How to subvert the Hollywood Western

An interview with the South African director and writer of 'Five Fingers for Marseilles,' a Western set in that country, and starring an all black cast.

Still from film Five Fingers for Marseilles

The new film, Five Fingers for Marseilles revolves around the tale of five black men, spanning their childhoods (when they started a gang, the “Five Fingers”) and later adulthood. Their childhoods coincide with Apartheid, building up to a fateful skirmish with corrupt white policemen and then years later as some of them gets corrupted by a criminal syndicate — led by a one-eyed bandit named Ghost — who has hijacked their town. One of the original “five fingers,” Tau, who left town as a teenager following that confrontation with the police, returns to restore order. The film draws on the conventions of Hollywood Westerns as a genre. All the conventions of the western are here: a mysterious, flawed, hero; the code of the West; the cutout villains; the shootout, etcetera. But its setting in a small South African town means it is upfront about the country’s politics. Critics — whether bloggers, on social media, or mainstream critics — have been full of praise. Variety’s critic described it as “an impressively effective and engrossing cross-cultural hybrid.” The film, which has been featured at a number of festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, will premiere in South Africa on 7 March and go on general release in the country on 6 April. The film is scripted by Sean Drummond, who I have known for a number of years (full disclosure: he has also collaborated with another AIAC editor and film director, Dylan Valley, on films). Another South African, Michael Matthews, is director, and the film was produced by Asger Hussain and Yaron Schwartzman at Game 7 Films, along with Drummond and Matthews. We interviewed Drummond and Matthews about the film.

First, I really enjoyed watching the film. It is a triumph. Congratulations to you, the director and the crew. The film has gotten a positive reaction all round from critics. Well deserved.  Did you expect this reaction?

Thank you. I think we hoped for a strong positive reaction, but didn’t go in with any expectations. The responses both from international festival critics and audiences and the limited audiences who have seen it in South Africa have been incredible. After so many years pushing for the film – seven years by the time of shooting the film, eight by the time of the festival premieres and almost nine when it releases in April in South Africa – we had fallen in and out of love with it so many times but by the end were feeling really good about it and really proud on behalf of everyone who worked so hard on it.  We may have thought there would be a level of engagement with a degree of distance – that it was at best “a South African Western, cool concept, cool film.” But we’ve been pleasantly surprised. Audiences everywhere have gotten so deep into the politics and the history and the language and the meanings of it, as well as the western-ness of it, which is just the best reaction we could have hoped for. The interviews and Q&As we’ve done have gone deep and it’s been amazing.

Can you talk about the economics of making a film like this. What does it take to produce a film like this in South Africa, with such high production values and an international profile? How long did it take to raise the funding for the film? Who funded it? What did you learn from the process?

Well, as I said already, it took seven years. And it came together and fell apart twice during that period before finally coming together and sticking the third time. We had incredible partners early on in Asger Hussain and Yaron Schwartzman at Game 7 Films in New York, who saw the potential for a powerful and marketable film that was authentically South African, but could reach a world audience. We knew from the beginning that we’d do best to realize the film through an international network rather than in isolation in SA: One, filmmaking is a global business and too often I think South African film tends to think of itself in a bubble. Two, to reach international markets, you really need strong international networks, whether it be finance, sales, festivals or any aspect. And, three, budgets depend on sales estimates, and our balance between enough finance to make the film at the level we needed it to be and enough sales projections to justify that figure depended on world markets as well as the home market. Too often local films are produced cheaper than they should be, for local markets that don’t perform as well as hoped, so the next film is smaller, and the cycle sort of winds inwards. This was our first feature, and we obviously had big ambitions but to a degree we’re trying to break that mould. We’re in the sales process now and a release in South African cinemas – where we’re hoping to make a big impact – so we’re learning as we go whether our ideas work or not. We’ve learnt so much along the way, constantly. We’re lucky to work with great people to mentor and guide us.

We could write a book about financing the film. The long and winding road. We had a local investor who led us along and burned us very badly – twice.  The first time, we actually had crew starting to work and were just weeks out of starting, before he dropped out on us. We had one of our US producers who had come out to South Africa and ready to get to work. We’ve had various financing partnerships come and go – some that ended in “well, we put up a good fight, but ultimately couldn’t make it happen together.” We explored a French co-production for almost a year before realizing it would be a financial step backwards for the project. We chased various funds in South Africa and around the world. In the end the bulk of finance came from two US-based sources: one who committed very early and stuck with the project for 6 years, and one that came in right at the very end and became one of our strongest pillars of support. We had support from the South African National Film and Video Foundation from very early and they stuck with the project for four years. We had a local partner come in with a gear and support commitment, which was invaluable, because they loved and believed in the project. The South African government Department of Trade and Industry rebate is a godsend for local filmmakers (which subsidizes a portion of the budget of local films or international co-productions), and they were a pleasure for us to work with. And we had many great people commit their time to the project for very low rates or in some cases even for free; I won’t name names, but there are very wonderful people in the South African industry who gave freely to us, some for years, and we’d give the world for in return.

