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The dark arts

Whenever I think of Trevor Steele Taylor I think of his very hip, blue, fuel-injected Audi, round about 1987, with a sticker for “Paris, Texas” slapped on to the angular side window. He hosted me and my movie Shot Down at the Durban Film Festival and was an avid fan of the hybrid, rebellious movie. He’s become a good friend, even bailing me out of jail twice (on consecutive days). So I might be biased, but Steele Taylor is a great guy.

When you first meet him, you might think he’s sort of creepy. Lanky, intense, piercing blue eyes (like a sexy Marty Feldman), sporting a broad silver ring with a glass eye, snapped up from the Great Frog heavy metal shop in London in the Seventies. “Many people, especially women, have told me how sinister, how scary I can be on first acquaintance. I cannot imagine why? It’s a mystery to me I’m afraid.”

Steele Taylor is a complete cinephile; he breathes obscure movies and has a desire to share everything, even low- budget works about transgressive Filipino sex-zombies. His obsession with rarities makes him the perfect festival programmer.

His taste for unusual cinema started when he was a kid in Cape Town at places like the Old Tivoli opposite the Grand Parade: “My mother had a habit of taking me on a Saturday to watch films at tea room cinemas, while I was at primary school. She was a lover of movies but certainly not a cinephile, so we sometimes landed up at what some might say were the most inappropriate double-bills for a primary school kid.”

In 1975, after programming late-night double-bills at UCT, such as the much-derided esoteric pulp of The Magus and Vanishing Point, the strangely obsessive “road-movie-of-all time”, he became one of the Young Turks who turned Cape Town’s Labia Theatre into the non-stop Labia cinema. “We were pretty opinionated young punks, the children of Jean-Luc Godard and Herman Hesse, so predictably the programming was idiosyncratic.”

After a brief sojourn in London Steele Taylor returned to the Labia and became number two to James Polley, the legendary creator of the Cape Town International Film Festival. “He taught me a lot. He was even more opinionated than I was and he had great dress sense, with a leaning towards cowboy boots and velvet jackets. He concentrated on local product and films with political relevance, while I dealt with the politically incorrect.”

Then there were the years Steele Taylor worked with Liza Key on the Weekly Mail Film Festival in the Eighties: “It was chaos but it was chaos with a vision. She was on a mission to show anything that the apartheid government of the time didn’t want and got great satisfaction causing visits from the security police and other organs of the state. We need her spirit of confrontational movie presentation now more than ever.”

In 1999 Steele Taylor took over the reins of the film programme of the National Arts Festival after Polley succumbed to cancer. Over the years Steele Taylor built a reputation for premiering hard-to-see movies, local finds and late-night grunge. Michael Raeburn’s take on Marlene Van Niekerk’s Triomf gets its world premiere in Grahamstown this year. It’s a coup and, by all accounts, it’s a very “auteur” movie of a book with a singular signature.

Steele Taylor also programmed a mini-profile of Darrell Roodt flicks. What’s interesting here is it’s not Sarafina! or Cry, The Beloved Country, but Roodt’s more recent minimalist stuff. You can catch Faith’s Corner, the Philip Glass-scored silent film shot on a Bolex for zip with Leleti Khumalo begging on Jozi streets; the micro-budget Meisie, with a knockout performance by seven-year-old Abrina Bosman, whom Roodt discovered in Riemvasmaak when he had a sketch of a script. And there’s Zimbabwe, Roodt’s latest, modest work funded by the International Organisation of Migration.

Grahamstown also is about the only place you’ll be able to catch other rarities in Roodt’s oeuvre. Steele Taylor tracked down prints of the director’s “straight-to-DVD” movies: Lullaby, Prey and Dracula 3 000.

The latter are part of Steele Taylor’s Grindhouse late-night programme where you’re guaranteed treats by Quentin Tarantino, Aryan Kaganof, Paris-based Aldo Lee and Mike Kawitzky. Cognition Factor is the first movie by Kawitzky, a 60-year-old Capetonian and is based on the work of hallucinogenic scientist Terence McKenna. Steele Taylor calls it “a gonzo narrated mind-blast.”

Steele Taylor has a beef with most mainstream distributors’ approach to art films — by this he means the kind you chat about over a skinny cappuccino in the arthouse foyer. “Sadly the pathetic imitation of art that is disseminated by Cinema Nouveau has been instrumental in the decline of independent cinemas. Woe to he who is different and the bigger boys always win in the playground,” he says.

In his programming for festivals Steele Taylor always finds hidden gems: “I have lots of interesting oddball friends in the film industries of many countries. I keep abreast of things. I certainly don’t want to become part of the film festival network, all showing the same films. I’m not into taste that’s ruled by consensus.”

Taylor seeks out films that speak to the collective sub-conscious. Truths are revealed in the dark and, for him, watching movies for is the closest he gets to religious discipline.

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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.

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