Tengers is a full-length claymation movie that is darkly comic, then tragic and finally moving. It is a unique film, a loving but jaundiced satire about the crime-ridden metropolis of Johannesburg and the realities of day-to-day life for the average (Gau)tenger. Although it’s animated, the film is definitely not aimed at the kiddie’s market — it has more in common with, say, South Park than Disney — even though the use of plasticine is reminiscent of a poor-man’s Wallace and Gromit.
The story revolves around an out-of-work twentysomething writer, Rob, and his best friend Marius, a policeman trying to make ends meet on a meagre salary, and how they both try to pursue romance. Rob is in love with Christine who works at a bank but spends her spare time painting a Remembrance Wall Mural in memory of victims of violent crime. Marius, meanwhile, is pursuing a romance with a policewoman, Nicky, whom he believes is his ideal woman.
When Rob buys a lottery scratch card he ends up wining R20 000 a month for life. His days take a turn for the worse — despite the good luck. Someone appears to be trying to kill him, which leads to comic and eventually heart-rending pandemonium.
A graduate of the film school at Pretoria Technikon, 33-year-old director Michael Rix worked for almost nine years on the project, after hours and on weekends in between jobs as an insert writer, director, animator and editor on television shows.
Although Tengers deals with serious issues and has a deliberately gloomy and cynical end, it’s very patriotic about those who live in Gauteng with their resolute and schizoid sense of humour about life in the vice-ridden city. ‘I think the underlying message of the film was always: we as Tengers (or South Africans even) have become desensitised to the issues. But I also wanted the film to be hopeful and reactive. If it stirs up feelings within one audience member who walks out thinking ‘I’ve got to do my bit to help this situation’, then I’ve done my job,” says Rix.
The film is acutely funny and politically incorrect, but was it his intention to make a protest movie? ‘I’m not by nature an angry person, so no, I don’t think the film is angry. But I do think it’s reflective. I wrote it in the same way a stand-up comedian might approach his subject matter.
‘The film is written from my perspective as a white male in our new democratic South Africa. I was tired of seeing local movies dealing with racial issues, completely laced with white guilt. They just don’t ring true … I wanted the film to have honesty and not to tread on eggshells the way local filmmakers so often do.”
After writing the script Rix storyboarded the film shot for shot and broke each shot down into a rough time frame.
‘The raw materials were fairly inexpensive [plasticine and cardboard] and I could justify buying what I needed on my credit cards, as making this movie was my hobby.” The first sequences were shot on DVCam, in the garage of the townhouse he was staying in at the time and edited on a friend’s Adobe Premiere. He put rough voices and sound effects on what he’d completed, hoping that the 12-odd minutes might entice a production company to fund the completion of the project. There were rejections all round, but he continued undeterred.
Five years passed as he put the film together, visited Sithengi and Cannes and found lots of hot air but very little help. Eventually he re-bonded his house, held a screening at Montrose School in Sandton, where some private investors came on board, and managed to get a modest amount of completion finance from the National Film and Video Foundation. After striking bargain-basement deals with the industry for a professional mix, the film was complete. Rix took it overseas where it won Best Animated Feature at the DIY Film Festival in Los Angeles and went on to play to acclaim at the Cambridge International Film Fest, where it received numerous invitations from movie events around the globe.
But the film will not be seen on the big screen in South Africa. Ster-Kinekor Distribution initially showed interest but, with its exhibition arm Ster-Kinekor Theatres, passed on the project after doing the maths, as did Nu Metro.
Helen Kuun, local content manager for Ster-Kinekor Distribution, says: ‘We could not afford to spend what it would cost to encode and advertise a film if the box-office potential could not recoup those costs. It’s very difficult to release films on less than R100 000; this film is unlikely to reach a gross box-office level that would be significant enough to earn back the release costs. It is far better suited to a DVD environment and for festival play — not all films are not ideal for stand-alone cinema play and it’s a reality we have to accept.”
Mark Harris of Nu Metro Theatres says: ‘Unfortunately the cost implications of doing this purely as a theatrical exhibition business arejust not feasible.”
‘Initially I thought the uphill battle was ‘getting it done’, but I now see that the climb has only just begun,” says Rix. ‘The powers-that-be feel there is no market for it in South Africa. Fortunately, the critics, so far, have all been behind it and I’m hoping this can create sufficient word of mouth within the public for people to start saying ‘Why the hell aren’t they releasing this movie?’ or at least ‘Where and when can I see it?’”
Rix is doing his utmost to create awareness, even creating Facebook profiles for the main characters to start a virtual campaign online. He’s busy negotiating a broadcast deal with the SABC and/or M-Net and is in talks about a DVD release. For now all you can do is read about it. Visit www.tengers.com — or you could save up and fly to New York for the Tribeca Film Festival where it will be playing early next year.