Tok Tokkie mockup
Beukes & Bass On African Science Fiction
District 9 introduced the possibilities of African science fiction to the world, but Elysium, Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 follow up, has seemingly left the continent behind and looks disappointingly first world. Instead, two Cape Town women are entering the void with feature film projects that aim to take the embryonic genre into its next evolution.
Lauren Beukes’ second novel, Zoo City, won this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. She’s currently developing the screenplay for the feature film adaptation, in between finishing two novels and writing graphic novels for Vertigo.
Jenna Bass’ futuristic Cape Town ghost thriller Tok Tokkie was named “the most promising African project” at The Durban FilmMart in 2010 and went through Story Camp, Focus Features’ invitation-only laboratory and workshop for low-budget projects.
It’s too soon to know if there’s a genuine market for African science fiction on the continent. District 9’s worldwide box office topped an impressive $200 million, but only $1.3 million came from the South African box office, which raised concerns that local audiences aren’t overly interested in science fiction.
Jenna isn’t worried. “The idea that Africans would not be interested in their future or hypothesize about it is ridiculous,” she says. “If there’s anywhere that really needs to think about the future and what different worlds could exist, it’s Africa. We’re in a developing country, not a developed one, so we’re in the process of changing right now in a rapid way, which makes the whole idea of alternate realities really relevant here.”
She also rejects the notion that because science fiction is a technology-driven genre, it therefore has nothing to do with Africa. “Instead of a continent that’s grown with technology, we’ve suddenly had all this technology thrust on us from somewhere else,” says Jenna. “That inspires a lot of exciting ideas, as does the concept of existing on the fringes of technology.”
Lauren agrees. “We use technology in a much more dynamic way here,” she says. “Look at music downloads: we skipped the internet completely and jumped straight to mobile. We had SMS-only guest lists before New York did; cellphone payments started in Kenya; and The University of Cape Town came up with a programme to use cellphones to remote track TB in rural areas.”
Science fiction’s often mistakenly perceived as an escapist genre, but like District 9, both Zoo City and Tok Tokkie are unique, character-driven pieces that deal with serious issues in an entertaining way.
“What was phenomenal about District 9 was its social conscience,” says Lauren. “It took something real and horrible and put a twist on it to get over our issue fatigue. If it had been about real refugees, it would have been another Hotel Rwanda – a great movie that mostly drew art house crowds.”
Earlier this year, Jenna launched Jungle Jim, a Wallpaper-endorsed African pulp fiction magazine, but she agrees that social conscience is a key part of the genre. “Any fantastical or science fiction scenario you see, whether in a film or a book, is always a product of the society the writer has developed in. People’s perceptions of the future say a lot about the present. That’s what makes this such an interesting genre: no matter how crazy science fiction or fantasy films are, they’re always saying something.”
Johannesburg is a key character in Zoo City, while Cape Town plays a central role in Tok Tokkie. Jenna believes the South African cities lend themselves to the genre.
“Cape Town is already all these little separate worlds,” she says. “It’s such a divided place, where everyone lives in their own mini-universes. There’s always another part of the city that to all intents and purposes is like an Other to you, like a parallel world in fantasy. I don’t want to oversimplify it or glorify it like it’s wonderful that we’re living in this fantasy universe – that would be very politically incorrect. All I mean to say is we’re always living alongside a world we know less well. That’s not just the middle class; it applies to everyone. We’re all neighbouring on things we don’t understand, on a parallel world that functions in very similar ways to ours but is slightly different, so fantasy and science fiction come very naturally to that.”
Lauren thinks foreign audiences have responded to Zoo City in part because of the novelty of its Johannesburg setting. “I had feedback from readers who said it was refreshing to read science fiction that wasn’t set in Tokyo, Los Angeles or New York,” she says. “It made Zoo City reflective of a bigger, more imaginative worldview, something that went beyond first world problems.”
Difference can be alienating though, so conversely both Lauren and Jenna are also hoping to benefit from the world’s increasing familiarity and interest in South Africa. “I think District 9 and last year’s World Cup really opened people’s minds up to a different idea of South Africa and put us on the map,” says Lauren.
One big advantage for African science fiction is that you can create a fantastical world that’s rooted in reality. “Johannesburg is so strange that it almost feels like an alien place,” says Lauren. “About 90% of Zoo City is Joburg verbatim. Other than the magical animals, everything else is real.”
Similarly, Jenna says, “I’m interested in science fiction and fantasy films where less is shown – the audience is your greatest resource. For me, it’s more about creating an atmosphere and world which is on the fringes of our own world.”
Story Camp was for projects under $1 million, so Tok Tokkie’s inclusion shows the advantages of this approach: science fiction becomes affordable in Africa, because there’s less need for special effects to create the mood.
One of the other big advantages of the South African setting is what Lauren calls “the mashup of third world and first.” She explains, “There’s this uncomfortable dissonance from the first and third world colliding here so blatantly. You get that conflict in America and Japan, but it’s much more visible here.”
She says this means that “technology and magic sit on top of each other very comfortably in Africa. In other countries, it’s science fiction versus fantasy, whereas in Africa it can be both.”
Jenna discovered this while researching her magical realist short film, The Tunnel, which she made through Focus Features Africa First Short Film Programme.
“I started reading all the African literature I could find, like Amos Tutuola and Ben Okri. It blew my mind and brought home the importance of telling stories with an African voice. There are such different ways of telling stories and incorporating the things around you. I hadn’t seen that before, because I hadn’t been exposed to African stories. I was really excited by the way that magical realism plays such an important part, in a way that’s not tacked on but part of everyday life. It really hit home that there’s so much that you have here, so why tell it in a way that could be told by anyone else?”
Jenna moved from exploring African literature into African cinema, like Ousmane Sembene. “I went to film school in South Africa and we didn’t have a single lecture in three years about African cinema. When I started watching African films, I wondered why we are so ashamed and sheepish about the fact that we don’t have a cinema tradition, because we totally do. We’ve had this cinema heritage for a long time but we’ve only started to realize it now. It’s quite embarrassing. I don’t even know if it has to do with being white because I wouldn’t say black filmmakers have much of a sense of it either. South Africa can be a Euro-centric, Americanised ghetto – we’re just as guilty of generalizing the African continent as America is, so watching African cinema has been really important for me.”
Lauren says those generalizations about Africa play an important role in her work. “People still have such preset notions about what Africa is – blood diamonds and child soldiers and famine and plague – so it’s really nice to be able to fuck with that and subvert it. There is so much more to South Africa and Africa.”
Jenna agrees. “There’s always been this tendency to give the world what they want of Africa, but now I’m asking how do I want to represent Africa and the place I live in.”
Tok Tokkie is currently raising finance to shoot next year, while Zoo City is in script development stage and looking for co-production partners.
Variety asked me to write about the race to be the next District 9, which you can read here. The article above is everything else that didn’t fit in the 500 words they requested.