| CHARLIE UMLAUT- CAPE TOWN FILM FESTIVAL 1983 |
I suppose My Country My Hat is what might be called an independant film. Could you tell us how you financed it?
Taking loans from family and friends entirely, nothing else. W e shot it over a period of six weeks shooting six days a week.
Were your crew professional technicians?
I was in the industry for a few years, I'm in touch with people - my cameraman, Mike Buckley, had been an assistant cameraman for some time, it was a break for him. Sound man, Rob Harris, is one of the top sound people in the country; and then there were basically other members of the crew who mostly came from the profession, and a few people on the outside, like runners etc. It was a very small crew, and I think that was one of the main advantages.
And your actors, you've used some very sophisticated and well known actors. Did theycharge a similar rate as they would have charged for a commercial kind of production?
My black actors I paid the full rate - and people who were only on the set for a couple of days. My main actors, who were fairly committed to the making of it, were prepared to go on a lower fee than what they would normally charge.
So there is a situation that people are prepared to come in below their going rate if they feel that the film is worth it in the long term.
Ja, there are a number of loopholes, I mean, one of them is side-stepping agents. A number of them said to me that they were prepared to negotiate directly for this kind of film. Which we did, which actually ruled out a lot of problems, and also kept the finances down. In particular, someone like Reghardt van der Berg - there are a lot of other factors why he worked on the film - one of them was that he was very interested in identifying with a new kind of film making, getting out of this classical Afrikaans platteland image which had been built up.
Did you have a problem with distribution, and what were the responses from the major distributors?
Are you talking about South Africa or overseas?
South Africa first.
Well, South Africa, I took it as a foregone conclusion that the major's wouldn't touch it, but I took it to them nevertheless to be able to assess their reaction. Ster-Kinekor looked at it. They didn't see the whole film. Maybe you can’t blame them for it. Their simple and blunt reply was "not economical". Full-stop. They weren't prepared to say anything more than that. I challenged them on the basis of an English theatre - something like It’s a Boy or Dirkie Uys' plays, bringing in exceptionally big audiences, and they said that they had no policy whatsoever to cater for that kind of thing. Their immediate reaction was "well, if this film gets shown at the drive-ins, the people will kill that us", and my reply to them was that you haven't got to be so naive to think that it's made simple for an audience outside of the cities. It was also shown to UIP-Warner and I didn't get any direct feedback, but I was told that they turned it down. Vista- rama's general opinion was that if the film isn't on 35mm, I'm wasting my time, and left it at that. I have set up black distribution for the film - maybe by luck, maybe not. I mean, originally my intention was to distribute it amongst a white audience. I approached the Department of Trade and Industries with Tony van der Merwe (Bayeta Films). They declined it, and they said that it was not a film for a white audience. There were a number of reasons for that, one of them was that the film had been turned down by by Ster-Kinekor, and that they felt that I wouldn't be able to attain a subsidy anyway. So they actually granted 'black' subsidy for it, which will bring in something like 20 cents a ticket sold.
So you think that that was perhaps working to your advantage rather than going for the R100 000 qualification?
There was a peculiar precedent set a few years back by Johan van Rooyen, who made a film, Bullet on the Run. He actually obtained on paper an agreement by Ster-Kinekor that they would distribute, and he got it registered under the White Subsidy Act. Apparently he then brought in subsidy for black audiences. Now the Department of Trade and Industries were very concerned that they didn't want black audiences to qualify predominantly for white subsidy and vice versa, and on the basis of that mistake they made, they turned my film down. But, I'm grateful in the sense in which I'm guaranteed a fair measure of what subsidy's available on the black circuit.
