Charmer from the start

2013-09-25 00:00

IT’S been described as South Africa’s answer to the British film Billy Elliott, and like that film, Felix’s heart-warming story of a young boy who dreams big and changes the lives of those around him will delight audiences of all ages.

Currently showing at Ster-Kinekor cinemas, the movie received the audience award for best film at this year’s Durban International Film Festival.

Written by Shirley Johnston (Isidingo, Backstage and Montana) and directed by Roberta Durrant (Stokvel, Sokhulu and Partners, Home Affairs, Madam & Eve), Felix tells the story of 14-year-old Felix Xaba (Hlayani Junior Mabasa), who has to battle his mum Lindiwe’s prejudice against jazz, so that he can fulfil his dreams of becoming a jazzman like his late father, Zweli, a famous saxophonist.

Lindiwe (Linda Sokhulu), meanwhile, fears her son will indeed end up like his dad: a drunk who squandered his days and money in taverns before drinking himself to death.

Things come to a head when Felix — who has won a scholarship to a private school, is battling to cope with bullying from other pupils and his mother’s fierce ban on music at home — finds comfort in the company of a drunken old busker, Bra Joe (Thapelo Mofokeng), who plays sax outside the local tavern. In doing so, he discovers that Joe used to play in his dad’s band, The Bozza Boys, once the hottest jazz group in the Cape.

And, when an audition notice for the school jazz concert appears, Felix decides to try out. He fails his first audition, however, because he can’t read music or play the sax.

Mrs Cartwright (Dame Janet Suzman), Felix’s English teacher, persuades the music teacher, Mr. Murray, to let him try for the second audition.

Armed with his dad’s old sax, Felix rushes off to seek help from Joe, who ropes in Fingers Fortuin, another aging ex-Bozza Boy.

Together they embark on a crash saxophone course for Zweli’s son, who learns not only how to play the sax, but also about his musical roots and his father’s past.

Of course, like all good stories, this one has plenty of twists and turns. But in the end, there is a very happy ending, which will ensure that you leave the cinema with a broad smile on your face.

Speaking about his role in the film, Hlayani said he had fallen in love with the script.

“What I liked most was that it was so different … I’m nothing like Felix, so it was kind of hard to play him … [but] I like playing characters that are out of my comfort zone,” he added.

For Suzman too, the big attraction was Johnston’s script. “Honestly there aren’t many unputdownable scripts — this was one of the few,” she said of Felix, her first SA feature film.

“I found the script utterly charming. I turned the pages with great delight, which doesn’t often happen ... Felix is a nice breakaway from the J.M. Coetzee view of South Africa, which is all dark and gloomy and offers no hope whatsoever.

“During the fight against apartheid, we dreamed of the Felixes of this world making good in this new country, so it’s thrilling to be telling that story now.”

The story was also the big attraction for Sokhulu, who plays Nikiwe in SABC3’s Isidingo and won a South African Film and Television Award for best actress for her role in Sokhulu & Partners.

“It was first and foremost the script that attracted me to this project,” the actress, who makes her big-screen debut in the film, said. “Even while reading just the audition pieces, it spoke to me. It was so beautiful to read and I felt it would be lovely to explore it more thoroughly.”

Asked how she had prepared for the role, Sokhulu, a former pupil of both St Anne’s in Hilton and Epworth in Pietermaritzburg, said that since she isn’t a parent herself, she had looked to her own mother and grandmother for inspiration to play Lindiwe.

“They are both strong women, who gave a formal structure to the world they made for their children and families. I could also identify with the move of a child from a township to a private-school environment because that is a journey that my mother went on with me.”

As for her young co-star, Hlayani, she says he was amazing to work with.

“It is so wonderful to see someone who is so passionate. He took the role so seriously, he knew his work, he wanted to learn and he was so respectful of the people he worked with,” she said.

Hlayani, who is in Grade 9, said that he had enjoyed working with both Sokhulu and Suzman, who was in the Midlands last weekend to perform in Lara Foot’s play Solomon and Marion.

He said: “Linda was amazing — she was not just my mother on screen, but on the set she would often come and check up on me, like when I was eating breakfast. She is an amazing person and a brilliant actress. And Janet was one of the coolest people ever … we would talk about random things like pizza.”

• Felix is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer at


• Shirley Johnston’s script for Felix won Sithengi’s 2004 Writer’s Forum Award, was a finalist in the United States Specscriptacular Competition, and a quarter-finalist in both Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest and the Moondance Screenwriting Competition.

• Felix is the first South African film written, directed, shot, line-produced and edited by women, since democracy in SA.

• Johnston initially wrote Felix as a children’s story for her son, who had just changed from a school in Cape Town to one in Johannesburg, and was feeling unsettled.


Musical director Murray Anderson, who has recorded gold and platinum records for the likes of Abdullah Ibrahim, brought together a stellar line-up of old and emerging Cape jazz legends to perform Felix. The performers included Mark Fransman, the 2008 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for jazz, on saxophone and pennywhistle; Bokani Dyer, the 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for jazz, on piano; triple 2012 South African Music Award nominee Lwanda Gogwana on trumpet; Wesley Rustin on the upright bass; and Kevin Gibson on drums.

For the musicians, the biggest challenge was to play at a level appropriate to their characters. “In the film, Felix is not a great sax player yet, so it was difficult for Mark: I had to often tell him not to play so well, because he was playing better than Felix possibly could with that amount of experience,” Murray says.

Cape jazz comes from a mix of cultures and influences, including slave songs, marching bands, and Christian hymns. “It’s the combination of so many different styles that makes our music unique,” says Murray.

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