Crime Beat: SA’s crime movies
Earlier this year I wrote a story for the Red Bulletin on the growing number of South African crime movies. It appeared in their March edition. The movies have been breaking into the international circuit with the same punch as local crime fiction. Here’s the story, and below it you’ll find the complete interviews with the four movie directors:
Seven guys in a township street at dusk. Blue mountains in the distance and tall street lights gleaming, like distant stars. Flames leap from a brazier on the sandy pavement as the men – wearing hoodies, beanies, baggie jeans, trainers – move towards you. Most of them are toting pistols. Guy in the middle’s got his jacket open, bare tattooed torso, a silver chain around his neck. Your worst nightmare approaches. Welcome to the Cape Flats.
That scene opens the trailer for a new South Africa crime thriller, Four Corners. The gritty realism recalls The Wild Bunch and The Magnificent Seven, but what is remarkable about this movie is not only what it’s about (gang life on the Cape Flats, and all the horror and heartache and fear and redemption that entails) but that it is South Africa’s official selection for the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Oscars.
Not bad going for a movie genre that’s as young, locally, as its crime fiction counterpart. In fact, apart from a few thriller movies in the previous three decades – among them Diamond Hunters (1975), Mapantsula (1988), The Line (1994) and Sexy Girls (1997) – there has been a steady accumulation following Hijack Stories, which so grippingly got things underway in 2000. With that movie came a new feel and a tougher, more realistic style, and it spawned films that instead of romanticising underworld life were more unrelenting in their vision.
Up came Tsotsi (2005); the fast, stylish Jerusalema (2008); the complex A Small Town Called Descent (2010); then Menda City, the searing State of Violence and the slick How To Steal 2 Million (all in 2011), to name the most prominent. And for release this year: Four Corners (on 28 February) and iNumber Number (on 28 March), about a cop turned robber.
What is it about crime that suddenly has some of the country’s best novelists and directors so worked up? It’s partly due to the true crime situation we all inhabit in South Africa, but more importantly it’s about using what Four Corners director Ian Gabriel calls “a universal genre”.
With these sorts of stories, “you at least have the potential to break out and reach a good audience locally and internationally,” he says. Which is exactly what’s happened to a number of SA crime novelists, and what now seems to be happening to SA filmmakers too.
But apart from using the genre to gain a wider audience, these stories have a cathartic effect, according to their directors. “I think we tell stories to unburden ourselves and to share our dreams,” adds Gabriel. “As we live in a tough society, we need to know that tough dreams will evolve.
“Crime thrillers give you the opportunity to discuss social issues in a way that attracts audiences and makes the social issues palatable to a mass audience,’ says Gabriel. “In Four Corners, our themes are about family and legacy and focus on the choices that a young boy must make as he comes of age. All those themes are dealt with in the context of the gang thriller genre. Without those themes, there would not be a positive outcome to our story, and that’s really the thing we wanted – to tell a Cape Flats story that offered a positive resolution.”
Art imitating life
For Gabriel, as with the directors of other SA thriller movies, the goal is to take the story which lies behind over-simplified newspaper headlines and expand it into issues that are more complex and universal.
Look at Jerusalema, for instance. Racism, xenophobia, greed, corruption, drugs and the hijacking of buildings are just some of its themes. The movie kicked off with a gangster being hunted down by cops in hard-boiled scenes the like of which had never been seen in South African cinema before. Heart-pounding, nerve-wracking stuff.
“When I wrote Jerusalema, I was writing about what I saw in South Africa,” says director Ralph Ziman. “People who felt that their aspirations and needs were not being met by the government. People who felt that they had very few options for social mobility. The vast inequality that was created under apartheid when only whites were allowed to own property, and the fact that little had been done to address this. I understand that these are very complex issues and the film was a commentary on what I saw. The issues are very real, and the solutions are incredibly complex.”
As Ziman points out, crime is a big story in South Africa. But he also notes: “The new struggles are not about race or politics, but about class. There is a massive divide between rich and poor, and crime thrives in this vacuum.”
