‘Fictional’ Cape Town

Yesterday, while quickly blogging about the Carl’s Jr commercial, presumably set in Istanbul, but actually shot in Cape Town, I was reminded of French photographer Cecile Mella’s project “Fictional Cape Town.” Mella documents the manufactured worlds produced by advertising firms using locations around Cape Town as a stand-in for European, British or American scenes. “… A characteristic wine farm is transformed into a Dutch homestead, or a Long Street café becomes a Parisian bistro for a day or two.”  Not surprisingly these ads contribute to the racial political economy of the city. There are lots of work for mostly local and expatriate whites as actors, models and extras in front of cameras on these shoots. Blacks, with few exceptions, do lots of the heavy, manual labor in the industry, as Mella’s work show. Why Cape Town? It is cheaper to shoot (because of the favorable exchange rate) and it comes with good infrastructure and trained films crews. Mella has written that the advertising industry “semi-colonizes slices of the city,” yet hopes attentive viewers can catch the glimpses of the real Cape Town in her images of these “crooked landscapes” and manufactured worlds. Here we’re posting some of the images. The one above is for a “worldwide campaign for a cereal brand commissioned by UK-based clients.” Below, the Company’s Gardens are transformed into Poland for  “a national campaign for the Polish branch of a global phone network company.”

Below, Mamre, a mission station town of mostly working class coloured people 50km north of Cape Town, is transformed into a colonial fantasy in a “national campaign for a Middle East telecommunication company.”

Filmed on Keerom Street (the site of the High Court), this scene below is from a “production for a Korean electronics company advertising a digital camera.”

Finally, she also includes the occasional image like the one below where a black staffer does the hard work ahead of the shoot captured in the first image.

For more details, see her website.

6 thoughts on “‘Fictional’ Cape Town

  1. I’m not sure I understand your complaint, Sean.

    Are you unhappy that firms do not include black models in advertisements that are intended for countries with statistically insignificant black populations like South Korea or Turkey? Why exactly does the staging for the Middle Eastern telecommunications company (photo 3) represent a “colonial fantasy” — Is it because the models — who appear to be Middle Eastern — are wearing straw hats…? Is it inappropriate for these firms to hire locals to do off-camera work, as indicated in the last photo? Who should they hire instead? Finally, why on earth do you think it is appropriate or acceptable for Mella to equate staging a photo shoot in Cape Town with colonialism?

  2. Perhaps I’ve lived too long in LA/SoCal. My sun-soaked brain has lost a critical edge for examining the blurry edges between fact and fiction. Catching a glimpse of Cape Town behind a zooming car or slinking beauty queen delights rather than irks me. I’m pleased for the reminder, like a quirky souvenir. I also grew up amused by the many buildings that my Dad’s LA-area high school is made to represent on film and video–curious about its possible multiple identities. But I couldn’t have been possessive about its first identity, because it wasn’t my school (which, by the way, could only be used as a stand-in for a minimum security prison). Just like Cape Town, no matter how much I appreciate it, will never be “my” city, so my responses to its appropriation will be different from those who grew up there.

    Sean, your comments got me thinking in two directions. First: How does Cape Town’s colonial history shape our understanding of its appropriation in for global, capitalist marketing (or marketing global capital?)? How is dressing Cape Town’s sites like a set different from when that happens in New York or Vancouver? Films and commercials and music videos create a global imaginary shaped by fictional, appropriated images from many places. Is it especially problematic that some of those “could be anywhere” sites happen to be shot in the Cape? Or is the issue that striking visual markers from the Cape, things that could not be anywhere else (Cape-Dutch farm house in Stellenbosch, Signal Hill behind a Turkey burger) can, in fact, be place-neutral in ways that iconic sites elsewhere (the reservoir in Central Park) can’t be–because most people consuming a “global imaginary” don’t know what Cape Town looks like, but they do recognize New York.

    Second: Your comments about how the film industry functions in Cape Town reflect global, racialized hierarchies of labor that are a consequence of the world’s colonial history. If that were to change in Cape Town, what would be the goal? To have more racial diversity on both sides of the camera? To strive for pay equity on both sides of the camera? To keep things cheap, regardless of who’s doing the work, so that film work continues to come to Cape Town? I pose simplistic choices in the spirit that the complicated space between “straw man” alternatives might actually prompt conversations about how the South African economy can participate globally without replicating the hierarchies and exclusions that have characterized global capital to date. (Every day needs a dose of sunny optimism!)

