High five for South African film in Toronto

The universal theme of redemption and the beloved tropes of the western genre – and the great film-making – bring acclaim to Five Fingers for Marseilles.

Vuyo Dabula stars as Tau, who finds redemption on his return to Marseilles. (Image: Graham Bartholomew/ Be Phat Motel)

Sulaiman Philip

A new South African film, seven years in the making, has premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to great acclaim. The festival runs from 7-17 September. Five Fingers for Marseilles uses the familiar format of a western to tell the story of one man’s redemption after a life of violence.

Local film fans will recognise familiar faces such as Vuyo Dabula, Kenneth Nkosi and Jerry Mofokeng once the film gets a wider local release. Shot and set in the Eastern Cape, the isiXhosa and Sesotho film has been receiving rave reviews since its Toronto premiere.

Generations: The Legacy actor Dabula stars as Tau, the leader of a group of five close friends growing up in rural Marseilles. As teenagers living in apartheid-era South Africa, they challenge corrupt police officials hoping to create a better life for themselves and their community.

During their escapades Tau kills two policemen and is forced to flee. Arrested and convicted, he is imprisoned in Johannesburg. Twenty years later he returns to Marseilles to find a town under siege, and his community living in fear of the Night Runners, a gang led by the fearsome, villainous Ghost.

An African western

The official trailer of Five Fingers for Marseilles firmly sets up the South African film as a western. It uses familiar imagery – a remote town, the mysterious stranger walking down dusty streets and long, trailing shots of the mountains of the Eastern Cape – to tell a story of redemption and the liberation that comes from accepting the consequences of your actions.

First time director Michael Matthews and screenwriter Sean Drummond spent seven years researching and developing the film. This included travelling across the country scouting locations. Driving through the Eastern Cape they were reminded of the mythic widescreen panoramic vistas of director John Fords in westerns such as The Searchers and Stagecoach.

Speaking at an event in Toronto, where his film has been called complex, daring and ambitious, Drummond said that making a western allowed him and his partner to explore themes that mattered in the South African context. Good westerns, he said, “always had socio-political undercurrents running through them. By putting a highly entertaining, contemporary spin on this South African western, the film explores subjects that resonate right now with many people.”

Matthews explained in an interview with American entertainment magazine Variety: “Personally I think it’s good to explore topics that have relevance to the lives of South African audiences, but the trick is to do it subtly through plot and character, not to mistake ‘issue’ for storytelling. Story is king. And also, a lot of these issues are relevant all over, so themes can be universal.”

Dusk settles over the Marseilles set,Khwezi Naledi township. (Image: Graham Bartholomew/ Be Phat Motel)

Challenges creating great South African film

In the interview with Variety, Matthews said South African filmmakers were more than capable of making interesting and entertaining films. The challenge had always been, he said, finding financing. However, filmmakers needed to make movies that made the industry appealing to private investors. “If we want to make films that are bigger, that’s more money. You hear grumbles about funding, and of course movie-money is hard to find, but with the (Department of Trade and Industry) rebate, etc, here we have a lot going for us.”

While locally made productions, and Matthews included a hit such as Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, did create a buzz, the audience for local productions remained small and mostly urban. The recently released Kalushi, about Solomon Mahlangu, was an example. Director Mandla Dube’s film was considered a commercial failure because it was shown mostly on screens close to formerly white neighbourhoods.

“A priority is building up local audiences – so attracting people that might not usually watch films, as well as offering films that compete with the international stuff coming in and drawing audiences towards local content rather than the imports.”

The changing business model for movie production did offer some hope, Matthews said. Video on Demand services would increase the size of audiences for locally made films that could be streamed into homes or on to computers.

To make products for that market would require a serious look at how films were financed. Matthews said the next funding challenge was to “source finance that’s altruistic and dedicated to expression and culture, maybe something more along European models”.

For a director who made his name making commercials, Matthews is a fan of the big screen experience. He believes that his film is best experienced in a theatre. “It’s the experience as much as the films themselves and some films will always warrant that. I think you experience film in a different way in a cinema space and that applies to even the tiny indie drama. It draws you in, in a different way; it’s an all-encompassing different kind of a magic.”

Marseilles is under siege by the Night Runners gang. (Image: Graham Bartholomew/ BE Phat Motel)

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