It’s an issue which can be found in Menda City and State of Violence. The latter set out to show how the past haunts the present and offered no easy answers. The same goes for A Small Town Called Descent, where the corruption of the past met the corruption of the present and blood was shed.
“Humanity as a whole has proven to have a fascination with the cinema of the underworld,” says Descent’s director Jahmil Qubeka, whose latest offering, Of Good Report, was first banned and then unbanned at the 2013 Durban International Film Festival. “How else do you explain the global fascination with the genre? In South Africa, the scourge of apartheid has a long legacy of violence. The system broke down the family structure, the communal structure, and most crucially, the individual sense of identity. During apartheid, the gangster and the liberation struggle hero walked a similar path. They were both misfits of society, outlawed and banished.
“Descent was born from my visceral reaction to the politics and social ills of 2008. The country was at a crossroads and as a proud citizen, I could feel and see it. Even more troubling is that we have not moved or progressed from that dire set of circumstances. We are still at the same fork in the road, paralysed by our own indecisiveness and fear.”
Out of left-field came the funny, sophisticated How to Steal 2 Million. It’s a movie about a likeable Jack, his treacherous friend Twala and a lovely Olive and their attempt to relieve Jack’s father of the said two million. There’s violence, but there’s also humour.
“What I like about the genre and crime drama is that it is inherently commercial and as filmmakers, we want people to see our films,” says director Charlie Vundla. “For me, humour works best when it works in counterpoint with dire, serious circumstances. I try to be true to my own sensibilities when I write and direct, and for me that’s just the way life is: there’s often humour in the worst atrocities. It just takes a little skill and an idiosyncratic eye to spot it.”
Like much of South African crime fiction, these movies aren’t getting the local attention they should. Yet they are classy, sexy, stylish and, considering the Four Corners Oscar nomination and iNumber Number getting a Hollywood make-over, there’s clearly international appreciation. There’s also plenty of praise from film festivals around the globe.
Vundla again: “One newspaper said my movie was ‘violent and vulgar’. The latter criticism I find mind-boggling considering the body count in your average Hollywood film is way beyond my film. If anything, it’s been better received abroad. It’s been distributed in North America, shown at various film festivals to positive reviews, and won best film and best director at the Africa Movie Academy Awards. Domestic audiences tend to be very hard on their own films, and South Africans in particular often seem to have a terrible inferiority complex. White folks look to Europe, black folks look to America. What else can I say?”
State of Violence – a tough movie if ever there was one, which raised controversial social and political issues – was so hot that director Khalo Matabane prefers not to talk about it any more. Similarly, Ziman’s Jerusalema went down well locally but as he says, “anything South African seems to be controversial. We received a lot of flak from government organisations for portraying SA in a bad light. I’m not sure that it’s our obligation to paint a rosy picture that the government is happy with. After all, the people who can best deal with the issues of crime, poverty and policing are the government.”
Qubeka has had similar responses to A Small Town Called Descent, but he brushes them aside. “I have heard this kind of rhetoric from politicians and what I term ‘barfly academics’ who purport a concern for the image of the black man. I have often been accused of portraying the black man in a negative light. Well, my response is that if you want sugar-coated projections of the ‘progressive’ black man, then get yourself a box-set of Tyler Perry films.”
Like their crime fiction cousins, South Africa’s gangland thrillers do not leave you unmoved. They are controversial, contentious, and arguably feature the most dynamic work in South African cinema today. Above all, they are entertaining. They demand to be seen.
Here are the complete responses by the four directors. The Q&As took place in December 2013 before some of these movies had been released.
Although there have been some crime thriller movies dotted through our movie history, it is really since Hijack Stories and Tsotsi that the genre has come into its own. Why do you think this is?
