Ziman steals the screen

Who is Ralph Ziman? Even seasoned film critics have been asking where this guy’s from. Is he British? American? Who is he and why does he reckon he can make a South African movie? Well, the director of Jerusalema, the hard-hitting Hillbrow-set gangster drama starring Rapulana Seiphemo, went to school at Redhill in Morningside and got his first gig at age 18 as an SABC cameraman.

When he got called up for military service in 1983 he left for London and discovered that the only industry that didn’t have a union was music videos. So began a massive career directing more than 400 pop promos with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Faith No More, Donna Summer, Rod Stewart, Queen and Elton John, among many others.

Ziman’s first feature, Hearts and Minds, made in 1996, starred Danny Keogh as a death squad assassin who is sent to Lusaka to infiltrate the ANC and kill off senior members of the organisation.

In 2001 Ziman co-wrote and directed The Zookeeper with Sam Neill as a cynical ex-communist zookeeper in a besieged Balkan city determined to keep it a “sanctuary” from the constant shelling outside. The movie was praised by critics but failed to get a major theatrical release and had a limited distribution on DVD.

Jerusalema looks set to enjoy healthier distribution prospects; foreign pre-sales have been strong and it goes out on 13 prints this week nationwide. The movie follows Lucky Kunene, a likeable Sowetan youngster who cuts his teeth carjacking. As an adult he moves to Hillbrow and transforms himself into a real-estate crime boss as he tries to elude a determined white cop and keep the reins on a ruthless renegade member of his gang and the greed of a Nigerian drug lord.

The Mail & Guardian caught up with Ziman and asked him about the movie and the problems of South African film finance.

What are the differences working in music videos versus feature filmmaking and how come you’ve never entered the Hollywood studio system?
Making music videos is painful. Record companies, managers, spoilt pop stars — the work became a kind of drudgery from which the only escape was my writing.

Part of Jerusalema’s success is the incredibly vivid setting. Cinematographer Nic Hofmeyr obviously had a lot to do with this. What was your approach for the look of the film?
Nic has a real eye for Jo’burg. I think we have a similar aesthetic and sensibility. We wanted to shoot things exactly as we found them — no cleaning 20 years of grime off the windows or picking up rubbish. If we were shooting in a Hillbrow flat, we shot it as we found it. We didn’t have the budget for a big lighting package, so we were creative, shooting on very fast film and using hand-held cameras. In fact the whole shoot was very basic, fast and extremely effective.

The story was inspired by a newspaper cutting about “flat-jacking” — how did you go about writing the screenplay and collaborating with author Mtutuzeli Matshoba?
I first came across the story about a syndicate jacking buildings in 2003. I started writing the script and doing research in 2004. After I had done a few drafts I gave the script to Mtutu and it was at that stage that he came on board and became my mentor on the film, developing and fine-tuning the script. Mtutu also wrote all the vernacular dialogue and did the translations. On set he worked closely with me and the actors, perfecting their dialogue and helping with the performances. The script kept evolving throughout the process. We would shoot six days a week and I would write on the seventh. During the shoot we picked up about 50 scenes that where not scripted at the beginning of principal photography.

At the recent Durban International Film Festival where Jerusalema picked up the Audience Choice Award you ruffled the feathers of the National Film and Video Foundation [NFVF], who gave no financial support to the film.
The people at the NFVF just came up with one lame excuse after another not to support our film. I think that their problem is that they are not actually interested in really helping filmmakers. They refused to put money in and then got upset when I told the press that they didn’t put anything into it. Presumably the bad publicity could result in them getting less funding.

Jerusalema is a proudly South African, first-rate gangster movie. Do you think local audiences will pay up to see it or do you think they generally expect the usual soporific South African message movie?
I think South Africa is really fertile ground as far as stories go. It’s not that we are unique, but everything has a different spin on it. What I really wanted with this film is to get away from the self-flatulating [not flagellating] cinema of apartheid. Filmmakers should be making the stories that they really love — movies that they want to see, not what they think will sell or what they think festivals or critics will enjoy.

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