South African director Tonie van der Merwe is almost single-handedly responsible for an entire film movement. Sensing in the 1970s that there was a market in South Africa for the blaxploitation movies making a noise in the US – pioneering films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and the now iconic Shaft (1971) – he teamed up with film-makers Louis and Elmo de Witt to create pulpy, action-driven ‘B-movies’ of his own.
These B-movies proved immensely popular, to the point where van der Merwe was making one a month at times. They may be low quality when judged by the standard of big-budget Hollywood productions, but these films offered black Africans something that Hollywood couldn’t: heroes (or anti-heroes, in the case of Fishy Stones) that they could relate to, in locations they recognised as home.
Like the industry that inspired them, though, the objective of South African B-movies like Fishy Stones was to make money. Early in his directorial career, van der Merwe invested his own assets to finance and produce his films, using his cars, aircraft and equipment from his construction company to get the projects off the ground. Production costs were kept low by government subsidies that the director himself successfully lobbied for.
The commercial spirit with which these films were made results in works that share many of the traits of Hollywood genre productions, but with a distinctly home-made aesthetic. Runtimes are kept short, as is the case with Fishy Stones, which comes in under ninety minutes. Editing is choppy, and the soundtracks are roughly overlaid.
The primary goal, though, was to draw audiences in and keep them entertained. That meant writing stories that moved fast and contained plenty of action. Fishy Stones is a good example. It takes elements of archetypal heist, prison escape and revenge movies, and stitches them together to create a brisk, yet surprisingly talky movie.
Two hapless crooks, played by Innocent ‘Popo’ Gumede and Hector Manthanda, execute a heist to steal some diamonds, but just as they’re congratulating themselves on how easy they found it, the police give chase. As the authorities close in on them, the thieves wrap the diamonds up and ditch them in some bushes, in the hope of returning later to find them again.
Inevitably, the pair are caught and sent to prison, but it’s not long before they manage to escape, and their first thought is for the jewels. Unknown to them, two young men have found the diamonds while on a camping trip, completely unaware that the escaped crooks are closing in on them.
The thieves are likeable rogues, defined as much by their buffoonery as they are by their ambition to make a fortune through their ill-gotten goods. Their aspirations are supposed to be familiar, even if we don’t agree with their means of achieving them. Sometimes, the comedy is unintentional, particularly when the two criminals are allowed a little back-and-forth with each other.
In one scene, the two thieves have tracked down the men who have their diamonds, and as they spy on them from the bushes, they manage to have a whole conversation without really saying anything at all:
Thief 1: ‘I’m watching mine. Look, there he goes.
Thief 2: ‘You better be watching yours. Because I’ve been watching mine. You were looking at mine now…’
Thief 1: ‘No, I was watching mine, but suddenly he was gone!’
Thief 2: ‘We’ve been watching them for ages!’
It goes on like this for several minutes, until…
Thief 2: ‘Well, at least you were watching yours. I had my eyes on mine. I’m not waiting here anymore. We’ve been standing here for ages.
The camera remains fixed on the two lurking thieves throughout, with no intervening POV shots to show us what it is they’re looking at or talking about. You begin to wonder why they’re standing there long before the penny drops for them and they finally make their move.
The film is full of questionable edits like this, but it’s these rough edges that give Fishy Stones its charm. The funk soundtrack, for instance, is completely incongruous to the images it accompanies, but it is so evocative of the blaxploitation films that inspired Fishy Stones that it somehow seems appropriate.
The South African B-movies of this period will not be remembered for their quality, but rather as proof of the boundless appeal of cinema. Tonie van der Merwe took the skeleton of a subgenre, repurposed it for new audiences, and found something that delighted them. The films are rudimentary, even amateurish at times, but they often managed to do something that big-budget Hollywood films routinely fail at: they entertained people.
Country: South Africa Language: Zulu Year: 1990 Director: Tonie van der Merwe Writer: Ilza Oosthuizen Starring: Innocent Gumende, Kay Magubane, Hector Manthanda Runtime: 69 minutes