Could you tell us why you approached Tonie van der Merwe specifically to help out with
Well, I didn't. He in fact approached me. When the film was shown at the Durban Film Festival he came to me afterwards and said 'look, are you interested in distributing it?'. And up to that point in time I hadn't conceived of the film going down commercially well for a black audience. I wasn't actually aware of some of the implications of what's involved in the black subsidy, so it was a matter of him approaching me - but my final agreement is split between him and Ronnie Isaacs who is doing the distribution in and van der Merwe who is doing it elsewhere.
It's quite interesting that you should end up with Tonie van der Merwe, whose own films I’ve categorised as back-to-the- hometands movies; and Harriet Gavshon in a recent article has described them as crudely racist. Perhaps this explains some of the contradictions of the South African distribution that somebody who is nothing more than a very crude and bad film maker, who makes very crude racist movies, actually offer to distribute your film. Do you have any comments?
There are many contradictions, we can talk about those, but I think that one of the interesting things is that Tonie is basically a businessperson. He isn't an aesthetic filmmaker, or something of that nature. And I think he's fairly concerned with what the content of his film is, so I don't think that's an issue, I think if one looks at them critically one could obviously unpack certain ideological things which enter into them unconsciously. But one of the interesting things is that Tonie's brother, Wally, who is distributing the film in Johannesburg, is that he declined to distribute it on the mines, because he thinks it's going to cause a lot of resentment and a lot of unrest. In fact, Wally, is of the opinion that the film is for a white audience, and so the contradictions are rife, wherever one is.
I've met a couple of technicians who've remarked that your film has been scheduled on second channel television in block of flats. The interesting point here is that the film will be seen by the kind of people who would normally not go and see your film in a cinema. Yet they will see it simply because, if it comes up say, on Sunday night, and there is nothing else to watch, that's what they're going to watch. The question becomes: to what extent do you think this contradiction - or do you see it as a contradiction in distribution - can be utilised by people like yourself to make movies viable, as opposed to a situation where they would not be viable on the commercial circuits?
I'm very pessimistic about distributing films and covering costs entirely outside of the major distributors. You can get a small amount back, but that isn't really anything substantial. Other elements, like propagating messages, pushing one's ideology, open up holes - it's a valuable - area to be explored, and what I've done with my film is, wherever I've shown it, I've invited people to make use of it for various occasions. It showed at Sun City, in rather strange circumstances, to a family planning and therapy group of Social Welfare people organised by Wits University people here. There was controversy about the location, but I wasn’t really concerned about where the location was, as long as people saw it. The PFP have picked it up and they're showing it, basically for the purpose of raising funds, and I'll be getting a small cut of that. It's going to be shown on many campuses in departments, and those are the kind of avenues that I'm pushing for at this particular stage. I'm not going to be recovering much from it, but it's basically only going to be opening up avenues, and other things.
Have you had any problems with the censors?
Originally there were problems. My difficulty was getting it shown at the Johannesburg Film Festival, and it was turned down by Len Davis. One of the reasons was that he had too many South film African films. He was showing the Nadine Gordimer series at the least twice and some of them three times and he felt that mine would just be an extra one. I took it to the Censor Board via the James Polly people (Cape Town Festival), to get it passed. They passed it, with the possibility that one of the members of the Directorate was going to appeal against it. When I approached them just after the Film Festival they told me it had been given an 'A' clearance.
For Festivals or for general resease?
Well, at the time - I'm not sure if you're familiar with the new move that collapsed the distinction. Just before the commencement of the Cape Town Film Festival, news came from James Polly that that distinction had been collapsed as a result of interference by certain major distributors, who are, and I would almost quote James as saying, are declaring a sort of policy of war against film festivals in South Africa. So it was passed for general release.
Tell us a bit about your overseas distribution.
It's very difficult jumping into overseas distribution, on the basis of having a limited amount of time available. But went to people overseas. My major problem, unfortunately was the Nadine Gordimer series, which have been sold extensively. They hadn't recouped their costs and it's being pushed all over Europe. All the companies which have bought the series have basically spent their budget for let's say, Third World, or South African filmmaking. They expressed a very strong interest in my film and said that it would be distributed round September when the new budget arrives. I did them make a sale to the Dutch Television, it premiered on Dutch Television in January, February this year. And I've been approached for world distribution and I haven't basically finalised anything yet.