In the end, I think we can safely say the production value far outweighs the actual budget we had to spend on the film, and is the product of the blood, sweat and tears of literally everyone who worked on the film, from the top billed cast to the amazing heads of departments, to the lowest of the crew.  And of a town — Lady Grey in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa — that believed in us and in the project. Everyone came to the party, everyone loved it as much as Mike [the director] and I did, and we fought like hell to make it what it is.

The majority of the dialogue is in seSotho and siXhosa, two languages primarily spoken by black South Africans. Are we right to assume the screenplay was written in English, translated into Sesotho and isiXhosa and then subtitled back into English? That’s seems like a fairly unusual, labor intensive creative process. Can you talk about it how it worked practically to make that happen? Can you also talk about the politics of language; that is the decision to have the characters (with the exception of a white salesman, a Chinese shopkeeper and a white policemen) speak in African languages?

The film is predominantly Sesotho, with some English, Afrikaans and then a very little Xhosa. And even in the Sotho spoken, there are different dialects: from a more colloquial small town style that most of the characters speak with occasional words and phrases from other languages thrown in, to a rich, deep old Sotho that feels almost like an equivalent of Shakespearean English, that the Sepoko (Ghost) character speaks. The area we filmed in sits on the border between the Eastern Cape in South Africa and Lesotho, so it’s a true to life cultural and language mix, and we wanted to reflect that in the film. It’s reflected in character names too. As we got closer to production, Sotho became the dominant language – we really fell in love with the poetry and lyricism of it – and we made the decision to weight the film that way.

The script was written in English, and then we worked with a Sotho writer, Mamokuena Makhema, to take the dialogue and translate it in a way that’s both true to the language and to the poetry and intention of the lines, rather than as a literal word-for-word translation, where meaning never really comes across. We went over every line in English and then over the meaning of the Sotho versions, until they were where we all wanted them to be. Then we broke down every character’s lines and gave them to them in English and Sotho and gave them the chance to tweak as they felt appropriate. Some actors, like Hamilton Dhlamini who plays Ghost, went deep-deep and you can tell, even in his delivery, that there’s symbolism and metaphor laced into everything he says, even beyond the original script. Sotho speakers who’ve seen the film have really picked up on the nuance and appreciated it – I don’t even think there are true English equivalents for some of Ghost’s lines, so in a sense there are two experiences of the film: one if you follow the subtitles, true to the original script, and another if you speak Sotho. Not all of our actors are Sotho speakers, either, so we also had to do some coaching. It’s safe to say we’ve been blown away by the levels of performance in a language not their own. And that includes the young stars of the film – none of them were comfortable Sotho speakers going in. None of them had ever worked in film, which is a story in itself. One of the joys of the film was seeing them come to life on screen.

We actually do have the white salesman Honest John, the Chinese shopkeeper Wei and the white police speaking Sotho intermixed with Afrikaans and/or English throughout. We wanted the world to feel fluid, and again, it’s true to life. Many white people in the area speak Sotho and Xhosa. Chinese people in the area do too. In the same way, Tau and other characters in town switch to English in some scenes depending who they’re talking to. Whatever made real sense in context of each scene. So authenticity was a guiding principle was – always with respect to the language and hopefully never in a gimmicky sense.

This was a big conversation from the very start with our US partners. They asked: would we do this in English? For international market purposes, doing it in local language is a very tough sell. But for the purpose of authenticity and nuance and performance and richness, there was never any doubt that we had to do it like this, and they believed in that principle too. We worked really hard to be as authentic as we could, especially being white filmmakers, to make sure there’s no gimmick in it. Audiences thus far really seem to have seen the efforts and appreciate the attention to the language and our approach, which is hugely gratifying.

In some ways, this is an archetypical western: The mysterious hero who returns and rediscovers his moral code; the cutout villains; the remoteness of the town; etcetera. But there is also no doubt that it is set in South Africa. The location. Marseilles is a white town in the Eastern Cape. It comes with a black township, Railway. The prologue makes it clear that it is Apartheid South Africa. Later when Tau, the hero, returns, the new town is renamed “New Marseilles” after Apartheid. Can you talk about getting that balance between universalism and the particular setting right?

