Meeting director Darrell Roodt to talk about his new film, Little One, I have to make a confession: I haven’t seen the movie. This is of course rather unprofessional of me. I’ve never before interviewed someone without having taken in the work (novel, movie, whatever) we’re supposed to be discussing. After all, the reason for the interview is that Roodt has a new movie out, and this encounter, and the text you are now reading, exist to “promote” the movie. (And, as Roodt said to me when I called him to set up the interview: “It needs all the help it can get.”)
Then again, there are distinguished South African radio personalities who do book shows and who are happy to ask an author: “So, what is your book about?” Which feels akin to asking your interviewee: “So, why am I talking to you?” That seems rude.
In the case of this interview, though, it may be a good thing. Or so I imagine, thinking of those awkward interviews where you have read the book or seen the movie, but you don’t really want to talk about it in too much detail with the auteur because you didn’t really like it much — or, for that matter, it doesn’t suggest any interesting line of questioning. Doing the interview without having seen the film, on the other hand, means that I do the interview with, let us say, an open mind.
Not that it matters to Roodt. The man who is surely South Africa’s most prolific movie director — he has made about 30 features — is such a motormouth that it takes a good while, and a number of questions back and forth (“Did you love movies, growing up?” he asks me), before we even get to Little One. And barely have we discussed Little One than he’s off on another tangent. He has many tangents, but they are all tangential to cinema.
“What did you think of Life of Pi?” he wants to know. He has a good justification for what I see as the movie’s spiritual sentimentality: that the extraordinary visual experience of the film is, in itself, the “meaning” or the “message”: “The fundamental beauty of existence — that is the religious iconography.”
Then he wants to know how old I am (47 to his 50), and we reminisce about childhood moviegoing experiences. Or, rather, he quizzes me on mine. He wants to know what I thought of Sleeper’s Wake (he found it “airless”; it has “no outward resonance”) and Skoonheid (great, yes, but “malicious”). He punctuates what I say with a staccato “Ja, ja, ja” and adds to his own utterances the appendices “Amazing!” and “Stunning!”
I try to get him back to the subject of his extraordinary moviemaking career, which encompasses low-budget straight-to-video schlock, key 1980s indie pics such as Place of Weeping and Jobman (“The anti-apartheid movie is now a genre — I know because I made many of them”), and “prestige productions”, as they would have been called in old Hollywood — Sarafina, Cry, the Beloved Country and his Oscar-nominated Aids drama, Yesterday.
Last year alone, he did three: the Afrikaans drama Stilte, Little One, and the still-in-post-production Safari, a “found-footage” thriller about American tourists getting into trouble in Africa — a kind of Blair Witch in the Bundu.
“It was such an amazing film to make,” says Roodt. “I loved it because I was one of the characters and I was shooting the footage!
“I’m a big fan of the found-footage form,” he says with sudden seriousness, as though confessing to a penchant for Bach cantatas. He goes on to recommend a few of the “found” horrors: for instance, he likes Paranormal I and III, the latter being a lesson in “how to manipulate the audience”, which sounds a bit worrying.
But Roodt has made another leap: “It’s by the guy who directed Catfish,” he says, Catfish being a “brilliant” documentary about internet romance; and, talking of documentaries, “Have you seen Room 237?” No, I say. I’m told it’s about a cult that worships Stanley Kubrick’s art-horror opus, The Shining.
Then we’re off discussing Kubrick, which always happens when one cinephile is a Kubrick fan and the other isn’t, or at least doesn’t genuflect sufficiently. “Imagine seeing 2001 in 1967!” he enthuses, then hyperbolically declares Barry Lyndon “the Greatest Film Ever Made! By far!”
You can pretty much hear the capital letters in Roodt’s utterances. He uses a lot. Or perhaps it’s italics.
Of Barry Lyndon, he says, it’s dreary but that’s what life was like. I say you can’t justify a dreary film by saying that life’s dreary. Oh, but you can, he says, then diverts into a fascinating lecture on the cinematography of Barry Lyndon. Did we just switch subjects again? Are we really talking about Little One?
No, we’re moving on to a quick exposition of why Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist (equals very-low-budget) 1952 masterpiece, Umberto D, is such a great film: of how, with slender means both narratively and visually, De Sica tells such a powerful story. It’s about an old man who can no longer afford to feed his little dog.
Stories from the news
“South Africa’s full of those stories,” says Roodt. “Nobody wants to see them, though.” He’s referring to movies such as his own Faith’s Corner, a powerfully minimalist tale of desperation on the streets of Johannesburg, which was listed on one movie-info site as having sold a grand total of 700 tickets in its South African run. Made on discoloured old bits of film stock and silent except for Philip Glass’s score (“I just love that guy,” says Roodt, Hollywood-style, of the composer who gave him a soundtrack for nothing), Faith’s Corner may be the centrepiece of what, with Yesterday and now Little One, looks like a woman-focused trilogy about poverty in South Africa, if one can so brutally extract one theme from the trio.
