Although Katie Taylor has never been a household name, her interviews for this film convey a clear sense of the life she ultimately gave up for the Film School Africa program. Taylor’s credits range from award-winning dramas (The Descendants, Milk) to blockbusters (Spider-Man 3), a testament to the pure love of film she espouses whenever she isn’t talking about her students. In fact, we are told early on that the idea Film School Africa was conceived during her visit to the poor township of Kayamandi in 2008. Here, Taylor met a young man who said he was born to be a filmmaker despite having no knowledge, money, or equipment to realise this goal. After returning to Kayamandi with cameras, laptops and a modest lesson plan, she discovered other residents who shared this passion.
I imagine anyone reading this would likely agree on the power and value of cinema. This is what makes FILM SCHOOL AFRICA’s documentary format such a smart idea, as the audience is unambiguously shown and told the impact Taylor’s classes have on her students. For instance, one student casts his parents in an autobiographical short depicting an argument between the pair from his childhood. The experience allows his mother to realise not only how vividly her son had remembered this event, but its impact. Given Taylor largely focused on adapting students’ stories into traditional narratives, the interview-heavy approach adopted by Pfaff here is not the most obvious choice. Yet ironically, the history of the program feels so much like something out of a film that I might not have believed it were true otherwise.
The program grows following Taylor’s permanent relocation to South Africa, eventually hiring additional staff and offering classes at three locations. Subsequently, Pfaff spends most of FILM SCHOOL AFRICA’s second half focused on a single group of students: Sihle, Repro, TK and Juan. This cohort coincidentally represents four different cultural heritages, giving the viewer an insight into the dynamics and contrasts between communities. Most interestingly, Juan, an Afrikaner, has never been to a township and is visibly nervous when going to Kayamandi to shoot. Meanwhile, Sihle and Repro grew up in similarly impoverished areas; thankfully, this merely leads to some teasing and suggests that the youth of South Africa will be able to overcome any lingering divisions from the apartheid era.
Nevertheless, my enjoyment at seeing the four students successfully premiere their films to family and friends was slightly diminished by the relative lack of attention paid to most of Film School Africa’s early adopters. An especially glaring example of this is Molathise, a young man who is not properly introduced until after his tragic death. I think this is largely a structural issue given the ‘main’ quartet are absent for so much of the film’s first half, but other stories do feel strangely unfinished. In fact, Gasthon, one of Pfaff’s first interview subjects, went on to become a staff member and launched the program in his own community. This would’ve been a perfect (if once again, almost too good to be true) epilogue, but isn’t in the film. I looked up Film School Africa’s website and discovered it for myself.
FILM SCHOOL AFRICA effortlessly keeps the audience invested in its subjects and will have you feeling optimistic about our ability to tell our own stories. My (very minor) issues aside, it’s a charming debut from Nathan Pfaff which is perfect for anyone looking to explore South African history and cultures and enjoy every minute of it.