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Did you know that South Africa is really on the map when it comes to big budget Hollywood movies? Many international films, TV series and commercials are shot in the good old RSA, with good reason: South Africa has a range of beautiful scenery – beaches, mountains, deserts and forests, as well great weather, modern cities and a very professional homegrown movie industry. The favorable exchange rate of course is also a big drawcard! Here are some of the blockbusters and important films that have been fully or partially shot in SA.
In this sequel featuring the Marvel Comics superhero team, the Avengers set out to Sokovia (a fictional country in Eastern Europe) to defeat Ultron, an artificial intelligence hellbent on causing the extinction of the human race. The star-studded cast includes Robert Downey Jnr, Scarlett Johannson and Samuel L. Jackson among other well-known actors.
The action takes place in a variety of locations, including in South Africa. Film crews spent two weeks in Johannesburg’s CBD shooting action sequences to be used as background for scenes featuring the Hulk. Scenes were also shot in Italy, South Korea, Bangladesh, New York City, and around England.
With a production budget of about $365 million, it was at the time the second most expensive film ever made. Pirates off the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, made in 2011, still holds the record, coming in at an eye-watering $376.5 million.
Blood Diamond is a fictional thriller, based on the reality of diamonds being mined in Africa to fund factional wars. Miners, including underage children, are coerced to dig out these gems under duress and in dangerous situations by local warlords. Although the action is set in Sierra Leone, for security reasons most of the film was shot in South Africa and Mozambique.
Starring Leonardo Di Caprio as a former Rhodesian gun- runner, two important scenes were set in South Africa – the world-famous tourist destination of Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront and the small town of Port Alfred on the coast of the Eastern Cape province.
Directed by South African Neill Blomkamp, District 9 is a dystopian science fiction thriller about extraterrestrials who land in Johannesburg and how they are treated. Disparagingly named ‘prawns’ (after ‘Parktown prawns’– insects considered ugly pests), the aliens are interred in a slum camp next to an informal settlement. There, a few of them begin a years-long attempt to build a module that will try to reach the mothership and escape from Earth. One of the bureaucrats employed to deal with the aliens accidentally becomes infected and begins to transform into a prawn; in doing so he begins to sympathise with and understand their plight.
The locations included Chiawelo, a real life shack settlement on the outskirts of Soweto, other informal settlements around Johannesburg, as well as the once-notorious Ponte Building near Hillbrow. District 9 received four Academy Award nominations and other accolades.
The spy drama stars Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, who is now the CIA Chief of Station in Kabul, Afghanistan. She receives intelligence on the whereabouts of a wanted terrorist in Pakistan and orders a hit on him. 40 civilians attending a wedding at the same location are killed and she is recalled to the US. All kinds of internal intrigues, scandals and double dealing ensues, while Carrie learns that her target may have survived the initial attack…
In this series, Cape Town and surrounds stands in for, among other locations, Islamabad, Washington and Tel Aviv (although South African viewers weren’t fooled!). Woodstock and Salt River became the home village of a Taliban leader, a car explodes in Adderley Street on the Foreshore (aka Islamabad) and the mountains above Franschhoek represent the mountainous Afghan hinterland. When it comes to locations, South Africa is certainly versatile!
Directed by Clint Eastwood, Invictus tells the story of how the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted by South Africa (and won by South Africa!), united the country as only sport can. The remarkable performance by the Springboks, with the support of then president Nelson Mandela, is immortalized in this film which earned Academy Award nominations for Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.
Scenes from the film were shot on Robben Island, in the very cell Mandela had been incarcerated in, various locations in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and of course – the grand finale was shot at Ellis Park rugby stadium – the actual venue for this historic win.
Another in the series of immensely popular post-apocalyptic films, director George Miller’s Fury Road was nominated for ten Oscars and won six of them in 2016. The wasteland desert scenes were mostly filmed in the Namib Desert near Swakopmund, after heavy rains in the Australian desert caused the landscape to burst into flower – not the look Miller was after!
Some studio footage was shot at the Cape Town Film Studios – which boasts world-class sound stages, a deep-sea tank, and sets including a beach, a tropical island and an 18th century town.
Another South African connection is Charlize Theron, who plays Imperator Furiosa, a renegade war captain who teams up with Mad Max in the ‘War Rig’, involving – of course – a helluva journey with death and destruction all the way.
Although Nelson Mandela has appeared in numerous documentaries and news programmes (as himself), he did have one film acting credit. He played a small cameo in director Spike Lee’s biopic of Malcolm X – the controversial firebrand African American activist.
Toward the end of the movie, a scene with schoolchildren shouting “I am Malcolm X”, Mandela is seen as a school teacher in Soweto and recites the final lines from Malcolm X’s famous “by any means necessary” speech. The South African connection was to illustrate the link between the dismantling of apartheid and the American Civil Rights struggle.
Where else could the most quintessential South African story be filmed, other than in the country that defined Nelson Mandela’s life?
Based on Mandela’s autobiography, the film stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and follows his life from the hills of the Transkei as a boy, to his capture, sentencing and imprisonment on Robben Island and his final release and public appearance on a balcony of the City Hall in Cape Town.
Although interior scenes were created as sets – Mandela’s home, prison cell and courtroom, about 200 different locations were used in the filming of the tumultuous life and eventual freedom for South Africa’s most famous and revered man.
The final in the Maze Runner trilogy, the film is set entirely in and around Cape Town. The city itself has been transformed by CGI into the walled Last City, the WCKD corporation’s stronghold. Most of the population has fallen victim to ‘The Flare’, a disease that turns people into zombies – called ‘Cranks’ – with the exception of a group of young people who are immune and possibly hold the key to a cure. Of course they are cruelly exploited by WCKD who are researching a cure, but only for the chosen few. The Immunes have escaped and now need to breach the walls of the Last City and find the cure to help others.
Quite a few locations will be recognized by locals or regular visitors; scenes were shot in and around the Cape Town International Convention Centre, the Civic Centre, a cathedral and other recognizable corporate buildings. Cape Town’s famous/quirky half-finished flyover also stars in the movie, as do locals in bit parts and as extras.
Except for Lord Croft’s manor house, all the scenes from Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider were filmed in Cape Town. A gigantic 60 x 90 m water tank was specially built at the Cape Town Film Studios and the scene on the The Endurance, the ship on which Lara Croft sails to a Japanese island (and gets shipwrecked), were all created there.
Hout Bay was transformed into a Hong Kong harbour, Paarl offered forest scenes and a disused granite quarry where the entrance to the tomb was created. The interior of the tomb was built in another large warehouse studio in Cape Town.