A Twist on SA’s film scene

30 September 2005

“Please, Sir, may I have some more?” South African filmmaker Tim Greene knows about sticking out his hand – and his neck.

With a great script but empty pockets, Greene put out a call in 2002 that he was looking for 1 000 investors to risk R1 000 each, hitting the web – and the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town – to get the public to buy into his story of a Cape Town street child based on the Charles Dickens classic, “Oliver Twist”.

Twisted Pictures (Ltd) was formed to give investors security, pledges started pouring in, and by August 2003 R1-million had been secured. The Arts and Culture Trust contributed R100 000, the Spier Arts Trust came on board with R300 000 – and two years later, “Boy Called Twist” hits South Africa’s screens, boasting the longest associate producer credit title sequence in history.

The film had its world premiere at the Cape Town World Cinema Festival in November 2004, got two screenings at The Spier Arts Summer Season in December 2004, and opens in Ster-Kinekor cinemas around the country on 30 September 2005.

While the basic plot follows the lines of the original “Oliver Twist”, “Boy Called Twist” is set in the context of the life of street children in South Africa.

Shot on location in the Western Cape, Greene’s first feature film tells the story of an orphan who escapes being a child labourer on the vinelands and winds up on the streets of Cape Town, where he meets Feyagin, a West African immigrant who runs a child thief ring – an adaptation of the role of Fagin “the Jew” in the Dickens original.

Tackling issues such as child abuse, xenophobia and racism, the film introduces a host of visceral characters and takes the audience on a ride through the underbelly of Cape Town street life.

At once harrowing and touching, it is a portrait of a child who has never known anything but brutality and indifference, and a story of his search for love, a family and a place to call home.

“Boy Called Twist” stars Kim Engelbrecht as Nancy, Leslie Fong as Feyagin and Jarrid Geduld in the title role. Other names include Trix Pienaar, Teri Norton, Peter Butler and Amrain Ismail-Essop.

The film employed a crew of 60 and a cast of 40 in a shooting period of just 21 days, including preparation and wrap.

The offline edit of the film was screened for the National Film and Video Foundation, and on the basis of the screening a further R1-million was committed to the film’s completion.

The 26 street children that appeared in the movie were on the set for six days, and Greene believes the experience they gained puts them in a stronger position to be selected for “Shooting for Life”, a programme initiated by Linzi Thomas that seeks to get children off the streets and into the film industry.

Why Oliver Twist?

Why did Greene choose a modern-day Oliver Twist for his first feature film?

“In this country, with its legacy of repression and struggle, the moral imperative on the artist has always been to help, to contribute, to be relevant”, Greene says.

“Worthy though these impulses are, they get in the way of making good fiction. The struggle for SA writers at this moment is to find their own irrelevance, their own parochiality – their own voice. When art gets personal, it gets good. As a public service, it tends to be mediocre.

“Taking a plot from London in the 1830s was a strategy to distance myself from my own liberal urges to be helpful”, Greene says.

“This story is about one particular orphan who gets discovered by his family at one particular moment. It is very moving, but through this event nothing is solved at a sociological level. The plot is not an analysis of homelessness, of street-kids, of welfare. It’s a story about a kid.”

SA’s own legacy of brutality

Greene adds that although Dickens had his own political agenda – to highlight the injustice of legislation discriminating against poor people – this is not pertinent to contemporary South Africa, whose laws protecting the rights of citizens and children are above reproach.

However, as he points out: “We suffer a legacy of brutality that make the events in ‘Twist’ utterly plausible and sadly appropriate.”

The movie also features a West African immigrant, Feyagin, corresponding to the role of Fagin “the Jew” in the original. Greene draws parallels between the discrimination of Jews in Europe in the 19th century and the xenophobia experienced by the makwere-kwere (a derogatory term for African immigrants) in South Africa.

SAinfo reporter

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