Inner city on the screen

‘I’ve always liked gangster films and I’ve always been of the opinion that to grow the South African audience and to get them to appreciate South African films you need to be commercial in your approach to filmmaking,” says Tendeka Matatu, producer of the crime-thriller Jerusalema, which makes its continental premiere at the opening of the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) next Wednesday.

With movies such as Crazy Monkey: Straight out of Benoni and Teddy Mattera’s debut feature Max and Mona behind him, Matatu clearly puts his money where his mouth is.

Directed by Ralph Ziman, Jerusalema, which was screened earlier this year at the Berlinale and Sundance film festivals is, according to Matatu, the sort of high-octane action-thriller rooted in the grime and crime of Johannesburg’s Hillbow that will ensure mass appeal.

Jerusalema had Variety magazine enthusing that the film “overcomes derivative genre clichés and daunting length to punch home its crime-doesn’t-pay message on chutzpah alone”. You have been warned.

Set in the jack-the-knife underworld of Johannesburg, Jerusalema revolves around Lucky Kunene (Rapulana Seiphemo), a car hijacker in a past life, an entrepreneur with a failing taxi business in the current.

Tired of taxi-wars, and his own vehicle being jacked, Kunene hits on a rather novel idea: jacking buildings. He sets up the Hillbrow People’s Housing Trust and promises the residents of the tenements better living conditions in return for their rent.

It’s a deal that brings him up against drug-lords, landlords and the police.

According to Matatu, building-jacking is an ongoing phenomenon in Jo’burg’s inner city: “When we were researching the film we spent a lot of time with guys who were doing this. They’re quite powerful, with very good, expensive lawyers to protect them. And if a legal landlord, for example, was to shut off the electricity and water in a building, these guys had contacts on their pay at the municipality who would turn it back on.”

Despite Jerusalema, which had a budget of “over the $2-million range” following on South African films like Hijack Stories and Tsotsi, Matatu doesn’t believe that there is an emerging bullets-over-Babylon trend among South African feature films reflecting a reality of crime and bloodshed.

“Cinema is a reflection of current society—the Brazilians, for example, are making films about the favelas [slums]—and I think it is our responsibility to make films that reflect South Africa. At the same time, there is room for other films, like Leon Schuster making a slapstick comedy about a white sangoma,” he says, referring to Mr Bones.

While Jerusalema takes the big-budget, stylised violence approach to South Africa’s underbelly, other filmmakers at the DIFF have chosen different routes.

Claire Angelique Bezhuidenhout’s My Black Little Heart, is a trippy, amorphous look at a heroin-junkie’s Durban and includes Internet porn shoots, Nigerian black magic and much abuse about nothing. But, whatever it lacks in a compelling storyline, it makes up for with breathtaking, well-imagined photography by Anthony Dod Mantle, who has worked on several Lars von Trier films.

Mantle takes shooting on video to a level unseen in South Africa.

Michael J Rix’s Tengers, meanwhile, uses claymation to reflect the über-violence of a Johannesburg sans law. With scams for food and petrol increasing exponentially with the interest rate, it is Johannesburg not far removed from present reality.

Tengers follows the protagonist, Rob Mabena (a honkie who has changed his name to cash in on black economic empowerment deals) as he staves off paranoia and the National Lottery assassins. Humorous and angry, like most Jo’burgers.

Jerusalema screens on July 26 at Sun Coast Casino and July 26 at the Elizabeth Sneddon. Tengers screens on July 27 and 29 at Musgrave Centre and Ekhaya respectively. My Black Little Heart screens on July 25 at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre and July 30 at Musgrave Centre

What’s on at the film festival?
The Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) opens on July 23 with the South African premiere of the gritty local gangster flick, Jerusalema, directed by Ralph Ziman. The festival will screen 300 documentaries and feature films at 26 venues around the city until August 3.

An African Perspectives programme includes a retrospective on Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, popularly considered the “father of African cinema”. Screenings of Sembene’s films will include Black Girl, Borom Saret, Mandaabi, Xala and Guelwaar.

Contemporary African films will include the adaptation of John Kani’s theatre production, Nothing But the Truth; the African premiere of Shamim Sharif’s adaptation of her own novel A World Unseen, about a burgeoning love between two Indian women in 1950s South Africa; Malian director Salif Traore’s Faro, which examines the clash between modernity and tradition and the harrowing Chadian film DP 75-Tartina City by director Serge Issa Coelo, which examines press freedom and atrocities in a fictional African dictatorship.

There are focuses on New German Cinema and Italian Film. Essential documentaries include Rodrigo Vazquez’s Inside Hamas and this year’s Oscar-winner for best documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, which traces the blame of United States torture practices in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay “firmly to the door of the US White House”.

While directors like Atom Egoyan (Adoration), Gus Van Sant (Paranoid Park) and Harmony Korine (Mr Lonely, about a Michael Jackson impersonator) make a return to the festival, there is also a strong emphasis on Asian and Middle-Eastern cinema.

The Wave Scapes Film Festival programme has 13 films, including Zulu Surf Riders, about Zulu surfers down the KwaZulu-Natal South coast.

The DIFF runs from July 23 to August 3 with screenings at 26 venues. For programme and special event information visit or call 031 260 2506.

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi


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