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South Africa 'better than Canada' for filming

Director Ruba Nadda (right) gets ready to film a scene for her film "Inescapable" in Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 9, 2012. Filmmakers like Nadda say South African crews are top-notch and the labour, location and equipment costs are low.

Candace Feit

When Canadian director Ruba Nadda found it was too dangerous to shoot her latest film in the Middle East, she needed a location that could double for Syria. So she moved the production to a surprising place: South Africa.

"I was wary at first," she recalls in an interview on the Johannesburg set of her new film, Inescapable. "And then my mind was blown. The equipment and the crews are the best we've ever had in our entire lives." Her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper: "Better than Canada."

Nadda has made the same discovery as a growing number of producers. A string of Hollywood shoots here in recent months - including Safe House and Chronicle and the upcoming Dredd - is making South Africa the new hot spot for film. And stealing business away from Canada.

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The country's cinematic assets are similar to Canada's: a vast diversity of scenery, a multicultural population, relatively low costs, experienced film crews and generous government support (15 to 25 per cent of costs).

Like Canada, South Africa also has the advantage of urban and rural landscapes that can pass for almost anywhere. Chronicle uses the streets of Cape Town to mimic Seattle. In Machine Gun Preacher, the bushland near Johannesburg portrays South Sudan.

Nadda's film is being shot in widescreen on a modest budget of about $5-million. That means every background detail must be authentic, but she has been thrilled by Johannesburg's gritty diversity, which took her back to her teenage years in Damascus, and she has had no difficulty finding the mosques, palm trees and desert highways that she needed.

"There are so many Islamic neighbourhoods here," she says. "We'd see a veiled woman walking down the street, and we're like, 'Where are we?' Look at the cobblestones, the palm trees, the colour of the sky - it could be the Middle East."

Already, South Africa's appeal is having an impact on Canada's film industry. For example, the producers of Chronicle considered shooting in Vancouver, but decided on Cape Town Film Studios instead, ranked as one of the 10 best studios in the world.

Nadda's producer, Daniel Iron, loved shooting in South Africa too: "You can find anything here. ... And it's cheaper than shooting in Canada, because labour costs are lower, location costs are lower and equipment costs are lower."

Not everything is perfect. Cape Town Film Studios has admitted it needs to upgrade its facilities with sets in the style of American suburbs and with more stock of U.S. school buses, ambulances and left-hand-drive cars (South Africans drive on the right).

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Crime is another potential issue for filmmakers here. Gerard Butler, star of Machine Gun Preacher, complained of carjackings and accidents in South Africa during his shoot. He told the New York Post that two crew members were killed during the filming, although he did not give any details.

But Nadda says she found South Africa safer than the Middle East. And she didn't face the censorship of her script that she would have been forced to accept in Jordan.

South African filmmaker Ronnie Apteker, who has made local movies as well as worked in the United States, goes further. He says it's easier to shoot films in South Africa exactly because the rules on the streets are more ... relaxed, shall we say.

He is candid that it's sometimes possible to slip some money to a policeman to persuade him to turn his back.

"There's no law here, and that's what we love," he says. "You can get away with a lot more risk-taking. You can start shooting, the police will come, you can start telling them some story, and by the time it's finished, you've already got your scene done. You try to do that in New York and you'll get hit over the head by a policeman."

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