Johannesburg - Eight long and arduous years ago, a writer and a director dreamt of a bold new kind of South African feature film, a modern Western. So Sean Drummond and Michael Matthews set out on an epic creative road trip fraught with challenges – and rewards – especially when they found the individuals who would accompany them in shaping this incredible story. It would help propel some of their careers to new heights.
Five Fingers for Marseilles is about a vigilante gang led by Tau, the “Lion of Marseilles” (Vuyo Dabula) – a Robin Hood figure who must help save a town from corrupt whiteness and betrayal to secure its future.
But that’s easier said than done in a place that almost doesn’t exist – the all-but-forgotten ghost towns that edge the Free State and Eastern Cape at the foot of the ancient Lesotho mountains.
There are more potholes than people along the road to Lady Grey in the Eastern Cape, where the dreamers shot the film that would become the pride and joy of the locals.
We convene at the Mugg & Bean at the tiny Bloemfontein airport. I introduce myself to the actors, half expecting a little attitude from Dabula, but he is cordial. Yes, he is good looking, he says, before adding that he wishes newspapers wouldn’t focus on his appearance.
Zethu Dlomo (Lerato), is poised without being conceited and smiles warmly as she shakes my hand. We go on to enjoy a light brunch. Later, we load up in a grey Jetta and the movie’s publicist David Alex steers the (surprisingly comfortable) ride towards Lady Grey.
The two actors are sitting in the back and joke as we discuss politics and art. Dlomo reflects on some of the local shows she’s been part of, including Isibaya and Room 9 and international drama Black Sails. The skilled actress prides herself on having studied at Wits University and is passionate about her work. “I feel there is a difference between a celebrity and a star,” she says. “We’ve adopted this thing in our country of getting socialites to act. I was waiting for Fikile Mbalula to star in a film,” she adds with a chuckle.
“I think we aren’t alone in that. Part of this is about numbers,” Dabula responds. The macho actor, who could also be described as a thinker, adds: “The industry won’t go to the dogs as long as there are people who want something purer, and people like a Sean and a Michael who are so passionate about their work. They won’t look to just cast an ‘it’ girl, and they didn’t.”
Dabula jokes about the many changes to the cast of this masterful Western. “I’m the original; I saw them all come and go,” he says with a wave of his hand. Previously, he was in Generations, before his stint in this movie.
“They could never have gone the socialite route for the role of Lerato,” he tells Dlomo. “I mean the actor before you wasn’t like that [an It girl], nor the one before – hey man!” Dabula taps me on the shoulder with a grin on his face. “Did you know that we had that many people play that role?” Everyone in the car chuckles. “You see, wena, when you were still trying to figure out what to do with your life, I was there in Marseilles,” he boasts.
Dlomo recalls when Drummond was asked how he managed to get a star-studded cast. “I remember he explained how Vuyo hadn’t been cast on Generations yet. I hadn’t been on Isibaya and even Warren [Masemola] hadn’t been in the roles he has since been in.”
We stop in Aliwal North to get supplies. Dabula trades selfies with fans for a space in the ATM queue, while the rest of us soak up the atmosphere in the quaint main road of this one-horse town. A buzz begins to build on the street as more people spot the two actors. Suddenly, shop attendants burst out of the Foschini screaming “Gadaffi!”, the name of the notorious character Dabula played on Generations.
The two actors are gracious in their response to the crowd, and ask whether any will be attending the premiere of Five Fingers for Marseilles.
The Witteberg mountain range appears on the horizon and, in front of it, a small town. “The memories are just flooding back,” Dlomo says, to which Dabula responds, tongue in cheek: “I can feel the lion, Tau, coming out.” We reach a lonely looking left turn marked by a road sign and pull over so that the two actors can take selfies in front of it.
As we enter Lady Grey, the roads are quiet. “There isn’t a single traffic light in this town,” Dlomo informs me. We pull up to the Mountain View Country Inn, where we are staying.
The floors are wood and everything, from the door handles to the light switches, looks antique. The owner greets the actors with enthusiasm and says it’s great to see them again.
“This film really broke boundaries for our town,” she tells me. As I stand on the veranda, I notice the locals taking full advantage of the absence of traffic lights and I watch a few bakkies fly by at a breakneck speed. Maybe the next Fast and Furious movie should consider shooting in Lady Grey.
Banter on the verandah
The morning starts off slowly and we enjoy breakfast on the verandah. Matthews, Drummond, Dlomo and Dabula share memories from the shoot. “I cannot watch any of my movies twice, but Five Fingers I will be seeing for the fourth time and I actually can’t wait,” Dabula says proudly.