Would you suggest that at this stage of your negotiations, that the overseas potential might well be tapped, so that you could make at least your money back, if not enough money to make another film later on?
Look, I've got no doubts that I'll make my money back, partly because of the South African black subsidy system which has come to my rescue in a very contradictory way. But, part of the difficulty for an American audiences, is what they would call its parochial nature. They looked at the film; the people (Tele-culture) who picked up the Nadine Gordimer series looked at my film. They looked at probably about half of it, they said to me its very strange, very foreign, and if they were going to distribute it they would probably have to dub it into American, and take out the South African music, and put American music in its place.
Let's go on discussing the film itself. Why did you choose the particular actors you had -fairly well-known commercial type actors, with the possible exception of Reghardt van der Berg, more in-depth interest in acting, rather than just money-making.
Reghardt was obviously a very pertinent choice. Originally, long before the event, I had Marcel van Heerden to do the part, and he fell out because he had commitments with South West Africa and performing arts people. When I actually approached Reghardt, I was pretty hesitant, because of his film image as I know it, in connection with platteland filmmaking. But I was explicitly going for people who could cut two ways with the general audience - who could gain some sympathy with an Afrikaans, and another audience, without, as it were, falling into the traditional kinds of closures and oppositions which a lot of left South African filmmaking has lapsed into.
And the other actors you used, were they your first choice?
Peter Se-Puma was one of my first choices. I was considering him three months in advance, in November. Then I learnt that he was going overseas with Poppie Nongena, and I approached James Mtoba from FUBA who was in New York at that time, and I got the message that he was wanting to do it. Three weeks before shooting, he declined the part. He said it didn't present him with a sufficient challenge; and out of the blue I approached Peter again, just on the luck. He was working on the Nadine Gordimer series and had exactly three weeks to spare before going overseas, and I budgeted the whole film and shot it around him in those three weeks.
What proportion of your budget went into the salaries of the film?
About twenty percent.
Was it processed by Irene?
Yes, a very big expenditure factor was my shooting ratio, which was twenty to one.
Why was it so high?
For a number of reasons. I wouldn't think it's because of Mike's first job as a camera-man; but I think it was his keenness to get a very good polished product. More significantly, because when one's taken three of four takes, and you don't have it quite right, it's useless actually settling for that, so it's always worthwhile pursuing with a few more takes. Another issue was - a lot of actors were amateurs, and it was incredibly difficult getting a performance out of them.
Where did the original idea of this film arise?
Well, I'm not sure myself. I remember going across the States in a car, with a friend, for about seven days, we discussed this notion of an adventure with hat and with a missing identity etc . It was only when I put it into the South African context that I felt that I could imbue it with some kind of social comment by taking the pass system as being one of its sort of central features.
My Country My Hat has certain elements in common with Fugard plays and films, but more particulary with two films made by American companies in the late 1950’s. Come back Africa, by Lionel Rogison, and the other is Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alexander Korda. Have You seen any of those?
I've seen Cry, the Beloved Country (was it Sidney Poitier?), but I wouldn't like to set myself up ideologically with that kind of tradition.
I have a press criticism here called "Bensausan Film has no Stereotypes” from the Cape Times, Wednesday April 27th 1983. It teems to me that this particular reviewer has totally and utterly, missed the point of what you set out to do by, I think, trading on stereotypes in a very subtle and sophisticated rnanner, in a way that perhaps would make your audience a tittle bit uncomfortable. Could you comment on that?
One of the problems when one's dealing with the press is one obviously has to know what's going to trigger buttons, so one's real intentions are very seldom actually brought out through the interview. They might be glimpsed at by an in-depth and a fairly perceptive criticism or analysis of the film. But obviously what I was trying to do in the film was to set up certain characters, and set them up in such a way that they wouldn't alienate an audience. That was one of my main aims, but at the same time make a point.
