Excruciating fight for life

2013-07-25 00:00

EVERY morning, we read about the most horrendous cases of suffering in the newspaper, dunking rusks haphazardly into our rich coffee as we glaze over the chronicles of pain.

Rarely do we feel the true extent of what’s before us. When forced to feel, as Durban International Film Festival audience members watching Halley had to, something strange happens: you tense up, each muscle in your body pulling ever tighter.

That’s the excruciating experience of watching a man, void of feeling, slowly coming to terms with his broken body. When the Mexican feature film concludes, the feeling of suffering lingers for days.

In Halley, which has been gaining an international zombie cult following, Beto (Alberto Trujillo) is a dead man trying with gritted determination to keep himself together. As a night watch at a grimy Mexican gym, Beto observes the zombie-motion of musclemen while he battles to stop his body’s disintegration.

“This film was never made as a zombie film,” said director Sebastian Hofmann after its first showing in Africa. “Audience members are the last script writers in a film and critics started calling it a zombie film: one that was reinventing the genre, which was not my original intention. I was interested in the relationship between a man and his body. I developed the story around that theme,” said Hofmann, whose film was a finalist in the prestigious Tiger Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January. Hofmann has been praised for the compassionate way he treated his subject, encouraging his make-up specialist to use real-life skin diseases to offer a realistic understanding of what a dead man might look like. Hofmann edited the film himself, ensuring his vision of creating a “feeling” film, as opposed to a “thinking” film, was achieved. “I never knew this film would become such an international success. It has been to Sundance, Rotterdam and many others in the past six months, and now we are at the biggest African film festival,” he said. “Durban really is the most important festival on this continent, so I am very privileged to be here.”

Hoffman had made a short film following the same theme, but it was his co-screen writer Julio Chavezmontes who gave him the material to inspire the feature-length film. “My professor, who died of HIV/Aids, wrote an incredibly poetic series of essays on his illness and it helped us to understand what the character might feel,” said Chavezmontes.

“Julio understood my short film so well: the living dead man and his body, his loneliness, his immortality, his decay,” said Hofmann. “It is interesting being in South Africa, with its own history of HIV/Aids.”

“It was fascinating exploring the concept of Beto’s body rebelling against him, while documenting his daily routine, his special diet, his loss of sexuality, his continuous struggle,” said Chavezmontes.

“Alberto has great empathy with his character and showed the isolation and shame that comes with it. He lost a lot of weight during the film and even became depressed and malnourished during the process.”

The character, although a “zombie”, showcases what so many people experiencing indescribable pain endure. During a Q&A after the screening, Chavezmontes said he finds it incredible how people in such pain find a way to go on, making each moment count, no matter how difficult. “The desire to live is connected to happiness,” he said. “The mistake is thinking you have control of wanting to live or die.”

• The film can be seen today at 8.30 pm at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre.

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