Four lives will change forever as the destinies of a reformed prison ‘general’, a local cop, a charismatic gang leader and a surgeon back from London intersect with a young chess prodigy’s coming of age in tough circumstances in the ‘forgotten’ communities of the Cape Flats.
Structured around shifting notions of family and fatherhood and capturing the grit and hardship of fragmented families living on the fringes of society, “Four Corners” is a powerful, redemptive moral tale directed by South African director Ian Gabriel best known for his award winning film “Forgiveness.” It is the first film to be told in a blend of Sabela (the secret language of Cape Town’s infamous Numbers Gangs) Tsotsi taal, Cape Afrikaans and English dialects.
FOUR CORNERS, directed by Ian Gabriel is South Africa’s Oscar Entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Award.
Cinema Without Borders: How did you come up with the idea of making FOUR CORNERS?
Ian Gabriel: I was in line at the passport office a few years back, when I picked up a conversation with a social worker from Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison who mentioned to me that a large number of the prisoners, particularly those in the Number Gang, were the sons of prisoners and their dads had often been like them, lifelong members of the Number Gangs. So being a prisoner in South Africa was seen almost as a’ father to son’ legacy. And the overwhelming belief of these prisoners was that if they had sons, their sons too would one day be prisoners and members of the gang. I was fascinated by this idea, and came across this quotation from Johnny Steinberg who has written about the 100 year old Number Gang in his book The Number: ‘Crime has a history and a future, a canon of myths and legends by which its practitioners understand what happened in the past which helps them decide how to act in the present’. So I became fascinated with the idea of a father who wants to break this cycle and this legacy, passed from one generation to the next in South Africa, and I wanted to explore if and how it would be possible for him to break with the trap of this tradition. Simultaneously, and from personal thoughts and discoveries about my own life and family, I decided I wanted to evolve a film about lost family and family regained, and see that from many perspectives, but especially from the point of view of a young boy. So there I had it, I wanted to make a gangster film about family. Not a gangster film as one so often sees in the movies, but one I hoped to see and portray in a fresh way. I wanted to make a gang film that dealt with the trials and conflicts of life and the desire to reform and make things whole. And I wanted to look at how difficult it might be for a father, a gangster, to do that, to turn the clock back and set things right. I was interested to find out if he would be allowed to break with a tradition that had trapped his father before him. I had often heard that those who became members of the Number Gang, a fairly essential strategy if one hopes to survive in prison, were never able to really reform after their release, and that prison became the only home they really knew. So armed with these thoughts, there was lots for us to explore in a film about a father and a son in tough circumstances, who want to make things good against the tough odds of life lived in the Cape Flats.
CWB: Can you tell us about the research stage in this project including the importance of the setting and the background to the location?
IG: Our research was intensive and in fact took place over several years, with us continuing to research the project right up to the time when we were cast and ready to shoot. We visited Pollsmoor prison, interviewed police, went to the juvenile prison and the reformatory. We met a lot of previous prisoners and gang members. We spoke with a Cape Flats chess tutor who had tutored prisoners in chess, who serendipitously, we felt, became South Africa’s first Grandmaster while we were shooting Four Corners, a story about a boy who uses the stratagems of chess to see him through a week of survival as he’s coming of age in the Cape Flats. And then there’s the press – a constant reference source, as not a week goes by in South Africa without news of youngsters and teenagers from the Cape Flats involved directly or indirectly in gang shootouts.
As we approached the shoot I decided that I wanted to rec. all the locations myself, from the outset, so that I was 100% certain that the community and community members knew exactly what I wanted to do. I knew we couldn’t afford any ‘broken telephone’ misunderstandings. The community became the backbone of our effort, I would arrive at our production office and there’d be young tattoo’s guys waiting there for me, wanting to audition for bit parts in the movie, sent by some community member I’d spoken to the day before.
