Rich tapestry of a South African family

2012-02-10 13:03

The future of South African film is here – and it looks bright.

Material is everything you’d want to see in a local film, but so seldom do. The secret of its success is collaboration, community and, like a good curry, the time to rest and infuse with flavour.

This film has in many ways been a long time coming. The idea first popped up when director Craig Freimond – his first film was Gums and Noses – met producer Ronnie Apteker. Apteker said he was keen to put together a film project with Riaad Moosa, the doctor-turned-stand-up comic, as the protagonist.

That was about eight years ago.

As Freimond, who comes from a theatre background, says: “This is only my third film. I’m in no rush.”

He goes on to say that he’s written six or seven screenplays in his time and that this is one of the strengths of the film. He had the luxury of developing the idea, of asking for help from all sorts of sources, and he didn’t fall victim to what so many local filmmakers do – a sudden rush of cash.

Making films is a precarious business. The guy who is financing it wants to see results and the only way to show him is to, well, make the film. This is the worst thing that can happen to your film.

“People get the money and then they want to make the movie. It’s the worst reason to make a movie,” Freimond says.

But often it’s easier said than done, as producers push for a product to take to the market.

For Apteker though, this is a passion project and, having chosen his team, he sat on his hands – with difficulty – to wait for it to be ready. His patience paid off.

Says Apteker: “As an entrepreneur, the lesson is always trust your sense of judgment and never stop listening to your heart.”

Freimond says he remembers finishing the first draft of the script “and throwing it in the bin. The process of writing is complicated and winding. How many drafts of Material were there? I don’t know. 100? 50?
Not three!”

That is what made a roomful of cynical film critics smile – seeing a film with a script that had been properly developed, in which every character is authentic and in which the story has what Freimond calls “our specificity and our textures”. Yet the universal themes are there too.

Like Bend It Like Beckham and Billy Elliot, the coming-of-age movies, this film is funny and heartfelt. It deserves to enjoy the same success as these films did.

Material is the story of Cassim Kaif (Moosa), the son of a fabric merchant, Ebrahim Kaif (Vincent Ebrahim), in Fordsburg, Joburg.

The trouble is Cassim doesn’t want to carry on in the family business; he wants to be a stand-up comedian. While the “battle of family wills” theme is well worn, the community the Kaifs are part of has such unique characteristics – creating this film’s singular dynamic.

Moosa says that the conflict is one he’s familiar with – even if the particulars of the story
are different.

“I love writing a joke and performing it for the first time because you don’t know if it’s
going to work. That’s my bliss, I always say.”

But he says that to follow his passion he has to negotiate some of the same conflicts as his character, Cassim – like being a Muslim comic who has to frequent places where alcohol is freely available, for example.

As much as Material is a personal film about a family, it is also a chance to peep inside a community whose stories aren’t often told on the screen.

This, Freimond says, was one of his challenges, convincing the people of the area he was genuinely interested and not out to vilify their way of life. He also says that the lack of stories about these communities translates into a shortage of actors and so they started casting Material more than two years ago.

While Moosa had been on board from the outset and had given his input as a comedian and a Muslim, it was the casting of Ebrahim, Freimond says, that was pivotal to the film finally making it on to celluloid.

Born in South Africa, the actor is best known for his role on British TV’s The Kumars at No. 42. He comes from a theatre background in England and hasn’t worked in South Africa since he left in 1976.

After Freimond made contact with Ebrahim through his Cape Town-based sister (7de Laan actress Vinette Ebrahim), he says “the final cog in the process fell into place”.

He gave the script to Ebrahim, telling him it wasn’t great. Ebrahim agreed and promptly got stuck into making it much better.

Ebrahim is modest about his input, though he says with read-throughs he was able to finally “inhabit the character’s space” and take the part by the scruff of the neck. He says he was “bowled over” by the finished product.

“It was compelling, but then I had a good feeling throughout filming,” he says.

“When I left the set, I felt confident that it would be something unique. A welcome home experience for me.”
It is Ebrahim’s character that is crucial to this film’s success.

The father, having taught his son life’s lessons, finds himself in need of a few from that same child. It is touching and it is what makes Material work as first-class entertainment. There are issues, but they don’t dominate the human relationships.

This is what makes the film a success. The father not only has to face his son’s defection as it were, he has to face up to his own past.

The film touches on the forced removals during apartheid and the divisions sown in families by the building of the Oriental Plaza, a place most of us in Joburg have probably shopped at without knowing its fascinating history.
While the father and son dynamic is the film’s engine, Material boasts a rich tapestry of supporting roles.

Veteran South African actor Denise Newman is Cassim’s long-suffering mother, Fatima, who has to take on the role of peacemaker and go-between, as well as disciplinarian when called for.

Quanita Adams makes an appearance as Mrs Patel, a loyal customer of the Kaifs and an incurable gossip, while Joey Rasdien is Yusuf, Cassim’s best friend and troublemaker.

The scene at Zoo Lake with Rasdien giving Moosa dating advice before the two of them teeter off in one of the leaky boats on the lake is hilarious.

Perhaps the filmmakers’ greatest challenge though is convincing South African audiences of their product’s worth. Our local film industry suffers from a lack of development money it’s true, but if our home-grown products are to compete at every shopping mall’s cinema, they simply have to make time for development.
 
We are finally getting beyond “issue”-based films, and there are more and more attempts at genre films – two recent examples are Skeem, which tried on farce for size but fell down in the script and timing department, and 31 Million Reasons, which had a whack at the crime caper but the script was holier than a praying pope.

The good news is that Material proves what we have known all along – we can make films just as well as anyone else. Sure we don’t have Hollywood budgets, but neither did films like Billy Elliot, which was made for about R30 million and raked in R720 million at the global box office.

Material will rebuild your confidence in our ability to tell our own stories better, so go and see it.

But book early, Moosa warns.

“See it on Friday and buy tickets early, or my family will use their connections to monopolise cinemas and you won’t be able to get in for months.”

» Material opens countrywide on Friday
 

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