Shooting holy cows

2012-04-06 13:51

“Cape Town is not itself,” I say to Oliver Hermanus as we walk down Long Street looking for a quiet place for an interview.

He smiles. “I guess I’ve infiltrated white Cape Town,” he says.

“But it’s still strange. My family comes from the Cape Flats, but now I have access because I’m qualified by my profession rather than by something simple like my friends. If I walk into a party it’s Oliver, the guy who made these films. But if I was Oliver who worked at Shoe City . . .”

His phone rings, interrupting. It’s Sondag Son wanting an interview. The Afrikaans tabloid loves Hermanus and the scandal around Skoonheid (Beauty).

The film won the Queer Palm at Cannes last year and has since secured distribution deals in more than a dozen territories.

It tells the story of Francois from Bloemfontein, a married man who has sex with men. It’s visually beautiful, intellectually unflinching and emotionally shattering in its displaying of the violent flowers of repression. During its limited release on the local mainstream circuit, it caused unsuspecting viewers to flee cinemas in horror.

When Sondag Son heard that the bad boy of SA film was developing a feature about Judas, they splashed it on the cover with the headline “Bybelicious!”

“My mother freaked – it’s the kind of thing that gets the in-laws on the phone.”

It’s not surprising that the 28-year-old has achieved a certain level of celebrity. His work is original and he’s outspoken, known to have a go at the government’s National Film and Video Foundation (“They put in too little money to make those kind of demands”);

Barry Ronge (“the Father Christmas of local film”); or Helen Zille on Twitter (“kinda bat-shit crazy”). Plus Hermanus enjoys a night out on the town and he’s ridiculously young to be putting out the kind of content he is. Some of the time, he’s actually just joking.

“I really do think that someone at the SABC read it wrong and this whole explosion about Skoonheid winning the Queer Palm is because they thought it said ‘Palme d’Or’,” he said at the time.

“But I’ve been taught well. Roland always warned me don’t ever, ever believe the hype.”

Roland is Roland Emmerich, the German-born director of big-budget Hollywood flicks Stargate, Independence Day and Godzilla. Emmerich, on a trip to Cape Town, was so impressed by Hermanus that he paid for him to attend the prestigious London Film School. Hermanus was a press photographer at the time.

He’d studied film at UCT and on a scholarship in the US, but had no taste for the commercial industry.

Emmerich said he’d sponsor him if he got in to one of the world’s top film schools independently.

He did and headed off – as he had done a few years before to be an apprentice photographer in the UK.

“My parents have lived on a knife’s edge since I was 18. They never know what I’m going to do next.”

Emmerich produced Hermanus’s first feature, Shirley Adams, “about a Cape Flats mother whose son is disabled in a gang shooting and she has to pick up the pieces”; a “love letter to coloured mothers”.

“I didn’t like my first film,” he says. “Except that it was a learning curve. But the character wasn’t challenging enough. You very much empathised with her the whole way through.”

What he’d been taught in London by character-driven filmmakers like Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears and Ken Loach was that good cinema poses questions; it doesn’t provide answers. Unlike Shirley Adams, in Skoonheid there isn’t a single likeable character.

Hermanus talks fast, often changing the phrasing of his ideas mid-sentence. He fills double the Dictaphone minutes of most interviews.

In the course of transcribing him, there’s one moment in particular that jumps out.

He’d been raised by political, socially aware parents who moved to and from the Flats, to PE and to Plett, to ensure the safety of their children during the turbulence of apartheid. I’d asked why he chose a character like Francois. Was it political?

“It was cos . . n. I chose a character who scared me. If I’m in a room full of huge Afrikaans men, I feel intimidated, dunno why, maybe it’s the history of the country.

“I feel like I’m left wanting. I’m not bold enough, not masculine enough. That was definitely an interesting thing to take ownership over as a filmmaker.

“I started thinking about tapping into their power, into that sore spot, into the psychology of a man I couldn’t know. What it’s like to be a 40-year-old conservative Afrikaner?”

His first two features have been character studies – and both have won local and international awards for the lead actors. He doesn’t rehearse the script. Instead, he writes random, unrelated scenes for rehearsals.

On set he keeps rolling “until the actor loses the plot”. He often shoots with a skeleton crew for intimacy. He doesn’t want dialogue to spell out everything.

His third film will also be a portrait, this time of Judas.

“It’s a Biblical thriller set against the backdrop of a famous murder plot.

“I really wanna play with the Bible and treat it as if it’s a John Grisham novel.”

He’s developed the film with French producer Didier Costet, who backed Skoonheid.

But it’s a difficult sell with a bigger budget, and will need more investors and take at least the rest of the year to prepare.

He admits it’s terrifying to tackle such a well-known subject, “but that’s the challenge”.

I ask why the Bible interests him. “I’m interested in Judas, this man that we all describe as a betrayer, a bad guy, an adjective. But he’s you and me and it’s a psychological journey he goes on where he meets the disciples of a very charismatic preacher, a famous man, and has to come to terms with his own political views in a very intense environment. And of course there’s a woman involved . . .”

On an action level, Hermanus has written a script that treats the gospels as gospel.

“This is a world where there are lepers and thunderstorms, and people being raised from the dead and I’m gonna go there, and it’s melodrama. It’s like the X-Men. There are people flying because there are people that fly. I’m not trying to disprove the Bible, I don’t want it released at Easter and I’m not trying to upset millions of Christian people.”

I comment that touching people on their Jesus is sure to drum up publicity, though. He laughs but doesn’t deny it would be handy.

For now, though, the reporter and photographer from Sondag Son have arrived. They’re interested in a tweet Hermanus sent out about buying an apartment in downtown Cape Town. He’d said he’d gone to look at it with his dad.

“Cape Flats boy buys in chic part of city,” he chuckles after they’ve gone. I tell him I’d found the tweet touching and he nods.

“It was a big deal for my dad to come and see it because he really associates this part of the city as being very much, you know, fraught with tension.

“He perceives this as strange that I want a piece of space over there.”

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