Africa is known for its vast plains and wild scenery, friendly people and incredible animals. Don’t be surprised, though, if you suddenly come across a Pakistani street scene in the Cape Town CBD. That’ll just be a set for the new series of Homeland. A pirate ship (inland), just past the airport? That’d be the Black Sails set. Africa has become a prime location for international series and movies.
With its friendly climate, even friendlier people and landscapes that can look pretty much lke anywhere in the world, Africa is becoming a hot spot for the shooting of films. These are our favourite ten films shot on location in Southern and Eastern Africa:
Lord of War (2005, South Africa)
Lord of War is the story of Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), the infamous arms dealer who made his fortune selling weapons in some of the world’s deadliest war zones, to some of history’s most notorious dictators.
On shooting in Africa, Cage commented: “It’s a beautiful country, the way the light falls here in Africa, you can see animals, the amount of things you can do.It’s a high adrenalin experience being in Africa.”
Jared Leto plays the role of Vitaly, Yuri’s younger brother, who struggles to get into the underworld of arms dealing and, instead, turns to cocaine.
“That’s one of the unique things about South Africa,” remarked Leto, when asked about his time in the country. “It can double for so much of the world. The topography; it’s such a bizarre place in a beautiful way. It’s been a pleasure to shoot here.”
Always under threat from rival arms dealers and Interpol agent, Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), Orlov pretends to play the perfect father and husband to Ava (Bridget Moynahan), who thinks he’s a businessman.
The movie was filmed in the USA (for nine days), then ten weeks in Cape Town, wrapping up with three days in the Czech Republic. Lower Main Road in Cape Town’s suburb, Woodstock, was completely transposed into a war-torn street scene in Monrovia.
The Last King of Scotland (Uganda, 2006)
The Last King of Scotland combines fact and fiction in an action-packed historical film about Uganda and its most powerfully terrorising leader, the infamous Idi Amin. Played by Forest Whitaker, this incredible story of a young Ugandan, who climbed from nothing to a position of considerable power as Uganda’s president in 1971, soon turns into a tale of corruption, fear and frightening cruelty.
Told from the perspective of Dr Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young doctor from Scotland who is hired as Amin’s personal physician, we are led through the story. From Amin’s initial charismatic, enthusiastic rule of the new democracy through to his spiral into unspeakable atrocities played out on the Ugandan people.
Director, Kevin Macdonald, and the producers of the film wanted to shoot it in Uganda. This posed a huge challenge, not only logistically, as Uganda has no film infrastructure, but also politically, as anything to do with Idi Amin still stirs up high (and potentially dangerous) emotion.
A meeting was held with President Yoweri Museveni and eight ministers with the perfect outcome of the president declaring he was happy to have them film there, even offering the use of his army, parliament and ministers to the crew.
The result is a movie filmed on location in many of the places where these moments in history really took place, like Entebbe Airport, where the hostage crisis occurred in 1971. Ugandan consultant, Charles Mulekwa, was pleased that he got to show both the good and bad sides of Uganda.
Obviously, shooting in Africa, especially in a country where films are seldom made, there were glitches along the way. On the first day, an action shot of emergency vehicles was delayed by a few hours as the ambulance wouldn’t start. After some investigation, it turned out that the petrol had been siphoned out in the night!
Spirits during shooting never faltered, though. When asked about the experience, Andrea Calderwood, producer, said: “The thing that truly saved us in Uganda is that everybody in the cast and crew embraced the huge challenges of shooting there, and embraced working with people who haven’t done films before, and did so with incredible energy and good humour.”
District 9 (South Africa, 2009)
Alien ships over Jozi? You’d better believe it. Director, Neill Blomkamp shot this allegorical Science Fiction feature film exclusively in Johannesburg. It’s the story of an alien species who find themselves stranded on earth, leaderless.
In a tale that partly mimics the apartheid years, the audience sees the aliens living in squalor, and being treated like third class citizens. They’re a brutal species but, as is the case with any good movie, by the end of it, it’s hard not to sympathise with them.
Shot in Johannesburg, with an almost completely South African crew, Blomkamp said the thing he found hardest to deal with was the environment in which they shot much of the film – Chiawelo, an impoverished area of Soweto. He was, however, taken by the warmth of its people, despite their circumstances.
Nominated for four Oscars, amongst many other awards, the film took the box office by storm when it was released after a fantastic viral marketing-centred promotional period which included billboards and bus shelters declaring ‘Bus Stop for Humans Only’.
Out of Africa (Kenya, 1985)
This classic film follows Karen Blixen’s time on a coffee plantation in Kenya between 1913 and 1931. Filmed on location in Kenya, including the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, the film is beautifully shot with scenes of the spectacular plains of Kenya.
Meryl Streep and Robert Redford shine as the story unfolds. There’s love, there’s betrayal, there’s conflict, World War I happens, Meryl Streep (as Blixen) angers colonial Africa by starting a school and educating the local tribe who live and work on the farm. It’s a beautiful story shot in a beautiful place.
As with any movie shot in Africa, especially rural Africa as this one was, it was not without its difficulties and quirks! Some areas were accessible only by foot, equipment, crew and cast had to make their way, wild animals watching them. Many of the extras were locals, who spoke little to no English, making communication difficult. The general feeling, though, despite these – relatively minor – issues, was one of extreme respect for the country and its people.