Alienate a white audience?
I think specifically a conservative audience.
To make what point?
To make a point about the extent to which people are part and parcel of a social system, and there isn't anything like standing outside of it which is the classical liberal view. In the film I take issues with the Houghton wife, mother, the sunbather, the black-exploiting black, Reghardt van der Berg the white guy exploiting the guy at the dump. I'm not trying to set up any kind of simplistic sets of oppositions, which one does have in traditional left filmmaking.
Your treatment of the refuse collectors, always singing, always clowning around in a very stereotypical fashion, with a Bantu Radio type soundtrack stands out. Why?
Well, it isn't often one has to actually treated in this film fall back on authenticity, but they are the real guys. In fact, there's a custom that only certain of those people who come
from the Transkei are allowed to perform that job. There was no actual explicit directing on their behalf. The extent to which they were set up in certain scenes, shows that I was keen to try and put across some kind of conviviality. Now, the film has been criticised by leftists, especially certain Marxists, who reckon that I'm repressing the exploitative conditions under which they're working, and that I shouldn't represent them 'as being happy or gay, or laughing.’ My reply to that is, first of all, I'm not keen on making one-dimensional film: I think humour is an essential part of any situation; and secondly, that the way in which the humour is actually treated in this film is a way of coping with their situation, rather than a way of suppressing it.
Wouldn’t you think that if radical critics are going to take that position, they should also argue against the fact that you chose a narrative mode of address, , rather than a documentary?
Well that's a more sophisticated line to take. That will be a Marxist aesthetic kind of line to take. But, I mean, even if one took that line, if one looks at some of the screen debates which have been going on for about ten years on the question of narrative, people like Godard and others, it's quite clear that people are actually coming back to narrative in a more sophisticated way, which is politically tenable. I don't think narrative in itself is something one should shy away from, it depends on how it's treated.
What was your intention of making the woman, the housewife, as neurotic as she was, as opposed to the very stable, conservative neighbour?
There are a number of problems with that, in the script and outside the script. One of the problems outside the script was Aletta Bezuidenhout, the wife of the garbage truck driver, who had the same social/class nature as him. We started off very secure, happy, in their superficial way in which South African women are, and who then become alerted by a problem, and gradually degenerate into paranoia. That regression didn't come across clearly enough. I don't think in the beginning she was as ljght-hearted as she could have been. Another problem was the way in which she acted her part. Shortly after we started shooting we got the impression that she was trying to to present a middle-class mother, and we actually changed the script (not the dialogue) and the image of the mother to accommodate that because it wasn't going to work out. And we ended up with a picture of her as representing a mother who is slightly aloof, comes from a middle-class background, who is unhappy, who is frustrated, who is tied down to the domestic situation. And who also represents that kind of mother, or South African lady, who doesn't quite know how to cope with the cheeky gardener; you know, the modernist kind of mother, rather than the traditional boere-type wife who has a very clear and unambiguous way of treating people who provoke, or cause problems.
Finally of course, there is Reghardt van der Berg’s bald head. It certainly makes him look a fairly aggressive character. Is there anything else behind that?
When I approached him he said to me, look should I get a wig, but I realised immediately that that was the character I wanted to use. It was interesting, because it played in my hands in some respects, because you are working with a character who is very well known. At the same time you're giving a presentation, say, to an overseas audience, of someone who can be seen in a radically different light, you know: and that kind of double-cutting is something which I like.
Now, the critical response to your film. Just going through press clippings they’ve obviously responded fairly sympathetically to what you have tried to do, and yet that's had no effect on Stet-Kinekor and UIP Warner to release it. You've shown it at Cape Town, Durban, and at the Picadilly, in Johannesburg. What were your audiences like, how large, and what was their Response at the Picadilly?