So many great westerns had political and social commentary sown into them. It’s such a pure expression of storytelling if you follow the film mantra that “all story is conflict.” In the western, the conflict is the story with core themes that are universal across the genre – man versus man, man versus himself, men versus the land and men versus the passage of time and history. But where most often westerns are about the conquest and the taking of land, we wanted to turn that back on itself and look at who is left behind and the legacy of that conquest. And it is very specifically true to the places we were traveling and researching in. We did 8000 km around South Africa visiting small towns meeting people, hearing stories, looking at history. And what we found in all these former colonial towns with European names is that the townships that were attached to them have become towns in their own right, which is a new frontier of its own, going through birth pains that mirror the genre’s themes. When we found Lady Grey, we fell in love and stayed there for a month initially, writing, exploring, meeting the townspeople and fitting the bones of our story to the place. And we went back yearly right up until shooting, getting deeper and finessing the project more each time. Authenticity was the most important, and not feeling like we were projecting a story onto the place. The film is a pure fiction genre piece, so nothing in the film is historically based, but the history and real stories we heard are infused into its DNA. And the town and its people were so involved in the film – either on screen in supporting roles or as extras, or in the real homes and locations we were shooting in, or in those who worked on our crew – that there’s a hopefully a level of authenticity that we couldn’t engineer.

Also speaking to authenticity, we have a trusted network of collaborators and friends who we specifically asked to call us out on anything that didn’t feel true, including our cast and crew. Films aren’t (or shouldn’t be) developed in a vacuum, and we had a whole industry watching and contributing to this project, and we were open at every step to advice and critique.

In the same way that we travelled and dug deep into the space of the film, we immersed ourselves in westerns — old and new, American and world, classic, Spaghetti, revisionist and neo –- both on screen and scripts, to make sure we knew the genre inside and out. It was so important that it didn’t play as a gimmick that the film is a western, and we sort of swung back and forth on how obviously western we wanted it to be. In the end it’s a delicate balance, I think, but one that seems it’s connected with people. We’ve had long-time western fans in the US who loved it, and we’ve gone deep into the genre in interviews with them. We screened in Austin, Texas and came out of that unscathed, haha. That’s been great. And at the same time we’ve had such strong responses to the real world portrayal and themes, both at home and from viewers from South Africa and Lesotho living in Canada, London, etcetera.

Is the film an allegory for present day South Africa and for the weight of the past?

I think the allegory is pretty clear, yes, in the idea of a town that’s in the process of escaping its fraught and damaged past and the birthing pains of its true freedom. But we’re hesitant to be overbearing with it. Audiences should be able to the enjoy the film for its story and characters without necessarily going deep into the allegory; it’s a genre film and we want people to be entertained and shocked and excited and moved by it, and if people are challenged, or inspired, or ask questions about themselves and their world afterwards, there’s nothing better that we could ask for, but if they don’t, we’re not going: “you missed the point.” Filmmakers and films have this amazing power to affect people and the world we live in, but I personally don’t think our role is to beat people over the head with messages or ideas.  I prefer to pose questions and leave the rest in the viewers’ hands.

We didn’t expect foreign audiences to pick up on the allegory as much as they did. We thought it might be more of the former – that this is an entertaining new style of South African film – but they connected deeply with the themes and meanings. I think that says so much about where the world is today, and how conscious people are everywhere of the fucked up politics going on all over and of the damage of the past that hasn’t really been addressed anywhere. Even in Canada, where we premiered, there is a legacy of colonial damage that hasn’t been interrogated, and I think it was a big reason that Jesse Wente, who at the time was head of indigenous programming at TIFF, went for the film.

How much should we read into the plotline that the oppression and corrupt rule by whites has been replaced by black oppression? Here I am also thinking of the agency/ethics of the adults in New Marseilles; that they allowed this to happen or colluded with or silently acquiesced to the criminal syndicate.

I am hesitant to go into specifics about what exactly represents what in the film, as audiences are smart and should be able to find their own meaning. But, yes, it speaks to the legacy of damage done in the past and the repetitive nature of cycles and human nature. We try hard to shake the things that have made us, but so often we see the mistakes of the past repeated by those very people trying to escape or undo them. That’s not just true for South Africa, that’s the world over, but we see it clearly in real world South Africa today, and in the film, the town of Marseilles is a microcosm of that.