Meryl Streep rented a house in Nairobi for the duration of filming, where her family stayed. She quickly realised that living in Africa was not quite the same as the USA. "I went to take my son to school, and there were seven giraffes in the driveway," says Streep.
That’s what you get when you’re Out in Africa.
Mad Max: Fury Road (Namibia, due for release 2015)
Over 35 years after the first Mad Max film, Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth in the series, is due for release in 2015. The first three Mad Max movies, starring Mel Gibson, were shot (and set) in Australia, and this one, too, was supposed to be shot there. An unexpectedly rainy season, however, turned the location into a gorgeous spread of wild flowers. This, of course, did not suit the dystopian, barren landscape needed for Mad Max and the shoot moved to Namibia.
Directed, produced and co-written by George Miller, the mastermind behind the Mad Max franchise, the film stars Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Expect an action-packed trail through the vast and beautiful apocalyptic desert landscape.
Cry Freedom (Zimbabwe, 1987)
The story of political activist, Steve Biko, is set in South Africa. Shot in the late 80’s, at the height of Apartheid, it was not possible to shoot it in the country so it was, instead, shot in neighbouring Zimbabwe.
Denzel Washington plays Biko, supported by Kevin Kline, in the role of his friend, journalist Donald Woods. The film follows the story of Biko, as chronicled in Woods’ two books on the political activist. Biko died, aged 30, under suspicious circumstances in prison.
If you want an inside look at the history of South Africa, and the atrocities of the Apartheid regime, this Oscar-nominated film will give you a glimpse.
Invictus (South Africa, 2009)
Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela in the telling of the triumphant story behind South Africa’s winning of the 1996 Rugby World Cup. It was shot on location – many of them the actual locations where the events happened – in Cape Town, Pretoria, Johannesburg and on Robben Island, using predominantly South African cast and crew.
Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the Springbok rugby team, becomes friends with the president as they aim to unite the country through sport. Shooting the scene where the team visited the cell where Nelson Mandela spent so many years on Robben Island made a huge impression on the cast and crew, leaving them silent in contemplation, just as it did all those years’ ago, on the Springbok team.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, he chose to film the story, a real-life portrayal of Madiba’s ability to unite a once-fractured country, entirely in South Africa, to retain the authenticity of this heart-warming and triumphant tale.
Shooting in Africa, as always, brings its own challenges. At one point a scene was being shot in a forest near Cape Town, and the scene had to be delayed slightly, while the baboons in the trees cleared off. They stayed nearby though, a primate audience chattering in the trees!
Blood Diamond (South Africa/Mozambique, 2006)
Set in Sierra Leone in 1999, Blood Diamond is the story of a mercenary from South Africa (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a Mende fisherman (Djimon Hounsou). While the civil war rages in Sierra Leone, the two, despite coming from vastly different backgrounds, join forces to try and recover a rare pink diamond.
The film highlights the trade of blood diamonds – those mined in war zones and used to bankroll conflict in Africa and profit both diamond companies and warlords. Working conditions of miners are horrific and the film shows the atrocities of both this industry and the violence of the civil war in Sierra Leone.
Due to the poor infrastructure in Sierra Lone itself, the film was shot on locations in Cape Town, Port Edward (on the KwaZulu Natal coast) and Mozambique. Sierra Leone is a tropical country, so the tropical conditions of KwaZulu Natal and Mozambique could be dressed relatively easily to look authentic.
It sounds like it was a fairly good experience. DiCaprio had this to say afterwards: “We were working in Cape Town and Port Edward. I loved the people. I loved being there. I had some unforgettable memories in South Africa that will stay with me for a long time. I loved Cape Town especially. It was just a magical place – some of the most beautiful landscapes and the people there were so warm. I want to go back I really do.“
The Constant Gardener (Kenya, 2005)
Based lightly on a true story, the film follows the story of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a UK diplomat as he tries to explain his wife’s (Rachael Weisz) murder. She was an amnesty activist and it turns out was investigating a suspicious drug trial which may have exposed the malpractices of a major pharmaceutical firm.
The story takes place in Kenya and was shot on location in Nairobi and in the slums of Kibera. The cast and crew were affected by what they saw. Liz Miller, PR consultant for the production company, said: "We have all been warmly treated by everyone, and we feel privileged to be here. We shot for three days in the Kibera slums and the plight of the residents is profoundly sobering.”
Long Walk to Freedom (South Africa, 2013)
The incredible story of Nelson Mandela’s life – from cattle herder to world icon, and all the tumultuous bits between – was, finally, shot in South Africa in 2011, 16 years’ after Mandela published his memoirs.
Produced by Anant Singh, to whom Mandela granted the coveted rights to the movie, and directed by Justin Chadwick, the film was shot using a predominantly South African cast and crew. Locations, too, were kept, as far as possible, true to the story.
“I am British and this is a South African film and it was important to me to have South Africans tell this story, and so I began my search in South Africa.” says Chadwick.
There is not a South African who doesn’t have their own Madiba story, be it where they were when he was released or personal meetings, and it’s that that makes this movie shine. Every person involved, every location used was infused with Madiba’s spirit.