Matsoho phezulu...hands up – SA’s first Xhosa western

2012-03-10 17:22

A small town on the border between the Eastern Cape, Lesotho and the Free State will be the setting for the world’s first Xhosa Western. That’s if a group of determined young filmmakers have their way.

The script for Five Fingers For Marseilles has been finalised and casting is underway. Writer/producer Sean Drummond this week confirmed that Cape Town production company Be Phat Motel hopes to start shooting its debut feature later this year in association with US-based Game 7 Films.

But he and director/producer Michael Matthews and director of photography Shaun Lee stress that Marseilles is not a gimmicky spaghetti Western with heroic black cowboys on horses.

“It’s a modern-day Sotho and Xhosa Western about five characters living in the new, post-colonial frontier, a land of growth and opportunity,” they say.

The team spent months travelling through and living in the region and were drawn to the dynamics of its ghost towns.

In some areas, once thriving farming settlements, the white population has all but moved out and the townships – with bizarre European names like Barcelona, Paris and Rome – have become the economic mainstays.

“The film takes place over two generations. It starts when the five characters are growing up as kids and revisits them as adults.

“One of the main characters leaves and becomes a hardened criminal in Joburg. He returns, looking for redemption.

“True to the conventions of the Western, he is a dark and violent person and this is a story of conflict between man and the land. But it’s also the story of a quest for peace.”

The filmmakers will be rewriting film history. South Africa produced its first Western as early as 1961 – Ken Annakin’s The Hellions, produced by Jamie Uys.

It was set in a small white Transvaal town under siege by a gang of cowardly thugs, defeated by a crusading policeman. It gave rise to several more Westerns, mainly featuring white farming communities. But this is the first time that Xhosa and Sotho freedom fighters are home on the range.

“We’re aiming for an international audience,” they say. “Everyone knows the Western. Guys grow up dreaming of being gun-slingers. But they’ll also get a relevant, contemporary story about freedom set in a fascinating part of the world that a lot of people haven’t seen before.”

The company is known for its genre-bending projects. Their previous film, Sweetheart, was a retro-styled sci-fi short set on a Cape farm against the backdrop of an escalating cold war.

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