Overture to a legend

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With 200 film titles and the prestigious African Movie Academy Award to his name, it’s by no means a wrap for Tonie van der Merwe.

Regarded as the father of the black film industry in South Africa, director and cinematographer Tonie van der Merwe isn’t done – yet. Before Covid struck, he already had three more films lined up. Rhino Wars (about poaching and conservation), is borne out of a lifelong passion. And the other two are gospel musical 70 x 7 and Die wêreld is ons woning nie, based on a Totius poem about the intransigence of life.

In the throes of a thriving construction career, a chance meeting with Louis and Elmo de Witt in 1970 led to the trio concluding that South Africa needed a black movie industry. So began his foray into film and the hit Joe Bullet was the result. Tonie produced, Louis de Witt directed and the cast was entirely black, starring Ken Gampu and singer Abigail Kubeka. Alas, the movie’s fame lasted less than a week. It was banned outright. Tonie said, “This was a financial catastrophe for me. We spent 18 months making it, using all my equipment as props.”

The B-scheme

But he picked up the pieces and successfully lobbied the government to set up a subsidy for producing black films: the so-called B-scheme. All in all, he had a hand in around 200 of these. One of them being Ngomopho, the first-ever film shot in an ethnic language.

A succession of films followed: Trompie, Barrett, Bullet on the Run, For Money and Glory, Operation Hit Squad, Fatal Mission and a plethora of local favourites.

“However, my magnum opus is surely the 1986 film Umbango (The Feud). We built a whole cowboy town in Mooi River. Contrary to popular belief, this was the first western ever made in South Africa.”

Tonie wrote many of his own scripts: light, adventure-packed storylines that never digressed into the miseries of the day (“I never got involved with politics.”). Umbango was no exception. Tough guy Jet and friend Owen have to protect themselves from a grifter named Kay Kay, who comes to town to claim revenge and his brother’s land after the latter is killed.

Preserving the reels for posterity

As luck would have it, Tonie met Benjamin Cowley of Gravel Road Africa. “When I told him about all my old film canisters, Ben jumped at the chance to digitise the movies. He set up Retro Afrika Bioscope and within a year Joe Bullet had its newly restored digital premiere in Durban.” Since then, six films have debuted on South African TV and several more have been restored by Gravel Road.

And now …

Now living a peaceful life in Langebaan with his master cook wife Hettie, Tonie was chairman of the South African Film Producers Association for seven years. In 2014 he received the Simon Sabela Award in the Heroes and Legends category and in 2016 he went home with the prestigious African Movie Academy Award for his lifelong achievements in the film industry.

He had even more on his plate: vice-president of Clifton Goldridge, as well as marketing executive of De Beers Retirement Resort in Strand.

Wrapping up, Tonie said, “When all’s said and done, cinema is my life’s work. And I can’t wait to start producing again – Covid permitting.”

FAST FACTS

My sport is bowls
For relaxation, I watch a good movie or read
Best spectator sport is cricket, rugby, golf & boxing
My pet place on the West Coast is Melkbosstrand
Favourite restaurant is any good steakhouse
I love eating steak
My signature drink is a brandy
Best reads are period, action & romance genres
On TV I enjoy sport