Stand up and be counted

2012-02-18 00:00

“SOMETIMES you need to be open to the world and let stories come to you,” says director Craig Freimond, a philosophy which helped guide him to create a thought-provoking family drama.

By turns funny and poignant, Material­, which opened in South Africa­ yesterday, is the kind of film which one might think twice about seeing. Don’t. It’s quite simply one of the best South African films I’ve seen in many years.

Loosely based on the real-life experience of medical doctor turned stand-up comedian Riaad Moosa, it stars the funny man in his first big-screen role. He plays Cassim Kaif, a young Muslim man who works in his father­’s fabric shop in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, and, as the only­ son, is expected to take over the family business from his father.

Cassim­ is a dutiful son, but also has a quirky sense of humour and natural ability to make people laugh. So, when he lands up doing an open-mike session at a local comedy­ club, it sparks a passion for entertaining others that brings him into conflict with his father, Ebrahim­, played by Vincent Ebrahim­, one of the stars of the British sitcom The Kumars at No 42.

“The actual story line has nothing to do with my own life,” Moosa said, “but, a lot of my experiences have been incorporated into the script ... that said there are also things that Cassim does in the film that I would never think of doing.”

Freimond said Material­ was initially going to be a film about a stand-up, so they shot tons of comedy­ footage, but as the story developed it became more of a family drama.

The stand-up is now a foil to the dramatic scenes, which developed from a story Freimond heard about two brothers in Fordsburg, both of whom ran bike shops — one in a plaza and the other in a more traditional location — and got him thinking about why this had happened and the tensions it might have led to.

Ebrahim, who is based in London, said: “Everything that happens in the film happens because the family hasn’t dealt with issues, like the conflict between Ebrahim and his brother, which have been bubbling around for years. Then suddenly something happens, a catalyst — in this case the stand-up comedy — and it all explodes in their faces.”

Moosa has made the transition from live comedy to celluloid with surprising ease. When I tell him that he grins and says: “They edited me nicely, but, seriously it wasn’t that easy. They told me not to act. I had just to feel and that way my body language would change. I was able to draw from my own experiences to a degree, but the technicalities of acting were difficult to grasp.”

What helped was being able to draw on the experience that Ebrahim and Denise Newman (who plays Fatima, Cassim’s mother) brought to the film, as well as his natural chemistry with fellow stand-up Joey Rasdien, who plays Yusuf.

“Joey and Riaad’s relationship off-screen helped their on-screen one. They were always very relaxed together,” said Freimond. “And he and Vincent worked well together.

“In the big scene when Cassim comes home and is confronted by his family, it was fascinating to watch Riaad progress and respond to what was coming at him. We filmed it early on because of scheduling­ pressures, but because Vincent was confident in his ability, his relationship with Riaad was good and the connection between them very believable.”

The director also praised the work of Newman, the award-winning star of Shirley Adams­, describing her as an actress who was always fully committed to what she was doing.

Ebrahim, who was born in Cape Town, agreed, adding that the film’s dramatic scenes wouldn’t have been the same without her. The pair first met back in 1976 when he worked at the Space theatre in Cape Town. “To be working with her on a project like this 35 years later has been amazing. She’s very special. Her character is all about softness and restraint, and she does it so well,” he added.

Stillness and restraint are also hallmarks of Freimond’s direction, something his cast appreciated. “When you’re playing a scene and you’re not under pressure to deliver a line, I think you can transmit things better if you let characters think and consider before they say a line,” Ebrahim said,

But allowing those moments of stillness didn’t come easy. “I am from a theatre background and am more dialogue driven,” Freimond said, “so the notion that you can spend three, four or five minutes on screen without words is a huge achievement for me.”

The nuance and restraint of the direction, coupled with beautiful performances and a cast, which includes the likes of Krijay Govender, Nic Rabinowitz, Mel Miller and Afzal Khan, make Material a must-see. Don’t miss it.

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