As the international movie industry comes in search of new and exciting locations beyond Cape Town, the Southern Cape is positioning itself to become the film world’s latest destination of choice.

WORDS Jacques Marais PHOTOGRAPHS Vanessa van Vreeden, Diaan de Beer, Picca de Bruyn

Favourable exchange rates, incentives, beautiful scenery and capable production teams count among the many attributes that have lured the international film industry to South Africa, and particularly Cape Town, for a number of years.

International feature films, documentaries, series, music videos and commercials have in fact become so numerous that the Mother City and immediate surrounds are fast reaching capacity, which has prompted international and local production houses to seek out new locations.

Realising the Garden Route and Klein Karoo’s potential to tap into this market, local municipalities and the Cape Film Commission (CFC) have combined efforts to position the region as a new destination of choice for national and international movie makers.

“The filming of the Frans Cronjé movie Born to Win in George was the catalyst for our involvement,” says Carli Bunding-Venter, manager for Economic Development for the George Municipality. “Several of our municipal officials and portfolio councillor Iona Kritzinger had small parts in Born to Win and our political leadership, under the guidance of executive mayor Charles Standers, realised that George and the rest of the Southern Cape could share in the immense benefits of this global industry.

“The associated advantages of any local filming reach far beyond the glamour associated with the movies and their stars. Film crews require a multitude of services including accommodation, catering, security, transport and equipment hire to name just a few. Many existing businesses can grow and develop their offerings in anticipation of the industry’s needs while opportunities may arise for new enterprises to provide specialised services.”

Carli says increased shoots in the area will also give budding local film makers the means to work as interns on set, and provide casual labour for everything from small acting parts to cleaning crews. “It costs a lot of money to make movies and that money may just as well be spent in the Garden Route and Klein Karoo.”

Carli says she contacted Cape Film Commission (CFC) CEO Denis Lillie for advice and guidance, which led to workshops with him and members of the local film industry as well as other role players. It was immediately apparent that the region was already home to a wealth of individuals with great knowledge and experience. “The workshops were excellent platforms to identify who is who and what their strengths are. It was also a great way to let the local industry tell us their needs,” says Carli.

The workshops investigated the region’s strengths and weaknesses as well as opportunities and threats specific to the industry. Topping the list of strengths was the diversity and natural beauty of the Southern Cape’s landscapes.

Knysna-based Picca de Bruin is an experienced location scout and manager who has worked on major national and international productions. “Our varied natural landscapes are a major draw card for any production house. Our proximity to the Klein Karoo, forests, fields of Cape fynbos, beaches and the lakes district offer locations for anything from desolated desert scenes to lush jungle settings, and everything in between – and that’s just our natural scenery.” With the exception of skyscrapers, the Garden Route’s towns and cities offer almost any urban setting that a producer or director could wish for, often in a safer environment than the equivalent city location.

Denis says there are other factors that may attract producers to the area. “The climate is fantastic and allows for almost year-round filming. English is widely spoken and the support from willing, able and enthusiastic local crew is another huge positive.”

While the potential is limitless, Denis warns that an international film industry boom will not happen overnight. “There is a very real chance that this industry could grow in the Garden Route, but it will be a slow burn happening over time. The industry must first gain confidence in the local facilities and infrastructure.”

While the international industry may just be starting to test the waters, many South African film companies have already fallen in love with what the Southern Cape has to offer. Besides 2013’s Born to Win, the feature film Knysna was shot in its namesake town in 2014. Other movies filmed locally include Susanna van Biljon (2010, filmed in Uniondale) and Klein Karoo (2013, Swartberg Valley).

And there’s more to come.

Award-winning filmmaker John DeVries, originally from George, intends to shoot a full-length feature in his home town in 2015. While the Cape Town-based producer cannot reveal details until all the legalities have been finalised, John is adamant it will be the beginning of big things for the Garden Route.

John grew up in George and got hooked on film when he watched Steven Spielberg classics such as ET and Jurassic Park. He taught himself the basics of filming and started making mini documentaries on the upliftment work his parents were doing with impoverished children in the townships of George. “These inserts were broadcast by a television station in the United States to raise support for my parents’ work,” he says. “I had to borrow cameras, gear and props from everywhere but somehow we always managed to make things happen.”

Having studied both video and film production, John started TH Films in 2012 with his friend Matt Raubenheimer. “We had no money, just a passion for making movies,” he says. “Since then we’ve broken new ground on what’s possible for upcoming South African filmmakers, winning awards across the world for our short films.”

The list of awards and nominations for TH Films is impressive. In 2013 their short film Scapegoat won the Best Comedy and Best Comedy Screenplay awards at the 168 Film Festival in Los Angeles. Another of their films, Skywatch: The Duster of Doom, was nominated in eight categories in 2014, taking the award for Best Production Design. Other accolades include ten awards at the 48 Hour Film Project in Cape Town in 2013 and another two at the 2014 Filmapalooza in New Orleans for the short film Five Minutes ’Till Noon.

“So far it has been a surreal experience and a massive blessing, but one thing became clear,” John says “This dream we all have of making movies in the Garden Route is within our reach.”

Denis agrees. “The South African Broadcasting Corporation wants to develop more locally produced content and there is no reason why this content cannot be created right here. However, locals will have to create a functional network, undergo the necessary training and link in with various organisations such as the CFC.”

While it may be some time before international stars become a regular sight on Southern Cape streets, the local industry will be working at making and promoting their own videos and films. “The Eden Independent Film Festival is provisionally set to take place in October 2015,” says Carli. “We’re still in the early planning stages with a committee made up of volunteers from the industry, but we are planning a festival that will take its place on the international film festival calendar as a world class event.”

For now, it seems the Garden Route should take a page out of John’s book. “It’s hard to say when my ‘big break’ happened. It was more of a slow climb full of hard work, sleepless nights and sacrifice. And it still is.”

The outside interest is already there, but it is the imminent growth of the local film industry that holds long-term benefits for the Garden Route.