This year’s Durban International Film Festival started yesterday. Latoya Newman takes a look at a groundbreaking project involving the restoration of vintage South African films, which makes its festival debut this year…


IT’S A case of something old, something new at this year’s Durban International Film Festival (Diff) which started yesterday.

In a marriage of support for film, the festival has teamed up with the Gravel Road African Film Legacy project to screen some of South Africa’s film treasures which were lost during the apartheid era.

Tonight caught up with Benjamin Cowley, chief executive of Gravel Road Entertainment Group, who explained how these movies emerged from a film era virtually unknown of in the country. We asked him to take us through the project’s beginnings.

“It started when I was contacted by filmmaker Tonie van der Merwe who was looking for production finance for a movie he wanted to produce. We met and ended up talking about his past and I discovered he’s quite a prolific film-maker. He made about 400 movies between 1971 and 1989. He said he had six movies lying in his garage at home. I wanted to see them and see if we could make anything of them.”

One of those movies was Joe Bullet and after Cowley had heard Van der Merwe’s story about his film-making and the banning of Joe Bullet, he thought these films simply must be seen.

“I hadn’t heard of it (Joe Bullet), in fact, not many people have because it was erased from history. So that’s how it started. From Tonie’s six movies, we started cataloguing more. We are now on about 160 films from the ’80s which we are restoring. Not all of these films were banned necessarily, but they were produced in an era of South African film-making that is virtually unknown of,” Cowley said.

He explained that in the ’70s and ’80s the South African film industry went through a “subsidy era” when almost 1 600 African movies, predominantly in African vernacular, were produced.

“Effectively it was like Nollywood, before there was a Nollywood in Africa. Initially, you had predominantly white producers and directors and black actors, but eventually black writers and directors emerged and white directors would ‘front’ the production in order for the black filmmakers to get access to funding.”

The Gravel Road African Film Legacy has unearthed a treasure of local films with original South African Westerns (set in what was then Natal), sci-fis, creature features, buddy cop movies, dramas and more being restored.

“It is a wide variety of movies. They are not all on the level of Joe Bullet because they were done on low budgets, but they are still entertaining. In April we put together the Mayibuye Film Festival on SABC and for three Sundays in a row we screened two movies from this era back-to-back. We are now in discussions to get the SABC and DStv to take on more of these films,” Cowley said.

He explained that they have to source and locate, acquire rights, digitally restore and distribute the films, adding that the restoration of the picture and audio – depending on the damage – can take anywhere up to six weeks. In the case of Joe Bullet, it took three months.

“We chose to start our partnership with the Durban International Film Festival with Joe Bullet because of the historical significance of film. The film was banned not only because it featured a black cast, but it also portrayed an aspirational black hero with a gun. Tonie appealed the ban and the film was eventually unbanned, but the producers decided not to release it again. So Joe Bullet will receive its first world premiere at the Diff.

“The film features a lot of guys who started their careers in the media space with such films.”

Joe Bullet marks the beginning of what it is hoped will be a long-term relationship between the Diff and The Gravel Road African Film Legacy. Cowley said it was hoped that by the next festival they would be able to run a retrospective of about six to eight films from this era – a mini vintage festival of sorts that would run alongside the Diff.

“The filmmakers of this era were largely not filmmakers to start with, but they got into it because of that subsidy that was offered to make African film.

“When that subsidy fell away, it all disappeared. So these guys went out and got day jobs and within the blink of an eye an era of South African film was lost,” Cowley explained.

He said they were trying to push awareness around the project and this era of South African film as much as possible.

“We are trying to get them out there through the SABC and DStv and are in talks with some international festivals for selection.

“I can’t say yet, but a couple have expressed interest in not only Joe Bullet, but also other films and the possibility of running a small selection of these films.”

Joe Bullet was banned by the apartheid government in 1972. It stars Ken Gampu, Abigail Kubeka and Cocky “Two Bull” Tlhotlhalemaje.

Joe Bullet is one of South Africa’s first all-African cast films. According to Gravel Road Entertainment’s Retro Afrika Bioscope – their specialty release label for classic retro African content ( – the film centres on Joe Bullet (Gampu), a James Bond-type character who is brought in by the Eagles soccer team to fight corruption in the criminal underworld of soccer. The site says the film was shot entirely in and around Joburg in 1971.

Cowley said some of the other forgotten producers and films which they have restored include Van der Merwe’s Bullet on the Run and Umbango; Ronnie Isaacs’s Johnny Tough, Botsotso, Black Ninja and Umzingeli; Oubaas Olivier’s Treasure Hunter, Ambushed and Ezintandaneni; and Steve Hand’s Isiboshwa.

These films feature actors such as Gampu, Abigail Kubeka, Joe Lopez, Hector Mathanda, Innocent “Popo” Gumede, Joe Mafela, Steve Dlamini, Kay Magubane and others.


• Joe Bullet: Sunday at eKhaya Multi Arts Centre in KwaMashu at 11.45am; on July 24 at Ster-Kinekor Musgrave at 10pm; on July 25 the UKZN Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at 6pm. See