Ian Gabriel, director of Four Corners: The genre is universal, and with the cost of movies, you need to be able to make universal stories so that you at least have the potential to break out and reach a good audience locally and internationally. In Four Corners, we’ve created a multi-thread story that starts in the prisons (the movies’ eponymous Four Corners) where we see a prison riot that is a prologue to the story, a kind of Greek chorus urging the viewers to anticipate the unexpected as the story unfolds. The prisoners are living according to a ‘proud’ tradition of bloody war that has prevailed in the SA prison system with strict codes and mythologies and its own language for over the hundred year history of the Number Gangs, with often drastic rules and myths controlling lives and decisions in prison that overlap and continue to control lives outside the prisons. We wanted to create a sense of a dark, secret underbelly, and yet suggest clear sense of light in the dark. In this way, one could feel with and be part of the tough lives of the men who individually make up the riot, yet empathize with the sense of pain, regret and lost dreams, the effect on each individual, an effect that we felt was as powerful and important as the underbelly of rising tensions in Four Corners, as the gang story, the crime story, the family story and the coming of age story gravitate toward an unavoidable single climax in the film.
The themes that are introduced in the prison scenes come back, to haunt the viewer later in the story as the links between what’s happening outside resonate with the mythological themes first laid out in the prison. I think any mythology requires and deserves some inspection to understand its power. Four Corners – is a story that’s both localized in the heart of Cape Town’s ganglands but also one that portrays the universal theme of fraught family ties – and tries to capture the poignant rawness of the characters and the energy of the daily struggle spent living at the fringe of a society.
Ralph Ziman, director of Jerusalema: Crime is the big story in South Africa. The new struggles are not about race or politics but about class. There is a massive divide between rich and poor in South Africa and crime thrives on this vacuum.
Charlie Vundla, director of How to Steal Two Million: Hijack Stories and Tsotsi really didn’t have much to do with me making my own crime drama. I fed off of international filmmakers I admire and had a look at their first films: namely Joel Coen’s “Blood Simple”, David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” and Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”. I just write and direct what I love and I think the crime drama is a genre that allows the filmmaker to accomplish so much.
Jahmil Qubbeka, director of A Small Town Called Descent: Humanity as a whole has proven to have a fascination with cinema of the underworld. How else do you explain the global fascination with the genre. In relation to SA, the scourge of apartheid has a long historical legacy of violence. The system broke down the family structure, the communal structure and most crucially the individual’s sense of identity. During apartheid the gangster and the liberation struggle hero walked a similar path. They were both misfits of society outlawed and banished from its entrails. That is why Oliver Schmidt’s 1986 film, Mapantsula, is such a brilliant and poignant piece of work. It nails this point. In post-apartheid South Africa the game has significantly changed. The liberation struggle hero was legitimised yet the township gangster remained on the periphery of society. However their aura remained. For the majority of black South Africa the world of the township gangster is a familiar one. We all have one or two members of our own family who are connected to this world and thus I do believe that although we may not necessarily agree with the gangster’ activities, he is close to our hearts.
Crime thrillers are firstly to entertain but they also cover a range of themes (racism, xenophobia, gangs, greed, corruption, hijacked buildings, drugs, being a few), and they contrast the rich against the poor segments of our society. They seem to be ideally suited to dealing with social (and political) issues. Why do you think this is? It also seems to be part of your approach…
Ian Gabriel: I think crime thrillers give you the opportunity to discuss social issues in a way that attracts audiences and makes the social issues palatable to a mass audience. In Four Corners our themes are about family and legacy and focus on the choices that a young boy must make as he comes of age. All those themes are dealt with in the context of the gang thriller genre of our story. Without those themes there would not be a positive outcome to our story, and that’s really the thing we wanted – to tell a Cape Flats story that offered a positive resolve. Every week we see headlines from the Flats about the gang war. Our objective was to take those very blunt headlines and weave a more complex and universal story through that gang tapestry that already exists, to indicate a more complex reality than the over-simplified reality that the headlines suggest.
Ralph Ziman: I think when I wrote Jerusalema I was writing about what I saw in SA. People who felt that their aspirations and needs were not being met by the government. People who felt that they had very few options for social mobility. The vast inequity that was created under apartheid when only whites were allowed to own property and the fact that little had been done to address this. I understand that these are very complex issues and the film was a commentary on what I saw. The issues very real, the solutions incredibly complex.
