Monday, February 23, 2009

The reel deals

"It's hard out there, I'll tell you that. Damn hard. You know, I walked into a certain film office to speak to them about financing with my camera switched on sitting right next to me on the table.
By Claire Angelique

"When they had finished giving me their normal spiel, about no money, yadda yadda, I said to them, 'You know, I'm actually from Carte Blanche, doing an exposé on the mismanagement of the film industry'. You should have seen their faces!" Darrell Roodt laughs cheerlessly, and although he is joking, the situation is sad. The state of South African film funding is dire and even the best writers and directors have to go to extreme lengths and engage in strange and complicated deals to make that "magic" happen on the screen.

However, although Roodt is pissed off about having to find the pennies to entertain the masses, he is looking quite sexy, relaxed and without a bead of sweat on his tanned face, despite Durban's notorious humidity. We're chatting near Durban's skate park at Snake Park. Behind us, his sound and camera men are grabbing "pick-up" shots, which will be used in a promotional video he's shooting, in the hopes of turning it into a TV series.
Titled Snake Park, it follows the misadventures of a young kid from a broken home who is sent to live with a grumpy old grandparent on Durban's Golden Mile, and who discovers he has a talent for skateboarding.
We sit watching the young kids involved in that day's shoot effortlessly glide across the concrete, Roodt agitatedly fingering his camera, aching to direct the action or at least film what his eyes are seeing

Though notoriously difficult to get hold of for interviews, he has given up a few minutes of his rushed schedule to shoot the breeze with lucky me, a fan and rookie of Roodt's, before rushing back to Johannesburg to edit the 70-minute piece. We're discussing, yeah, you guessed it, what film-makers all over South Africa are always discussing: the dry coffers of local film funding.
Darrell James Roodt is, arguably, South Africa's most famous and respected screenplay writer and director. From 1986's Place of Weeping, known as South Africa's first anti-apartheid feature film, which premiered in New York to critical acclaim, to The Stick, an anti-war film which was banned in South Africa for two years but became a success on the international festival circuit, his films are full of ideas and controversial subject matter. He has almost a fanatical love of cinema.

You can't mention a well-known South African film without Roodt having been there, seated in the director's chair. The controversial Sarafina (starring a young Leleti Khumalo), the Oscar-nominated Yesterday, Faith's Corner (both starring Khumalo), the rugby jersey-clad Colin Moss and Mandoza in the somewhat dodgy movie Number 10 and, more recently, 2008's Zimbabwe, are all Roodt creations. Then there was 2008's M-Net mini-series Ella Blue, which was widely acclaimed and launched a wide-eyed Nina Milner into South Africans' living rooms.

So, with nearly two decades of success behind him, why is Roodt battling with funding? "You know, it doesn't matter who you are. It's just hard out there. You've got to try every angle, you've got to be relentless if you want this as a career," he says, eyeing me sagely, then shakes his head, excuses himself and scampers off with his camera to capture some specific "thing" that's caught his attention.

Roodt is running a small crew for the promo. "We hardly have a budget, it's more of a budgie than a budget," he says. But it's not like he hasn't made miracles happen with even less before. Take 2005's Faith's Corner, a film that follows Faith, a street beggar, and her two young sons, Siyabonga and Lucky, who live on the streets of Johannesburg. Though coming from the dizzying heights of fame and moola Yesterday afforded the crew and cast, Roodt went low budget, deciding to shoot Faith's Corner with old film stock and a hand-cranked camera.

Last year's Zimbabwe, shot digitally and "on the fly", was also made on a shoestring, a hope and a prayer. "So if it's so hard out there, why do it?" I ask. "What's the point of all this hustling and late nights fraught with worry about money?" "It's because we have to do it," answers Roodt clearly. "We have to tell the stories of our time. And if we don't do it, who else is up for the challenge?"

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