The settings and location were our inspiration every day. The story we were telling was unfolding out of the script, in front of us, and it was unfolding behind our backs and in our peripheral vision in the locations we were shooting in at the same time. It was not just the actors who were ‘in the moment’ – we all were in the same moment, because of the environment we were filming in. You could hear see and smell and taste all around us, versions of the story we were telling that we had scripted as ‘fiction’ that was very true to life, on the pages of the Four Corners screenplay. Now we were ready to meet the story, on the streets of the Cape Flats
CWB: How challenging was making this film?
IG: I think the first challenge is always the challenge to tell the truth, because if you can do that you’ve made a movie worth making and one worth seeing. We spent almost a year casting the film, finding the right balance of actors and real people, then finding the true locations, all in areas that some press and many police view as no go situations. So that became another challenge, to convince the crew that we would be okay – that shooting Four Corners was safe. I knew and had had lots of discussions with community members about our safety to the extent thatI felt we were protected at all times, by the community, who I took as family and who took us the same way. And were very proud to have us there telling their story. Many people in the Flats referred to the fact that the Flats is a forgotten place. Nothing happened to make me stop believing that we were protected by the community because they wanted this story to be told.
Then of course there was the challenge of money and time. Our budget, which was low was cut lower to US$1m. So we lost a week that we needed, we shot the film in 5 weeks. More time would have been better, but we did what we could with what we had, and we had authenticity on our side. That makes for quite a lot of value that money can never buy. The biggest challenge for us was to reveal a small slice of the unknown world of the Cape Flats. I hope we’ve succeeded so that audiences will want, we hope, to know and understand more.
CWB: Please tell us about your casting process for FOUR CORNERS.
IG: Kinship, fatherhood and family, loyalty and betrayal. These are the very universal themes that run through this film, and they were the themes I tried to explore in the casting sessions we held in Johannesburg and in Cape Town. The casting in Johannesburg was more formal, because there I was seeing actors used to the ‘normal’ casting process. In Cape Town the process was quite different. We went to bars and clubs and gin joints to find our cast. Very soon in the process I abandoned the script. The process was much quicker and more fruitful to conjure up a real scene from life, and explore its depiction. We started the casting sessions with improvisations, we created situations where the players could use their own way of speaking. Some spoke Cape Afrikaans dialect, other Sabela, the secret dialect of the Number Gang, because we had called real members who we could find to the casting. We had a lot of castings with kids, we saw hundreds of kids, and it was pointless to start with the text. Much simpler to start with situations, suggestions of situations with gangsters that everyone knew and understood immediately. There was no play acting then. Everyone knew exactly how to behave and what would happen. As a result the casting sessions grew long and were sometimes chaotic, we needed to try to understand and download everything we’d seen, try to figure out who could feasibly move forward with us in the structure of texted film making
There were a few roles I’d seen numerous actors for, like the role of the 28 Mamboza who performs a farewell ritual of the Number gang at the start of the film. Eventually I knew that that role could only be performed honestly by someone who had lived inside the Number. We found our guy, Turner Adams, who became a great source for ideas, thoughts, body language for our lead actor Brendan Daniels. It was great to see the trade between Brendan -the–actor- turned- gangster for the film, and Turner – the ex-gangster – turned-actorand storyteller for the film, and I believe now for his life going forward. We found actors in reformatories, who would have to stay in the reformatory if we wanted to use them, so that became the location for our shooting. We recruited ex-prisoners from an outreach program, probably the best group of very direct able extras I’ve ever worked with.
We saw hundreds of chess player aspirant actors. We narrowed down the range of young players who we liked, and then started working with them in groups with various actors that we managed to draw onto our process, to try to make all the young kids we were interested in aware that there was no right or wrong performance, that we wanted to try to achieve some form of truth and honesty in their depiction of Cape Flats life. Because the film features 60 speaking parts, many of the actors and bit players had to be drawn from a pool of real people, and even with the actors it was better to cast actors all familiar with life on the Flats in the various gang associated areas where all on location filming took place.
