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Movie shakers

Catalyst Films is becoming the busiest and most respected production house in South Africa. ANDREW WORSDALE reports

IN early 1986 Jeremy Nathan was doing his military service with the film unit of the Entertainment Corp – a virtual propaganda wing for the South African Defence Force. At night, though, he’d hang out with friends Matthew Krouse and Giulio Biccari, formulating De Voortrekkers, the subversive black and white short film that took a Reichian view of South Africa’s pioneer history.

The film incited near riots by right- wingers at the Limits of Liberty Film Festival and was an insert in my own low- budget feature Shot Down – the first film Nathan produced (he even managed to wangle his last month in the service off, to begin pre-production on the movie!).

It’s a little over 10 years later and he has a pack of pictures behind him and is the head of a mini-empire of movie-making: Catalyst Films, one of the busiest production companies around. This year it’s producing nine short films ranging in length from 10 minutes to half -an-hour; co-producing a feature; producing more than six documentaries and has loads of projects in development.

After producing Shot Down, Nathan acted as the line producer for Cedric Sundstrom’s sleazy psycho-sexual thriller The Shadowed Mind, a film financed by tax-breaks that was largely written on set. It received some praise from cultists and after being banned disappeared without a trace.

But that was 1988 and it was the end of the industry’s free ride on the Receiver of Revenue. Nathan, an inveterate cinephile, moved on to developing several other local feature films. His plans ran aground due to lack of finance so he joined Afravision (otherwise known as VNS) as a producer and made about 10 documentaries, including the ANC history series Ulibambe Lingashoni (Hold up the Sun), and produced the controversial TV series The Line, a production co-financed by ZDF and Channel Four. This project started his fruitful relationship with the United Kingdom broadcaster and specifically its head of drama, David Aukin.

With South Africa’s democratisation, VNS disbanded. “Everyone wanted to go in different directions and that’s when I set up Catalyst,” Nathan says. Operating alone and out of his flat in Troyeville, he managed to get several projects into development; including the tale of Saartje Baartman, The Hottentot Venus.

Today, instead of a two-roomed flat pungent with cat pee, the company has offices, several computers, a switchboard and a collection of people who help run the show. There’s Nathan, Ethel Williams-Abrahamse, Brenda Goldblatt and ex-stockbroker Ian Michler.

Possibly the company’s most exciting venture to date has been the co-production with Channel Four and Indra De Lanerolle’s Xenos Films of British director Les Blair’s feature film Jump the Gun, an improvisatory take on life in Jo’burg. The film recently played to a mixed-reception at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s due for a nationwide release of 20 prints and will play from inner-city cinemas to suburban mall arthouses later this year.

But even more enticing is Africa Dreaming, the six-part series of half-hour love stories that debuts on SABC1 in July this year. The idea for the series came to Nathan and Zimbabwe-based producer Joel Phiri at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 1994. “We just thought: ‘What can we do with all the producers we know in the rest of Africa?'”

The result comprises The Last Picture from Zimbabwe, So Be It from Senegal, The Black and the White from Tunisia, Mamlambo from South Africa, The Gaze of the Stars from Mozambique and The Homecoming from Namibia.

Madala Mphahlele of the SABC went for the project and put in some development money then, with the help of the South African Congress of Directors (SACOD) and other industry players, workshops were held with screenwriter and teacher Jacques Akchoti where all the scripts were brainstormed.

“The SABC was the first to put its cock on the block,” says Nathan, but the 15 different partners from Europe were among the participants that came in to back the $900 000 for the three hours of finished product. With production starting in October 1995 and finished by March 1996, the speed is nothing short of amazing.

But Catalyst has lots, lots more, including two 10-minute shorts to be shot on 35mm, produced in association with Channel Four, part of a three-year series of short movies to be made.

The company is also preparing a two-part series, also for Channel Four, called Homecoming, about ex-Umkhonto weSizwe soldiers who return from exile with, industry rumour has it, an excellent script by Malcolm Purkey and Zola Maseko. The series is to be directed by Maseko, who recently completed the 15-minute short The Foreigner for Catalyst.

With all this work, and Nathan on the advisory board to dispense the Department of Art, Culture, Science and Technology’s R10-million in subsidies to the film industry, he has been criticised in some quarters as “getting to big for his boots” and acting like a Hollywood mogul. But it appears that’s sour grapes. His partner, Ian Michler, says: “Well that kind of jealousy just speaks for itself.”

The company’s success is in no small part due to Nathan. At the Cape Town Film Market late last year Krystof Jorg, a commissioning editor for ARTE, said to me: “If anyone in Europe wants to do a film in South Africa, Jeremy is the first person they’ll call. Because he’s been to Europe, he’s done the slog and he’s proved himself.” Enough said.

Initial feedback on the series has been positive, people who’ve seen previews say that the different approaches of film- makers and the multi-cultural nature of the series makes it fascinating.

Nathan says: “When I left documentaries I went back to doing short films and that’s what we’re encouraging because we’re trying to create a cinema of emerging film-makers. Short films prove we can tell stories, and stories are what it’s all about.” At a recent conference in Harare he was quoted as saying that finance wasn’t a problem for local films as long as filmmakers found good stories and told them well.

(set at midnight in 1999 and written and directed by Mauritanian Abderrah Mane Sissako)

In addition it’s in the final post- production stages on a documentary tentatively entitled Jo’burg Stories, directed by Brian Tilley and Oliver Schmitz produced with French-based Dominant Seven for Arte. They’re making six differently- themed documentaries about South Africa for Discovery Europe, developing a one-hour drama with French producer Pierre Chevalier called Train 2000 and are co-producers of The Quarry, based on Damon Galgut’s book ,to be directed by Belgium-based director Marion Hansel.

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