Hopefully it doesn’t play as black and white in the film and characters don’t read as flat stereotypes or clunky symbols. We worked hard to create complex and conflicted characters, who have hopes and wants and believe they are doing their best, as much as they’re victims of their own natures, history and circumstances. And we were lucky to have one of the best ensemble casts the country has ever seen to bring them to life way beyond even what was on the page.

And not to push the film’s political implications, but South African viewers can’t be blamed for the physical and political similarities between Kenneth Nkosi’s Bongani, the town’s compromised mayor, and South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma? Or some of the other characters; the Minister of Police (Mbalula?), the gangsters (all the talk about the connections between Zuma and organized crime), etcetera. Is that being too literal or will that get you in trouble?

Like I say, I don’t want to limit what any audience reads into the film. I think there are things in the film that are clearer than others, and that’s the way it should be. Kenneth Nkosi was one of our first choices for the film, not so much for his physical attributes, but because he’s just a phenomenal and versatile actor and we hadn’t seen a role that had played to his deeper, darker, more serious side in a long time. He’s a jovial, loved, everyman who commands rooms effortlessly, and projects a real powerful positive energy, but having seen him in dramatic roles, and seen his take on the script and the character, we knew he could ultimately go to the places the story would need him to.

The same goes for the whole cast. We wanted to play almost everyone against type – Vuyo Dabula in the lead role, brought so much quiet depth to the role of Tau, Kenneth, Mduduzi Mabaso and Aubrey Poolo as the older five fingers, going so far beyond what mainstream audiences know them for from television (many of them have prominent roles in local soap operas and TV dramas), as fragile, broken men. Zethu Dlomo, Lizwi Vilakazi, Jerry Mofokeng, Warren Masemola – I shouldn’t list cast members, because there are so many but everyone went so far with their characters and really just brought our world to life so beautifully. We tried to give a lot of room for quiet in the film, and letting the characters be alone with themselves. Which is where our ghosts really come to haunt us. In the film Hamilton Dhlamini manifests that literally, in a sense, in a role so far removed from how audiences know him.  He’s virtually unrecognizable at first, but when people clock who it is, they really flip. He was one of the last roles to cast, because it is such a specific and complex character, and we really knew him best for his comedy before he came in to read and just blew our minds.

I’ll say that the initial inspirations for the film when we first wrote the story and script in 2010-2011 only deepened as the political situation worsened in South Africa, and the themes became more and more relevant as we got closer to shooting. We were actually shooting during the local government elections in 2016, so I think the politics of the film really were tangible.

Lady Grey where we filmed is nothing like the Marseilles of the film, I need to say. The local municipality are one of the most efficient small town municipalities in the country –- they’ve been awarded a prize, I believe — and they were actively involved in helping us get the film made, as were the whole town, across racial and political lines.

Can you talk about the town drunk/traveling salesman character, i.e. the only white character in the film. Is he a bridging character, i.e. a character placed in films to give whites (in South Africa) or international audiences, someone to relate to? Of course, the character of the town drunk/salesman is a trope of Westerns, for exposition and comic relief. But given the locale, rural South Africa, it does stand out that he is white. How did this character come about and what function does he play in the story? Was he needed?

There is a town drunk trope for sure, and we did want a character to embody the sense of being something of an innocent in the town, a little light relief and comedy and someone who could come from a place of distance and look in on the town from outside, and try to push Tau to stand up. Ultimately the role became a little less comedic. He wasn’t originally written to be specifically white, but as the character evolved, there was something that felt right about the idea of taking the role often cast as a non-white buddy role and cast it as white within a strongly black film. A subversion of that stereotype. And I think it’s important that in a film that is allegorical about South Africa today, there is a role for a white character like this – one who as we meet him is almost lost, unsure of how he fits into this new version of the world he once knew, who ultimately realizes that his place is to support and join the fight under Tau’s lead. That traveling salesman figure is also true to the history and the area, and so fascinating, the idea of traveling town to town, that fluid but maybe rootless existence. It was also a very tough role to cast, before we found Dean Fourie, who brought the perfect delicate balance of comedy and tragedy to the character.

Spoiler alert: Can we talk about the ending. Would it be wrong to make the conclusion that everyone involved in the killings and corruption (including the good guys, who are also tainted or compromised), have to die — commit ritualistic suicide — for the new to be born? What one reviewer referred to as “a standoff between friends/enemies, about which archetype will be the way forward.” Is that a metaphor for South Africa’s conundrum?