Their stories come straight from the news — that is, the bad news.
“Little One was based on an interview I saw on TV. This girl had been raped by a bunch of men. She was 10. She was so badly beaten that they couldn’t show her face.”
The generative notion for the film, in a way, was his wondering to himself whether one could make a movie without showing the protagonist’s face, until, perhaps, the very end.
As though it were a movie by someone else, one that he just happened to catch the other day, Roodt says Little One is “an interesting little film. It’s a quirky little film. It’s a chamber piece.”
In this, it has a likeness, it seems, to the two movies that he says are his favourites of his own work: Faith’s Corner and Meisie. The latter, made in 2006-2007 in remote Riemvasmaak in the Northern Cape, is about a girl who hungers for education; it featured only one professional actor. I hadn’t heard of it at all. Maybe there’s a quartet here, not a trilogy.
Roodt, though, seems not to categorise or parse his movies much, necessarily; or, unlike the Great Kubrick, to be the kind of director who has to control everything down to the last eyelash. Whatever the origins of Little One, he says, “it took on another life when it was being made. It was more sentimental than I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be more austere, maybe. For instance, in the movie, there’s this street woman who listens to classical music on the radio, and I wanted it to be Baroque music, but that was just too austere. Too bleak.” (He got a composer to do the soundtrack.)
Suddenly we’re on to sci-fi movies. He loved Tron: Legacy because it was the expression of “a singular vision” and, simply, because it was “a fucken amazing film”. And talking of a singular vision, he admires Paul Thomas Anderson, auteur of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood: “He’s a great idiosyncratic filmmaker making the films he wants to make.”
Roodt has had the experience of not being able to make the film he wanted to make, as with the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela biopic Winnie, which showed at a festival or two in 2011 but hasn’t been seen since.
“It got emasculated in the editing process because it was trying to be honest,” he says. “I think the producer just got nervous. There were just too many things in it that would offend too many people.
“It breaks your heart. You get judged even before you make the movie. I hadn’t even begun shooting it and I was condemned.”
We agree that there is a kind of conundrum at the heart of South African filmmaking, insofar as there is such an official category: we are urged to “tell our own stories”, but we get into a lot of arguments about who has the right to tell which story. “We’re such a politically sensitive country,” he says. Of Long Walk to Freedom, the Nelson Mandela project that has now been through several directors, of which Roodt was one, he shrugs: “It was a fuck-up.”
As an example, perhaps, of something that is not a fuck-up, Roodt says he really enjoyed making “the film I’ve just finished now, a thriller based on a Deon Meyer story. It wasn’t supposed to be particularly realistic or socially conscious, but I found I kept asking myself: Should we put a black person in the shot just to show we’re in South Africa? What does it mean if he [a character] has a black girlfriend? And I decided, fuck it, and just went for it and decided not to worry about it. It was liberating. It looks like it’s gonna be a slick, cool movie.”
Speaking of … Haven’t seen Django Unchained? “Aw dude!” He won’t accept my explanation that I so disliked Kill Bill and Death Proof that I haven’t been able to watch a Tarantino since. And that they are almost always too long. After a brief moment’s consideration, he says: “If you cut the last 20 minutes it would be a masterpiece.”
The next connection is, I think, from Tarantino’s fountains of blood to vampirism — or perhaps we were talking of “exploitation movies”, the old 1970s genre that shows signs of not having gone away. Part of the revival is surely Roodt’s own Dracula 3000, which was released, if that is not too generous a description, in 2004. It even features Udo Keir, the great German underground star of Suspiria, the 1975 Story of O, and Andy Warhol’s Dracula.
A space horror movie, it was thrown together on the set of another movie that had finished shooting with a few days to spare. “We made it in three days — it’s awful, it’s wonderfully awful,” Roodt says happily.
I begin to suspect that Roodt makes so many movies just because he’s driven to make every movie he can, whatever it is. “When it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood” is how he puts it. He says it can be hard to make movies in and about South Africa, but he says so with relish more than despair.
He quotes the words beloved of Werner Herzog: “Every man for himself and God against all!” He goes further, again with relish: “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Then he briefly mimes ducking a bullet. Or at least I think that’s what he’s doing.
Then he’s on his feet. He’s got to run. “It’s been real.”
I counter with a Woody Allenism: “It’s been a sincere sensation.”
And it was. Now I’ve just got to see the darn movie.