“The film has that certain feel. You know, when you wake up and feel like today is a Five Fingers kind of day? I would have liked more action, but I really love this movie.”
“More action? You were hanging upside down!” Dlomo chimes in. “I mean more in the sense of fight scenes,” Dabula replies.
Matthews turns to me and explains. “We were actually supposed to do more shooting. I had felt like it’s lacking something, but now that I have seen the movie, I’m not so sure.”
Dabula says he feels that there could’ve been more people in the final showdown in the closing scene. The two go back and forth, discussing their thoughts about Five Fingers for Marseilles.
“It’s a bit like one of those things where you would like to control everything, but you can’t and then you’re forced to just work through it,” Dabula remarks as he puffs on his pipe. They discuss the problem of projects simmering for too long, and that fear of not including enough or putting in too little.
Matthews says: “There were lots of things we took out in the edit. Any more content might’ve made the film too long, but luckily the scenes are handled very well and the flow through them is engaging. Each of our scenes has its own arc – it’s a mini-journey.”
Dabula says again: “Geez, but I love this film. I just feel like it’s a very important film. It has to do well for the whole industry.”
The outdoor screening of the premiere is in jeopardy as a storm looms on the horizon. Drummond and his team run around town casing alternative venues. Farmers are called and consulted about the likelihood of rainfall. “They say 1mm at 7pm,” Drummond tells me. The stress is high, but the talent remains calm and upbeat. At the town hall, I speak to community organiser Octavia Bambilawu-Monnawabokone, who explains what the film has done for Lady Grey.
“It was great for the community. Before they began shooting, the creators came to the mayor and explained their vision and we were all keen,” she says. “It really boosted things around here as people were eating at the restaurants, the bed and breakfasts, and a lot of the cast come from Lady Grey.
“They’re even working with the Lady Grey Arts Academy to help unearth more talent here,” she says proudly. Locals were hired for the administration team, to provide catering and as crew and extras.
Bambilawu-Monnawabokone confides in me that there is another film showing interest in shooting in Lady Grey. “But I can’t say too much about that now,” she laughs.
After much deliberation, the outdoor screening stands. The screen is set up on a field behind the country club, a picturesque setting, in the afternoon.
We arrive in the Volkswagen and the pair of actors can barely contain their excitement. We park and plot our course down to the field, through the wet, muddy ground. The country club fills up quickly soon after, and I notice that not many of the town’s white folk are there.
Just as the premiere is about to start, the storm hits and the heavens weep, forcing everyone on the field to run for cover. As the stars and I hasten our way back to the car, we pass a group of gentlemen huddled up by the fence. “We’ll wait it out – it would be sad if we couldn’t see it today,” one of them tells me.
The mood in the car is quiet. “Damn man, this sucks. I wish the storm would just pass,” Dlomo complains. She asks if there is any hope of finding another venue. Dabula watches a funny video on his phone to lighten the mood. The pair laugh as the rain beats on the Volkswagen’s roof.
“Look!” publicist Alex points in the direction of the field. “People are heading back, they’re even driving in”, he says excitedly. Before you know it, we’re making our second approach, this time through the clubhouse, where a few white folk have sealed themselves in against the rain. I notice that not many of them have come to watch the movie, and later that the clubhouse stays locked throughout the screening.
The movie begins to unfold, and watching it with Dlomo is refreshing. She appears on screen, lying on a couch, as her character is apparently sick.
“I was actually sick that day, lying there was all I could do,” she tells me. In another scene, Dabula slaps her in the face. “It was so cold and difficult not to wince when he did that,” she says.
Whenever a house or a person they know appears on screen, the crowd gasps. Suddenly, the screen goes black. Someone tripped the power supply just before the movie’s end. Regardless, the evening is won and the mission a success. The crowd mills about taking photos with the stars. I bump into Vuyo Novokoza, the child actor who plays the young Lerato. A student at the Lady Grey Arts Academy, the 16 year old tells me: “I loved the character. I would love to direct one day, on a global stage.” A crowd gathers around us while we chat. She wants to study acting, but doesn’t have any idea where to go next.
Another of the actors, Sibusiso Bottoman, echoes her thoughts. He’s eager to pursue a career in the arts. “I want to make comedy some day. Some say I’m funny,” the Grade 9 pupil says with a shy grin.
Locals are proud that this Western was created in their town and it’s clearly lit their creativity. Hopefully this will see Lady Grey transformed from a town you haven’t heard of, to a sought-after destination for arts seekers and film makers.