Gradually my audiences started improving, by word-of-mouth. A lot of people came to me and said they were going to tell their friends to come, and on the last night of a five day run I had something like a 75% capacity which is very good.
Why couldn't you keep going for another week then?
I could, but I hadn't booked the Picadilly, and there are problems with sermons and other things. It isn't available. In fact, I would have gone through with another week, because I I' m sure I would have pulled in an average of about a 60% audience. But unfortunately, this kind of film relies very much upon a word of mouth publicity, and also I think a multiracial audience.
What Response did you have from the Cape Town Festival audience?
I was present when the film showed at Stellenbosch to a full house. Generally some good comments, but I think many of them were slightly oversimplified.
Was it shown in Cape Town itself?
It showed firstly at the Baxter, and then at the Labia.
Did it have good houses?
At the Baxter they gave me a quarter to six slot from the opening week, when people were still coming home from work, but I had about 60% audience at that time.
Did you feel that the organisers at the Cape Town Film Festival were trying to help the film along?
Well I was a bit disillusioned that they gave me a Thursday night slot, four days after the opening of the Festival, at quarter to six rather than, say, at eight o'clock. My other disillusionment was the fact that they took off, or they said they took off Fitzcarraldo for the opening night, and replaced it by by Anna, which had just been premiered on South African television three weeks prior to that, and which has had al1 the coverage it needs. So my instinct was to say to them well, if you don't give me an eight o'clock slot on Thursday, at least give me one of the nights which people don't have to go out of their way to come. I think part of the problem was that the Cape Town organisers didn't want to, say, back a horse which hadn't shown itself yet. And it's a classical problem of how a person actually sets oneself up.
It showed there once, and I had a full house. And then I showed it at one of the townships, and I had a fairly large audience.
You mentioned that you had previously been part of the industry itself in South Africa. I know you’ve got a degree from Central London Potytechnic Film School. I don’t know how close you are to the industry at the moment or how close you were in the making of this film. What kind response did you monitor from professional technicians in the industry, as opposed to your academic colleagues and people who helped on the film.
You mean a technical or ideological response?
I don't think that my technicians were actually really concerned with the ideological implications of the message. We discussed very briefly what the film was about, and most of the time was spent basically setting up shots etc. The ideological considerations came from here, from Wits.
What I mean is, there’s an attitude in the industry that if you don’t make a film that your producer wants then you've been Professionally irresponsible. So I'm talking about industry.
Well I was lucky in the sense that there were no restraints, there was no investor on my shoulders. I had complete freedom, which one very seldom gets. In fact, had there been an investor the film would have been radically different. So, in that sense I was lucky, but a general response was people just laughing it off, saying it might be a modest attempt but it's basically insignificant as far as South African filmmaking goes, because South African filmmaking isn't in the hands of the independants, it's in the hands of the larger companies who are making tons on television.
Do you get the sense that there’s a growing groundswell full of people both within the industry and on the fringes of it who are trying to do something different?
Look, I'm aware of the fact that there are many technicians who are actually struggling to get a break, and that break doesn't come because the quality of the work that they're doing doesn't command sufficient respect. That's one of their problems, I mean, the amount of time that people are now spending making garbage for TV2 and TV3 is incredible, and that's drawing in the majority of the technicians. So that's the problem on their behalf, and that's why my technicians saw my film as being something which offered them something out of the ordinary.
What plans have you got for the future?
I'm working on three scripts simultaneously: a low budget, a medium budget, and a high budget. When I was overseas I was approached by a number of large, well established production companies who said they were prepared to do co-productions with me, and I intend, sooner or later, to go over and see if I can sort something out on that basis.
Starring: Aletta Bezuidenhout, Reghardt van der berg, Peter Se Puma
Director of Photography: Michael Buckley
Sound: Robin Harris
Editor: Derek Wood
Written and Directed: David Bensusan