south africa

Solar System

Words: Ann Donahue

In South Africa, solar-powered cinemas bring the documentary filmmakers of “+27” full circle to their subjects.

After spending three years of his life working on the six-episode documentary series +27: Social Innovators of South Africa, the last thing Rowan Pybus wanted to worry about was the power going out in the middle of a screening.

But Pybus, the series’ executive director and producer, is based in South Africa, where, he says, the national power supplier is failing the country “dismally.”

This is why Pybus co-founded Sunshine Cinema, a company that uses solar-powered generators to bring films to underserviced areas of the country. On an April night in Tembisa, a township near Johannesburg, one of the company’s solar screenings came to the rescue so that the area’s residents could see the episode of “+27” that focuses on the Indigenous Dance Academy, a dynamic troupe based in the township and run by Jarrel Mathebula and Neo Sebete.

“What is happening now in South Africa is a lot of participants can’t afford to stream the entire episode they were involved in,” he says. “I asked Jarrel and Neo what they needed as an event – we brought in drapery and sound and the energy. We totally canceled out the fact that on the night, [national power utility] Eskom kept cutting the power out to the whole of Tembisa every 20-30 minutes.”

The purpose of “+27”—the telephone country code for South Africa—was twofold: to highlight grassroots social programs in the country, and to train the country’s next generation of filmmakers on documentary production practices.

The director of the Indigenous Dance Academy episode, Lebogang Rasethaba, previously did a film of IDA’s journey to the Red Bull Beat Battle dance competition. “It was meant to be a once-off,” Rasethaba says. “I think a year later Rowan called me and told me that the possibility of making the initial small project into something bigger had materialized. My small modest video was now a big thing.”

Created in tandem with Red Bull Amaphiko, a program that supports those working to solve social problems, each episode of “+27” examines a different grassroots charity endeavor in South Africa. Besides IDA, organizations featured include Hoops4Hope; the Ilizwi Photo Club; the Ikasi Experience, which mentors entrepreneurs, and DJ Ready D’s work with the Great Cape Ambassadors Program, which uses hip-hop to inspire kids.

south africa

The crew from the Indigenous Dance Academy shows off their Isbhujwa moves.

© Sydelle Willow Smith

For Rasethaba, conforming his artistic vision to the straitlaced requirements of episodic television was a challenge, and the behind-the-scenes struggles of creating “+27” are detailed in a series of auxiliary web videos to the show.

“It has made me selfless as a filmmaker,” Rasethaba says. “Each piece of work I do, I want it to completely honor the subjects, their story, and for the glory to be exclusively focused on the people I made the film about. It is important to know that my film didn’t make Jarrel a social innovator, and beyond the lifespan of my film, everyone featured wakes up every day with the same battles the film compresses into 22 minutes. ”  

Full episodes of +27 Social Innovators of South Africa can be seen on Red Bull TV; behind-the-scenes footage of “+27” can be found on

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04 2015

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