Times, they are a-changing. That hopefully appears to be the case when it comes to the products of the South African film industry. For many years, most local films hitting cinemas would be either slapstick comedies, cheesy rom-coms or dusty period dramas set in small platteland dorpies. Then came Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi and Neill Blomkamp and suddenly SA was on the radar of international cinephiles.
However, the local industry hasn’t really delivered on that trailblazing promise though – at least not in a major recognisable way. But things are starting to happen. Even when newer local movies are not wholly successful, like the recent female-led actioner Jagveld or medical thriller Bypass, there is at least a drive to start tackling other genres by some exciting young filmmakers.
Two such potential breakouts are Cape Town-based director Michael Matthews and writer Sean Drummond, who have splashed onto the scene in the biggest way possible with the one-two knockout combo of R-rated urban fantasy adaptation Apocalypse Now Now and grim Eastern Cape set western Five Fingers for Marseilles.
As we heard yesterday, Five Fingers – which debuted to great reviews at Toronto International Film Festival this week – was a passion project that took years to get to the screen. But way before then though, Michael and Sean were already attempting to break the mould with their films, not content to fall into the aforementioned cycle of regurgitated SA cinema. Having met in varsity 15 years ago, they formed a core group of like-minded people – from composers to editors to cinematographers – who all wanted to do something different. Be Phat Motel Film Company, as the group came to be known, certainly swung big right away.
Sean: We decided let’s make a movie we actually want to see, and we sort of felt that there wasn’t a lot of South African films that were pushing into that genre space, and we spent the next couple of years trying to get this really big Greek mythology inspired supernatural serial killer thing made [laughs] and shot a really cool trailer as a proof of concept. And it had a lot of interest, but I think it was too big and too crazy for the time. But it didn’t sort of change the outlook.
We ended up a few years after that doing Sweetheart , which was a retro black and white sci-fi genre sort of experiment playing in that space, but doing it in a way that was very South African. I think Five Fingers and Apocalypse Now Now are kind of the same thing. They are very South African stories. But they play in a genre space and they’re the sort of films I would want to watch and I think our guiding principle, whatever you want to call it, is that there is a world audience who wants to see these films.
I agree completely, and as I mentioned to the duo, it’s basically a case of “If you build it, they will come”. But building it in South Africa is most definitely easier said than done if you want it done right. And quite often what holds many local productions back just boils down to that age old reason: money.
Michael: That cycle of where South African films are, a lot of it is just budget driven and battling to break past the point of just bare minimum to get this movie made. And we kind of had the bare minimum on Five Fingers to be honest, but the minimum we set was a lot higher, you know what I mean? So everyone was still working for a lot less than they should have. And everyone has that on movies that are really small and I guess [they] have the mentality of thinking that people still want the same kind of movies that have been made, especially where the money comes from.
Unfortunately, money is just half the problem as the local gatekeepers of the industry don’t always see the potential in these stories.
Michael: That was the hard sell: giving people something they haven’t really seen before and getting them to buy into it and give us quite a decent amount of money. And that was quite difficult. We didn’t end up getting too much SA money from an independent financing point of view. It came internationally, which is also an interesting point of view in that it was almost easier to excite people elsewhere on a “This will be a good movie” standpoint. Locally people get really nervous and people have been burnt trying to make movies and then them not doing well. So there’s just a lot of people who are nervous about trying new things. I don’t know exactly what it is.
Sean: There was a good amount of skepticism here. Well, not just skepticism, uncertainty. People liked the script and they sort of got the vision, but a lot of people also didn’t. They just weren’t sure, you know. And it’s funny, even now I keep hearing of people going “Wow. X and Y producer said to me, ‘I wonder what this movie is going to be like. I’m skeptical”’. And a few people who had sort of said no to us outright – and fair enough, they had said “Look I just don’t think we get it” – have come and gone “Guys, now we see what you were working for”.
There’s unfortunately also a habit from people – us, audience members especially – to give bad productions a free pass, simply because it’s local. If we want better cinema, we need to demand better cinema.
Michael: I think people also get in the headspace where on a South African level they make something pretty cool and a lot of people go “It’s cool for South Africa” or “That’s a good level for a South African thing”. I think there’s a lot of that, where people think that’s okay, and we’ve sort of just been thinking that it’s not really, because you just sit in this cycle and it’s hard to break out and make an actual career.
Sean: I think a big part of this 10-year journey is that the shared vision is quite strong among all of us [at BePhat], apart from this fanboy-ness for each other’s work, there’s also this shared goal of no compromise. So you can go to any one of the team and go, “Guys, we’re shooting a Western in Sesotho and we’re shooting in the Eastern Cape” and everybody goes “Okay” and they take a couple days to think what that means to them from a score, picture or sound perspective, and they deliver.
The same with Apocalypse Now Now, which is the exact same team, except they’re adapting this insane deep plot supernatural book, and the scene is going to be a kid and drunk fighting a monster and everybody goes “Okay” and then it comes together. I guess we just never really doubted we could do it.
Based on what we’ve seen thus far, it appears that Michael, Sean and the rest of Be Phat Motel have indeed done it. Hopefully, they achieve the recognition and success they seemingly deserve, and that will open the doors for even more intriguing and interesting films to take the spotlight. We definitely have an abundance of A-grade filmmaking talent in this country, all with big, potentially world-changing ideas. They just need the platform to show them off, and we as an audience need to support these endeavours. If we want more genre breakout films like Five Fingers for Marseilles or Apocalypse Now Now, it’s up to us to prove there is a viable market for them (like maybe going to see Five Fingers for Marseilles in theatres in Cape Town next week?)