There’s a lot of imitation of the Number on the Flats, you could say the Number always has a cult following because a lot of what the Number is, is about identity, and what has happened in South Africa has often been about identity theft, the theft of identity from communities. Theres a history of that that you can feel has left a terrible mark on society.
Part of what Four Corners is doing is handing that identity back to its rightful owners.
CWB: Did you do a lot of rehearsals or did you just work with actors and crew on the set?
IG: The advantage of working with unknown actors is that you can afford to engage in extended rehearsals. We had the luxury of a week of rehearsing, during which all the key players and all the young actors and many non-actors got to work with each other. I drew on all the help I could get from each of the actors to make this process work.
Working with non-actors and sometimes with characters who are really on the margins of society, and creating a safe space there for expression was an extraordinary event to watch and be part of each day. We all, actors and filmmakers felt a certain specialness about the process as the therapy and magic of acting was revealed in powerful and unexpected ways while we worked together as one team on the shoot.
CWB: Did you allow any improvisations proposed by your cast or crew?
IG: There was a great deal of improvisation on set. I tried to keep a clear objective and an out point to the scene, but then I wanted to allow as much exploration as the cast wanted and as much as our tight schedule could afford. Especially with regard to language, because there would sometimes be three or four languages and dialects being spoken in a scene. Which is the way it often is in the Flats.
The improvisation often brought out the best in the performers, especially the younger less experienced actors. But then I had to often draw he performers back to the given facts of the story. To make sure we kept moving forward in the right direction.
CWB: How did you come up with the visual style of your film?
IG: We had a lot of work to do on character, so it was really the work with characters that dictated any visual style we developed. I wanted us to try to focus in on the characters and their stories rather than be too prescriptive about a look, too swept away by perhaps bigger, but to us less important external factors that we didn’t really have too much time for. I looked for some immediacy that would grow out of what the characters were experiencing, and that is really the thing that became the expression of the visual style of the film. In the end its got a strong look that’s controlled by the characters and their stories, That’s the way we wanted it. There’s a lot of character intensity in how we lensed and shot each scene.
CWB: How much of film found its final form in the editing process?
IG: We spent a long time at the scripting stage grappling with the difficult process of balancing the Four narratives that converge around the story of Ricardo . Even so, we discovered on set, in the filming and in the edit where these stratagems we had devised were not working as well as we hoped. So it was back to the drawing board again, not to find the form, because the form was always there evolving then eluding us like some magic trickster, then evolving again. That’s what’s kept us committed to the film through all this time, finding our way, finding how the story can resonate best. The script and the filming of this film were never static, niether was the editing. I still watch the film and play through other options in my head. I think that’s how I’ll always relate to this film. At the end of the film Ricardo who is the main character, the kid who is coming of age, says there’s one big rule: ‘You can’t stand still. You have to make a move. So we’ve made our move with this movie. Now we can’t stand still, it’s a living organism for me.
CWB: Please tell us about the critics and audience responses to FOUR CORNERS.
IG: The film was only completed in September of 2013, so it’s only critical reception so far has been the committee that selected Four Corners unanimously as the South African Foreign Film submission: They complemented the film makers for courageously tackling a subject that few in South Africa have tackled. They complimented the film on the extraordinary and powerful performances in the film.
CWB: Any future project that you can tell us about?
IG: There are a couple of projects we’re developing. One is a project called Concealment written by Australian writer Terence Hammond. It’s a police thriller about a plot to assassinate Senator Bobby Kennedy in 1966 : it’s a kind of Bourne legacy/ buddy cop thriller with a controversial American true story ingredient. And we’re developing a Wild West in Africa story about the roots of the Numbers Gang called Blood Babylon, two very different projects both with strong roots in true stories. I’ve got nothing against fiction; it’s just that the truth always seems much more potent.