Slick, vanilla Afrikaans romcom Semi-Soet is just what the South African film industry needs, writes Phillip de Wet.
Semi-Soet is an utterly predictable romantic comedy.
You know, girl accidentally hires arch enemy as pretend boyfriend, girl and boy suffer a shared ordeal-by-pig, boy flies off in a huff (and in a helicopter), boy and girl are reunited at a swanky rooftop party in aid of the fight against erectile dysfunction.
Right from the classic pose in the poster to the happy ending, it is the very archetype of the genre: light, cliched, uplifting entertainment. And that is what makes it so surprising. If you aren’t careful you’ll be well out of the cinema before you realise you’ve just watched a South African film, set in Johannesburg and Cape Town, in Afrikaans, rather than the latest from Hollywood. Which is a very good sign indeed for a local industry that is rapidly finding its feet.
Bums on seats
The producers are unapologetic for their mercenary approach in putting out a slick, vanilla romcom just in time for Valentines Day. “At some point we realised that the film business is a business,” says producer Anel Alexander, who is also the female lead, but is better known for roles in series such as 7de Laan.
“You need to make money on one movie to make another. In South Africa the money is in action movies, but we can’t afford the explosions and earthquakes and stuff. The second most profitable genre is the romcoms. Then you have Afrikaans movies that tend to make good money, and you can sell it to the TV channels for good money because they can’t get it anywhere else in the world. It’s a simple calculation.”
So, in Semi-Soet, everyone is beautiful or cute or both, everyone lives in a loft in Braamfontein or on a Franschoek wine farm, and everyone gets their just deserts. Unless you have a rock where your heart should be (or you think you can fool the world by pretending to be gruff and manly and hate romcoms on principle) you’ll laugh, you’ll sigh and you’ll have just enough time to consider your ticket money well spent before forgetting all about it.
“A romcom, our writer Sandra Vaughn, told us, always has to equal ten,” says James Alexander, the other half of production house Scramble and the husband who has to support Anel Alexander’s movie-making habit by having a day role as Tristan van Reenen in soapie The Wild. “You can make it three plus three plus four, or four plus four plus two, but you always have to get to ten. That’s what we went for.”
Fitting the mould
The Alexanders put up only the weakest of fights in defending their claim to have made a uniquely South African movie, because they have very little ammunition. The Afrikaans wordplay is delightful, but will be lost on anyone relying on the subtitles.
Jo’burg’s Nelson Mandela bridge is effectively a character in the movie, but that’s about it, and easily counter-balanced by the fact that everyone is either white or gay. If Scramble succeeds in its ambition to get distribution in the USA, Semi-Soet will only reinforce the popular view that everyone in the world look and behave exactly as Americans do, except that they speak gobbledygook.
At home, Semi-Soet may be the movie that adds a third genre to the short list that have proven profitable. Leon Schuster’s entire career stands testimony that low-brow comedy can make money, and the recent success of Afrikaans musical Liefling showed promise in that arena. Outside of those, however, even the most critically-acclaimed movies have either had to shoot on a shoestring, or be satisfied with marginal returns.
It may also be the movie that proves Afrikaans entertainment can move beyond the choice of being ivory tower, embarrassing, or morally outrageous, but can also just be good, clean fun.
If that is the case, then maybe Anel Alexander’s dream project, a magical realism story in Afrikaans, can also cut it. And maybe even the likes of Discreet could have a place. That movie, the Alexander’s first foray into filmmaking, was well received by critics for its surprising dramatic depth and elegant simplicity, but can only be considered a flop based on its return as an investment.
The producers won’t say how much Semi-Soet cost to make; their distributors are worried the movie will be pigeonholed as another local cheapie, they say. But even though equity funding was raised from, among others, the Industrial Development Corporation, that only covered a part of the bill.
“Our consulting line producer, Johan Kruger, told us to put all the money we have on screen, and that’s what we did,” says James Alexander. “Wherever we could deflect money away from something else, we made sure that money showed in the movie.”
Hence the prominent product placements for companies such as Avis, 1Time and others throughout the movie, some of which brought in hard cash, and some done as barter deals. It also meant cutting corners, such as shooting a restaurant scene amid the very real bustle of an operating restaurant, for lack of the money it would take to close it down for a day. If such location costs had to be factored in, the Alexanders estimate, their movie would have cost around R12-million to make. Considering that they dream of it grossing R8-million at cinemas, that would have been disastrous.
So the difference had to be made up by begging, pleading, wheeling, dealing, using guerrilla filmmaking tactics and generally wielding the glitz of the movie basis in a rather ruthless fashion.
That doesn’t show in the final product. Only the occasional wooden acting from a minor character or the odd shot where the lighting could have been better will prevent Semi-Soet from going down as the archetypal, pitch-perfect romantic comedy. It is charming. Now it just needs to make enough money to attract copycats.
Semi-Soet opens in cinemas on February 17. Visit the film’s official website here.