institutions, particularly while the right holders of and print situation for the individual films are being ascertained. As in many postcolonial societies, South Africa’s archives are also defined by a oft-strained relationship between the visible and the invisible as well as material both lost and found, with here too the focus being on grappling with this historic material in a critical manner that brings it up to date.

The "B-Schemes" project has set itself the goal of carrying out a reappraisal of the film material found in terms of content and ensuring that it is viewed from a contemporary point of view. Several of the films from the B-Schemes pool will gain new visibility in screenings at the Arsenal cinema and the Bioscope Independent Cinema (Johannesburg) as part of the project. The films will be re-contextualized on the one hand based on research carried out at the places they were formerly screened (interviews, research on cinema locations, such as those in Soweto) and by incorporating research and findings from the other subprojects of the Visionary Archive project on the other. This enables both context-specific information as well as parallels, asynchronies, new material and new questions to be developed.

Simon Sabela, Ken Gampu and Gibson Kente

Over the last 25 years, film scholars have largely interpreted the B-Schemes films as Apartheid propaganda. More recently however, literature and media studies scholar Litheko Modisane has written about how this perception ignores these films’ critical potential and the fact that detailed research on their latent subversive implications is still lacking (1). This project is about taking precisely such a "second look". In light of the massive film output during this period, the project concentrates on three key figures: Simon Sabela, Ken Gampu and Gibson Kente, whose works are still awaiting critical recognition and new public engagement.

At the start of the 1970s, Gibson Kente wrote the famous stage musical "How Long…Must We Suffer?". In 1974, Kente started work on a film adaptation of this play, which came to be regarded as the first critical film by a black director about the Apartheid regime to be produced within it. There are reports that Kente was arrested at a police raid during the last days of filming and that the film material already shot was confiscated. The film’s completion was prohibited. This case study research on HOW LONG? is aimed at following up the various fragmentary stories surrounding this film to be found in archives and witness interviews and completing them as necessary.

Previous research on the B-Schemes films have largely focused on narrative patterns, such as on the subjects of urbanization, gangsters and crime. A film program about Simon Sabela and Ken Gampu is intended to enable audiences to engage with their films in comprehensive fashion and ink their screening to background research. One goal here is to ascertain what effect the films had on the public of the time and to address such effects before the backdrop of the spectatorship of today in South Africa as well as in the other Visionary Archive project locations.

Project head: Darryl Els in collaboration with Marie-Hélène Gutberlet

Darryl Els is the program director and co-owner of The Bioscope Independent Cinema in Johannesburg. The cinema is committed to providing visibility for independent films and video works. Els also works as a film researcher and has already curated numerous programs for institutions worldwide too, including for the Forum Expanded section of the 2011 Berlinale (together with Claus Löser). In 2012, he was one of the participants of the “Living Archive – Archive Work as a Contemporary Artistic and Curatorial Practice” project (see also "Shifting Grounds: Reflections on National Identity in the Archive") and received a grant from the Goethe-Institut to work in Berlin for several months to this end.

Marie-Hélène Gutberlet studied art history, philosophy and film studies in Frankfurt am Main and Basel (Dr. Phil.) and works as a freelance curator, journalist and film scholar. She is the co-founder of the experimental film series "reel to real" (which has taken place in Frankfurt am Main since 2003) and co-initiator of the "Migration & Media" project which involves symposia and exhibition projects, most recently "Shoe Shop" (Johannesburg 2012) and "The Space Between Us" (Berlin and Stuttgart 2013–2014). She has published numerous articles on African cinema, Black cinema, migration, experimental and documentary film. Together with Tobias Hering, Marie-Hélène Gutberlet is the co-artistic director of Visionary Archive, for which the two of them curate the film screening series "It all depends" at the Arsenal cinema.

(1) See for example Modisane, L. (2010). Movie-ing the Public Sphere: The Public Life of a South African Film. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (30. 1) 133–146.