DIFF: From small town to big screen

The reel deal: Director Jahmil XT Qubeka. (Madelene Cronje)

The reel deal: Director Jahmil XT Qubeka. (Madelene Cronje)

‘It’s Little Red Riding Hood told from the wolf’s perspective.” That’s how Jahmil XT Qubeka describes his third feature, Of Good Report, which opened the Durban Film Festival this week.

It’s a starkly gripping piece of work about a township teacher who has an obsessive affair with one of his pupils, an affair that ramifies in various terrifying ways. Qubeka has a very punchy storytelling style, as shown by his previous feature, A Small Town Called Descent. In Of Good Report, his narrative is more honed and refined, but it’s still very powerful filmmaking — a Psycho for South Africa.

Born in the Eastern Cape, Qubeka grew up in “relative privilege” in the erstwhile “homeland” of Ciskei. His high-flying father died when he was in his teens, and the family was thrust into poverty. “I had to engage the township more than I ever did before,” is how he puts it.

Qubeka still got a decent education, but one that didn’t, funnily enough, include formal study of the cinema. He studied fine art and photography in the Eastern Cape, until he decided that wasn’t for him, but he developed what is clearly a knack for filmic storytelling through hands-on work in documentaries and advertising.

In the meantime, though, he did “useless work” at places such as Vodacom and Citibank. “I was earning well for someone of 22 or 23, but I was absolutely miserable because I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I’ve always been a filmmaker. I’ve always seen things through cinematic eyes. I always had a love for film.”

He was accepted at Afda film school, he says, but “couldn’t pay the tuition”. He met photographer and filmmaker Daron Chatz, with whom he did an “apprenticeship”, and began working on what became his first documentary, Reporting Live from the Concrete Jungle.

“What inspired me was The Buena Vista Social Club, as the first feature doccie that was shot on digital video. So I researched cameras, broadcast standards and so on, and I eventually I found the TV unit of Wits’s Doornfontein campus, who used to spend all their time editing medical stuff — dead bodies, autopsies. So I used to borrow their equipment on weekends and go and shoot stuff.

“For over a year, every weekend I would shoot. Daron had just got his first Mac and his first version of [editing program] FinalCut, so I’d sit there every day and cut my material. I entered it into [documentary film festival] Encounters, and suddenly I was a filmmaker … That’s where the journey started.”

Encounters staged pitching sessions, and Qubeka pitched a project he said had been long on his mind — “ritual circumcision. I’m an initiate myself, and I needed to grapple with it on a number of levels. It’s about an 18-year-old boy who goes to Greenside High. All his friends are white, his girlfriend is white. And now his dad says: ‘You’ve got to go to the bush.’ ”

The resulting documentary made it on to SABC, but also got flak from traditionalists, such as “some Xhosa king in King William’s Town” who summoned Qubeka to account for himself, and “someone [who] put in a complaint to the broadcasting commission. That doccie made a lot of noise,” he laughs. “I got calls from people I didn’t know. Threats, even.”

After that, taking what may seem like a dog-leg or knight’s move, Chatz and Qubeka put together 45 minutes’ worth of a kung fu movie called Shogun Khumalo Is Dying!. Qubeka describes it as “pretty trippy, esoteric and out there”. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it to full feature length: “It has its technical faults,” he says a little ruefully.

“And then I went bankrupt.” He laughs: “By 25, I was blacklisted.”

He did another documentary, this time working with Takalani Sesame on HIV, disclosure and family issues. His most successful work, he says wryly, was Talk to Her. He explains how aspects of making a documentary about such personal issues made him uncomfortable. It won awards “all over the world”, including Emmys (for the American version, taken into Sesame Street) and a George Foster Peabody Award for broadcasting.

“I managed to get myself out of that debt. This time the bank gave me R110 000,” he says — and he went straight out and made another movie. This was his first feature, uMalusi, made in tandem with Mlandu Sikwebu. It’s about a spoilt black rich kid from East London whose teenage girlfriend “ODs on him” — and he flees into the township of Mdantsane.

For a first feature, never mind a “no-budget” production, uMalusi was a success. Ster-Kinekor released it theatrically in South Africa, an honour they declined when it came to Qubeka’s next movie, A Small Town Called Descent. This hectic chronicle of South Africa’s dark heart was conceived, Qubeka says, at a time when he was feeling very pessimistic about this country and its future.

Produced and co-written by Faith Isiakpere and his wife Firdoze Bulbulia, it was begun in 2008 and released in 2010.

“They were crazy enough to put money into film,” he laughs. “So we worked on this script for a year.”

But Descent didn’t turn out the way Qubeka had hoped, he says. “I was extremely disappointed. Creatively, I didn’t do anywhere near what I know I’m capable of doing. It was a missed opportunity.”

With Of Good Record, he says, he feels that for the first time he has made a feature that is all his own. “I take 110% responsibility for this one.”

The film certainly shows the impress of a highly individual, even quirky, consciousness. Maybe that makes it an auteur movie; maybe it just shows that if you give a determined, creative individual his or her head, ultimately something worthwhile will emerge. Qubeka, at any rate, is clearly a major talent who, one can only hope, will make the “roster of 50 movies” he sees in his future.

He laughs about the “rejection letter” he got from the National Film and Video Foundation when he offered it Of Good Report, but, for my money, the foundation could do worse than simply give Qubeka a few million rand every year and let him get on with making movies.

And what does the “XT” stand for?

“Xolani Thandikhaya”, he says, translating the second part: “Which means one who loves his home.”

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal


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