Charlie Vundla: I think it’s more down to the filmmaker than the genre per se. Any genre in the hands of a skilled filmmaker can be manipulated in all sorts of clever ways. What I like about genre and the crime drama is that it is inherently commercial, and as a filmmaker we want people to see our films.
Jahmil Qubbeka: The protagonists of these types of films tend to be anti-heroes who are from the proverbial ‘wrong side of the tracks’ where the ills of society are quite evident and in your face. By definition the genre will always shed light on social ills either consciously or otherwise.
Do you expect to see this fascination with the crime thriller continuing? Can we expect more such movies? Are you planning anything more in the genre?
Ian Gabriel: I have no doubt that we can expect many more such movies, and yes I do think I’d be drawn to telling more stories in this genre.
Ralph Ziman: We are currently setting up another major South African crime drama to be shot in Johannesburg in 2014. It is a true story, money, extortion, corruption, drugs, murder and mayhem.
Charlie Vundla: Well there’s Donovan Marsh’s “iNumber Number” which has gotten great reviews and been picked up by Universal for a US remake, and there’s the Cape Flats crime film “Four Corners”. The crime film is just a universal genre that crosses all cultures and creeds. It’s here to stay. As for myself, I don’t have any specific crime film scripts in my back pocket but you never know.
Jahmil Qubbeka: Yes I am planning to further indulge the genre because it is so much fun, lol. I have a heist film on my development slate. That should take a couple of years to get that project off the ground. The flip side to that of course is the politics. I do also want to see strong black stories that transcend stereotypes.
How was your movie received in South Africa? Have you come up against the criticism that we live with crime daily so why should we also watch SA crime movies? If you have then, how did you respond? If you haven’t had to deal with this argument yet, has it been an issue which you’ve considered?
Ian Gabriel: We had a great response at our limited advance screening in Johannesburg and again at the limited Academy screenings we’ve had in Los Angeles. We haven’t really come up against the criticism you speak of though I did anticipate it, but perhaps we’ve so far avoided that criticism because the background stories in Four Corners are unexpected and have a strong level of authenticity in the fairly unknown and so far unrevealed world of the Cape Flats.
Ralph Ziman: Generally I think Jerusalema was well received and well liked. There is always criticism and anything South African seems to controversial. We received a lot of flak from government organizations for portraying SA in a bad light. I’m not sure that it’s our obligation to paint a rosy picture that the government is happy with. After all the people who can best deal with the issues of crime, poverty and policing are the government.
Charlie Vundla: The film turned a profit at the local box office, and seemed to connected with people. When I’m out and about and people realize I wrote and directed the film the reaction is overwhelmingly positive. There are haters, and their argument tends to be that the film lacked originality, or was “violent and vulgar” as some newspaper said. The latter criticism I find mind boggling considering the body count in your average Hollywood film is way beyond my film. But I try to take criticism on board because filmmakers ignore their audiences at their peril. If anything H2S2M has been better received abroad. It’s been distributed in North America, shown at the Seattle International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest to positive reviews, won best film and best director at the Africa Movie Academy Awards won a prize at FESPACO. Domestic audiences tend to be very hard on their own films, and South Africans in particular often seem to have a terrible inferiority complex. White folks look to Europe, black folks look to America. What else can I say?
Jahmil Qubbeka: Yes I have heard such mutterings and to be quite honest with you I treat such comments with the disdain they deserve.
I have heard this kind of rhetoric from politicians and what I term “Barfly Academics” who are always purporting a concern of the image of the black man.
I have often been accused of portraying the black man in a negative light. Well my response is that if you want sugar coated projections of the “progressive” black man then get yourself a box-set of Tyler Perry films.
Do you see these crime thrillers as a response to the real crime situation in the country?