Big spoilers. Haha. Again, not to limit audiences’ take on the ending, but there’s clearly more going on than just explicitly what happens in those last scenes. It’s about what it takes for Marseilles truly to be free. Who is equipped to take it into the future and who is so damaged or stuck in the past that they really are only holding it back. It’s set up in young Zulu’s early manifesto for the Five Fingers and their relationship to the land, the town: “it’s our duty to protect it, even from each other.” It’s a tough ending, and a lot of people don’t want to see it going that way. We discussed and debated it throughout the development of the film, but ultimately it was always the way the story was meant to end.

Back to genre talk. Can you talk about how much of American Western tropes as well as that of the Spaghetti Western influenced or made it into this film? For example, some critics and reviewers have compared your main character, Tau, to a Clint Eastwood character in a western. What do you say about that?

Since I talked about the westernness of the film quite a bit earlier, I’ll keep this one brief. We definitely included explicit nods to westerns we love in certain scenes, shots, lines, character moments. But to be too referential is limiting to the story we wanted to tell, and again, we didn’t want it to feel like a gimmick.

Tau does embody the archetypal western anti-hero — wandering into a town as a man-with-no-name with a conflicted past — in the same way that Bongani as the mayor, Luyanda as police chief and Unathi as pastor of the old church on the hill are also western archetypes. Lerato as proprietress of the tavern; Jonah as her aging mentor father. Sizwe as the firebrand youth who wants to stand up and fight. But we did something westerns don’t typically do in that we spend the first 15 minutes of the film with these characters as kids, seeing the world and events that shape who they’ll become as adults. It was pretty important to do that to make sure the story in the present and especially the ending resonate beyond western tropes. There’s a degree of familiarity in the genre that makes it accessible to audiences. It does a lot of groundwork and actually allows the themes to come across stronger, I think.

​If you would have to place your film, ​who would you consider contemporaries — based on the kind of films they make — i.e. people whose work you see parallels with/are inspired by both in and outside South Africa?

This is a tough one. It’s probably not a good idea to project how audiences should see you or your work onto yourself… We definitely love film as a medium for escapism and entertainment and we want to entertain and entertain on a grand scale, for audiences at home and abroad. We wanted to offer something to South African audiences that takes itself seriously as a story of epic scale – “a major motion picture” was the running joke-not-a-joke. But in this age where every day brings new challenges and new awareness, its not enough just to entertain, without leaving audiences with something to think about, if they choose to. So the most inspiring filmmakers to us are the ones who can marry that art of an immersive world and story full of compelling, gripping characters, that take you on a journey for the hour, 2 hours, or 10 hours of whatever medium is it, and when you emerge from it at the end, you’re moved, richer or enlightened or humbled or challenged.

Finally, as two white men — you as screenwriter and Michael as the director — telling this story, do you feel any awkwardness around the politics of representation? In the light of recent debates around “The Wound” (a South African film shortlisted for Best Foreign Film at the 2018 Oscars) and white people helming black narratives,  are you expecting any blowback from critics/audiences? 

I think we feel an acute awareness rather than an awkwardness. I spoke earlier about some of the lengths we went to for authenticity, so won’t go into detail again here, but we were conscious the whole way through of coming in to the story humbly and honestly, with arms open to learn and be challenged and called out and corrected should we be going wrong or projecting, misrepresenting, appropriating. It’s a conversation we’ve been willing to have all the way through and especially now on the festival trail and into release. There were moments where we questioned whether we were right to make the film, but for the most part the support and enthusiasm of the cast, the industry and the town itself were the best encouragement for us and kept us believing we were on the right track. And that pervasive artist voice inside of yourself that you can’t ignore — the story was so compelling for us that we invested almost a decade of life and sacrificed literally everything for it, knowing what our vision was; we had to commit to it and risk being right or wrong.

It’s not for us to say whether we got it right, and we are waiting for the film’s wide release in South Africa to see how audiences and critics react on mass scale, but like I said in the beginning, the reaction has been beyond belief so far and in some cases it’s been the opposite response, focussing on how the film challenges the whiteness of the genre — to which we can’t claim any kind of glory but rather step back and point to our cast and crew and collaborators and just say we’re proud to have been able to bring it all together and allow them all to bring it to life. We learnt so much about ourselves and the country and our place in the future of the country through making the film, and we’re just really proud of it and hope it makes an impact both on the industry and on audiences when it comes out.

* Five Fingers of Marseilles premieres in South Africa at the RapidLion Film Festival in March this year and goes on general release on April 6. Dylan Valley and Murray Hunter help to draw up the questions.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.