  3. I will start by saying I will not engage on the colonial conversation. Being a black and previously disadvantaged South African that’s still a bit touchy. (Personal issues, I know).

    I live in Cape Town and am in the film industry. I personally think you are into something, but are not looking at its entirety. Numerically, you are right in arguing that there are more white people in the film industry than there are black people. The operative word is MORE not ONLY. Regarding the labour? I think you got that part wrong, Sean. In my experience, you can get as much black people doing the gaffer job as the white people. Yes, the power chain is there and mostly occupied by white people. But I say ‘So what?’ I take that as a challenge for black people to prove ourselves. I have accepted that challenge and working hard in making my Producing days come to pass. You just watch this space.

    P.S. The man sweeping is a Coloured man. Not Black. You confuse the two in this country and get in some trouble. Just saying.

    Great observation otherwise.
    Take Care

  4. Eita!

    I think you got it wrong Sean.

    If your examples were relevant to our context – meaning South African market – your argument will stand. Given the fact that we living in globalised society, our cities get to be “semi-colonised” by foreign capital. Your assertion that “these ads contribute to the racial political economy of the city” is wrong; we only providing infrastructure/setting and favourable economic conditions unless you have a problem with the city architecture. Imagine if these ads were shot in Langa, Gugulethu or Khayelitsha for a European based product…it wouldn’t make sense.

    Yes, the South African advertising industry needs to change but within our shores.


  5. Thanks Sean, you’re article touches on structures of the city of Cape Town and also within its Film and Commercial Industry that is very difficult to express because it is so subtle, and in alot of cases taboo to speak openly about for fear of loosing future job prospects. The Film and Commercial Industry has a long history of exploiting black people. It was expected in the days of Apartheid:
    Here’s a couple of Films about Black people but directed by white story tellers.
    The first South African film with an all-Black cast, Donald Swanson’s Jim comes to Jo’burg /African Jim was released in 1949
    Katrina (1969) (directed by Jans Rautenbach). A love story between an Interracial couple. Filmed in Paarl and Cape Town, Katrina also features the invisible people of Apartheid South Africa (blacks and coloureds) in the background, the sixties slum neighbourhoods tidied up and sanitized for the sake of the film.
    Boesman en Lena (1973), directed by Ross Deverish, was the first feature film to portray the poverty and enforced removals of people classified as “black”. It won a gold and silver medal at the 6th Atlanta Film Festival in the United States.

    the List goes on…its a legacy we seem follow to today. There is a sense of undermining black story tellers in Cape Town productions that is difficult to shake off.

    There are more black people hired in the Film and Commercial Industry today, yes. but what is the percentage of Black Story tellers being the drivers seat? In the industry, in production offices we all see that the people in charge of the creation and feel of most stories produced in Cape Town are white, and Black people lead via following the orders from white story tellers.

    Lets not deny that Cape Town prides itself in its preservation of Colonial Architecture and Statues, and pulls a lot of western Foreign Interest and investment because of this. Film and commercials play on Romanticism of colonial days. and through the eyes of white story tellers it proves possible to do so.. but in the reality of black history its a very ugly thing to revisit.

    About working hard Xolani and eventually reaping the rewards… maybe you will be an exception…but just look into your family and community …of hard workers…in the farm and the factories, what rewards have they received. we all work hard in the film and commercial industries (its the nature of our work)…but a privileged few rise up much faster…and a privileged few are guided and even helped to drive stories for South Africans.

    if you think its all old news and things have changed.. Lets look at the Nelson Mandela movie that’s in Pre- Production through Film Africa at present. The Long Walk to Freedom. Nelson Mandela the father of South African Democracy. His long waited story is told by an English born White Director, the main cast are African American…and the production team of story tellers/ HOD’s supporting the Director are all White. I hear that there are two crew members of colour that are supporting the HOD’s.

    Maybe Mandela fell short on that long walk he took, cos it seems that South Africans will have to wait still before Black storie Tellers get recognised as not just support crew.

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