Done in 48 hours

‘I’ve got the Post-its,” I yell, tripping up the stairs in my hurry to beat the clock. The director of photography, Adam Bentel, looks at me wryly and then turns back to the open window through which he is filming.

Looking past him I see our actress, Mari Molefe van Heerden, wrapped in a towel speaking to herself in the mirror rather demonically. Plastered all over the wall behind her are Post-its with inane phrases like “Turn that frown upside down” and “Sparkle, sparkle, sparkle” on them. Mine wouldn’t make the cut.

“Sorry,” Bentel says. “We couldn’t wait.”

“Ah,” I think, “so this is how you make a 48-hour film.”

Our team, Afrokaans, is part of the 48-hour film project, an international competition in which teams write, direct, shoot, edit and score a seven-minute film in two days.

In the 11 years the project has been running, 278 000 people have made 19 000 films. This year 50 000 filmmakers in 120 cities and on six continents will participate. The Johannesburg leg of the competition has 80 teams entering. The youngest director is 12 years old.

Each team receives a film genre in which they must work — be it comedy, thriller, western or 48 Hour’s own invention, film de femme (film with strong female character à la Erin Brockovich) — along with a character, a line of dialogue and a prop that must be included.

At the official start time of 7pm on Friday night we find out that our genre is “mockumentary”, our character is Adam Mphela, a door-to-door salesman played by Katleho Ramaphakela, our prop is a lunch box and the line is: “Is it on?”

By 7.20pm we are already discussing locations, wardrobe and props — all my problem as art director. Awesome. I have heard horror stories about the pace and crazy hours of the competition from filmmaker friends who have done this before and am already working myself up because I am supposed to find eight small children to be part of our “audition” scene the next day. Everyone is talking at the same time and ideas are flying around like, well, ideas on a film set. First Adam is the dad, no, he’s the boyfriend, no, a brother. No, a sideline character that doesn’t really have an effect.

“Can we please have some clarity on what we are doing?” the ­frustrated head girl in me asks. “Oh, we won’t have that until we are almost finished shooting tomorrow,” Bentel replies. Fantastic, I mutter to myself. So this is how you plan a 48-hour movie.

What is clear is that the film will include an aspiring actress, her flamboyant agent and a very creaky garage door. It’s 9.30pm and we’ve done what we can for tonight. Our call time for tomorrow is 5am and our production co-ordinator, Minette Botha, has just appointed herself caterer and head toasted-sandwich-maker.

At 5.30am, bleary-eyed, scraggly and stuffed on Botha’s toasted sandwiches, we head off for our first location. We turn one of our crew’s houses into the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom locations for our film. (Much kinder than last year’s winner, Lara Cunha, who kicked her aunt out of her house at 3am so that they could start shooting her film Child, a period piece about a mother apologising to her son for her absence in his life.)

The morning hours blur into one another. We’ve had to reshuffle scenes because we need a tutu from a local fancy dress shop that only opens at 9.30am. So, our late-afternoon shoot with Adam becomes early morning while the make-up artist and I wait anxiously outside the dress shop. The owner takes pity on us and lets us in 10 minutes early. When you only have 48 hours every favour helps. Once inside, my heart sinks. Does no one make tutus for a 25-year-old woman who is under 1.5m with a C-cup bust? So we improvise, because that’s what you do on a 48-hour movie.

Back on location I find Botha balancing on a wall, holding a reflector for the kitchen scene. Multitasking is a requirement when you are 13 hours in.

My iPad battery has died and I’m now taking notes on empty fag packets, scraps of paper and my phone. Which is probably why I leave the set clutching the Post-its, which are still needed for the next scene. After wasting the 10 minutes we gained at the dress shop by returning the Post-its to the set, producer Handrie Basson and I move on to the last location — empty offices in Milpark that will be used for the “audition” scene with the children I was supposed to secure.

I text two friends with children, promising them fame and fortune if they appear in our film (lying is not against the rules and the phrase “volunteer” has always been open to interpretation in my mind). Both reply, saying their kids are busy with chess and a school fair. So, you can shoot a film in 48 hours, but don’t think you’ll get a play date with a nine-year-old in less than a week.

Luckily, the rest of the crew fare better and at 2pm we are gearing up for our last scene with Mari, the aspiring actress, auditioning at the offices in Milpark. By 5pm we have wrapped — unless you are our editor, Barry Cilliers, who will work into the early morning piecing together our tragic story of an actress who’ll never make it, her agent who believes she will and her door-to-door salesman (and his lunch box) who will love her regardless.

Where was the madness I was promised? The craziness that was guaranteed? The chaos that was an essential element of the 48-hour film project? Talking to some of our crew who had entered the competition before, I figure out that the biggest mistake teams make is to overshoot — forgetting there is actually only so much you can include in a seven-minute film. The more you shoot, the more you need to edit.

LeRoux Botha, our director, knew what he needed and what he didn’t and when you are making a film in 48 hours there’s no time for indecision. Because as our character, ­Silvia Swanepoel — played by Marna Cloete — casting agent for child stars, says at the end of our film: “When you know, you just know.”

Winners of the 48 Hour Film Project will be announced on September 27 . Members of the public can view the films from September 17 to 19  at the Killarney Cine Centre in Johannesburg. For more info click here.

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