Ian Gabriel: All films are a response to what stimulates the imagination of film makers and actors. Crime stories around the world are as common as family comedies, I don’t know which are more common, but I think we tell stories for catharsis and to unburden ourselves, and to share our dreams. If we live in a tough society, which we do, then we need to know that tough dreams will evolve. In Four Corners we try to contextualise a story of hope and possibility in tough times and see that tough dreams are possible, and can have a good resolve that doesn’t kow-tow to criminality or gangsterism, but shows that other outcomes are possible despite the tough circumstances of life.
Ralph Ziman: For me it was. Crime on an amazing scale.
Charlie Vundla: No, look at Scandinavian film. They arguably make the best crime films and their crime rate is a fraction of ours.
Jahmil Qubbeka: Art will always project and mirror the society it is born in. However, quite often as filmmakers we tend to project our own fears and insecurities through our work which can be a dangerous thing. I say this because the majority of us are quite removed from the material we make. It’s almost like we are living out our fantasies through the work. If we were hip hop artists we would be referred to as “studio gangsters” a street term that means you are not living what you are preaching. We should throw caution to the wind when considering the role of the middle-class filmmaker in projecting and manifesting fear through stereo types of what township life is like. It’s a privilege to be a filmmaker, to have these tools and the ability to create and manipulate the moving image to suit our agenda. Humanity is very impressionable and as peddlers of celluloid we must take this into account before we set off to make yet another gangster film.
There is a grittiness to your movies which is a hallmark of these sorts of films. But that said, was there something (either artistic or a real event) which influenced your decision to produce this edginess?
Ian Gabriel: The edginess we produced reflects our desire to authentically reflect the real life of the Flats. I spent several months personally recceing the locations for the film, and was struck again and again by the comments I heard from community members that the Flats is a ‘forgotten’ community. I wanted to be sure that the face of the community, of the ‘forgotten world’ of the Flats was authentically revealed to audiences. The grittiness is a by-product of our desire to capture the community in the moment, to reflect the world of our story in an actual and authentic context, and to capture the light and dark of that community by doing so. Four Corners is also the first film to be made in a blend of Sabela (the coded language of the Number Gangs) and ‘Kaapse’ Afrikaans. Because we wanted the sound of the film to be very authentic and gritty. Our aim in developing what could be seen and heard as a true- depiction of life and conditions in the Flats, was to leave audiences with an unrelenting desire to find out more about the ‘unknown world’ we reveal, adjacent to yet a million miles from the very known and recognised world that is Cape Town, where many of us live from day to day, oblivious of the reality that lies along the panhandle from the airport into the city bowl.
The film is shot entirely in the Flats, sometimes we glimpse the mountain as a backdrop, but the Flats is its own world. We wanted to make that quite clear in the film – it’s not an adjunct of Cape Town. The fact of Cape Town co–existing only a few kilometres away is never alluded to in the film. The world of the Flats is the world of our film. It is its own world. We were very keen to convey that idea. From the hidden world of the Flats we discovered all our actors and many non actors who could convincingly portray the world they knew, this is where we found the many music tracks we used as well. We wanted to show the Flats as its own world, with its own abundant resources of talent and life.
Ralph Ziman: I just wanted to shoot Johannesburg as it was. I love the gritty, dirty, edginess of the place. It’s vibrant, cinematic and ever changing. I didn’t think we had to do much other than turn up and roll the cameras. Documentary style, real.
Charlie Vundla: For me humour works best when it works in counterpoint with dire, serious circumstances. I try to be true to my own sensibilities when I write and direct, and for me that’s just the way life is, there’s often humour in the worst atrocities, it just takes a little skill and an idiosyncratic eye to spot it. I’m the kind of person who will often laugh at points in a movie where others are cringing. Maybe I’m just weird.
Jahmil Qubbeka: The Small Town canvas was a very large and ambitious one. Admittedly, I did not achieve everything I set out to do with that film. It was born from my visceral reaction to the politics and social ills of 2008. The country was at a crossroads and as a proud citizen I could feel and see it. Even more troubling is that we have not moved or progressed from that dire set of circumstances. We are still at the same fork in the road, paralysed by our own indecisiveness and fear.