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Shooting the queen’s messenger

Diamonds are the key to most of the conflicts ravaging Africa today and remain the fuel that fans the flames of Sierra Dorada’s bloody civil war,’ goes the dialogue delivered by a TV news reporter in the movie The Queen’s Messenger, which wrapped late last year after a hectic 29-day shoot in Johannesburg and Sun City.

In the film Captain Strong (martial arts star Gary Daniels playing a kick-boxing “James Bond”) is sent to South Africa to deliver a package to a peace conference at Sun City, of all places, and ends up exposing a baddie called Wolf (local boy Nick Boraine doing a Nazi-youth-type thug) who, with his bunch of evil cohorts, is plotting to wrest control of the illegal diamond trade.

This Mission Impossible without a budget is completely reminiscent of the kind of junk that was made here in the 1980s through the help of tax subsidies. At the time KwaZulu-Natal doubled for Vietnam and Johannesburg became Los Angeles for a slew of crappy American Ninja movies. Meanwhile, Oliver Reed kept local cocaine dealers in big business while making a bunch of awful fantasy-sex movies like Dragonard I and II.

Those involved in The Queen’s Messenger acknowledge the fact that this is no masterpiece – it’s strictly a genre picture – the difference this time though that is there are no tax incentives behind the film, South Africa really is South Africa and viewers have to deal with the implausible idea that a major peace conference would take place at Sol Kerzner’s Lost City.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that the film is directed by Darrell Roodt, South Africa’s most prolific film-maker, best known for his anti-apartheid films like A Place of Weeping, Cry, the Beloved Country and the powerful anti-war movie The Stick.

The Queen’s Messenger is the kind of movie that you would see on a bus journey while travelling between different holiday destinations in Paraguay,” Roodt says.

“But we’ve had a major jol making it – it’s been great fun and I’ve learnt a helluva lot about staging action sequences. It’s like being a 14-year-old playing with toys again.”

Most importantly the film has already been pre-sold to many territories, mostly in the Far East where star Daniels has a massive following.

South African producer Brigid Olen says: “The idea was to bring a co-production to the country, but it had to be competitive and be produced on an extremely tight budget.

It seemed like an opportunity to stimulate the local film industry and encourage formula films in the country – a lot of pictures are being made in Cuba, Bulgaria and Mexico and South Africa is becoming less attractive to foreign producers.”

I visited the set on the last day of shooting, where the billiards room of the Rand Club was standing in for the British foreign secretary’s manor house. The crew were exhausted but completely upbeat – there was a real spirit of movie-making present. It was like watching children having fun in the nursery school sandpit.

Director of photography Giulio Biccari says: “I’ve just come off from shooting Soul City where the most action we captured was a catheter falling out of someone’s bladder. Here there are major explosions, people on invisible high-wires kicking the shit out of each other. I mean Soul City is all about healing, this is all about destruction.”

Michael Swan, who was in charge of the second unit camera and helped polish the script, says: “It’s possible to think that we can make five or more of these kinds of movies a year in South Africa. To be honest, no one really wants this on their CV but you can’t make a Godfather every year.

“This is not two people sitting around a table having a conversation – there are some major set-pieces and everyone’s incredibly happy. In fact I’ve never seen Darrell so relaxed. And that’s the way it should be – making movies should be the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”

Perhaps Roodt’s relaxedness is due to the fact that for once he doesn’t have to think of the political and social implications of the film, unlike some of his earlier work, like Sarafina! There are no tax-breaks here, no fiddling with money schemes, just South African filmmaking expertise competing with the rest of the world.

Although purists could argue that we should be making our own stories and not derivative B-movies like The Queen’s Messenger, I disagree. I was completely inspired after coming back from the movie set – the film itself is definitely something I won’t want to see, but the mere fact that they did it and, from all reports, made a movie that looks and feels much more expensive than the usual martial-arts straight to video Taiwan-type of fare should be applauded.

Now, what we really need is our own kick-boxing star and a genuine Seff-Effrican action flick.

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