‘Empire of dirt’: You can have it all

South African-born filmmaker Ben Stillerman insists his documentary Taking Stock is not about his father – a man who runs a store supplying homeware to customers whose shacks line the roads of the East Rand. Rather, he says, it’s about the relationship between family and business. But from just a few minutes spent watching the teaser video for the documentary’s Kickstarter campaign, it’s clear the 27-year-old director has found the vital ingredient to any successful doccie – a compelling character to lead the story.

For 35 years Clive Stillerman has owned Benoni Discount Store, a family business he has been working at since he was 17. “Now, at 58, he has built his own small, three-store empire. The shop stocks everything you need for your kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, from pots and pans to curtains, brooms and blankets,” says Stillerman, his son. He’s kept at it, says Stillerman, “through marriages, children, a divorce, family feuds, social change, deaths, several recessions, and the rise and fall of apartheid.”

While completing the last leg of a master’s degree at the school of cinematic arts at the University of Southern California (USC), Stillerman – who’s interested in making films about ethics and society – came up with the idea of exploring his father’s history with the business.

“He’s a funny guy,” says Stillerman, of his father’s one-liners and witticisms. “I wasn’t lying [in the Kickstarter video] when I said I believe he thinks of himself as a shopkeeper-philosopher.”

It’s his dad’s outlook on life that Stillerman says he hopes to explore with this documentary, when we speak just before he left Los Angeles to head back to South Africa. But more than that, he wants to look into his own personal story of how one son’s attempt to find out about his father’s livelihood may turn out to be a story others can relate to. “He never really had the chance to intellectually explore life,” says Stillerman, adding that his father went straight into the family business after the army.

Now in his later life, Stillerman’s father has enrolled in Shakespeare classes and studied art history while his son was studying at the University of the Witwatersrand. Stillerman senior is also an amateur photographer. “He’s going through this twilight creative burst,” says Stillerman, “which I hope the film captures.”

Stillerman’s dad took over the business from his father, but it will more than likely die with him. “I couldn’t take over the business, and I don’t think my father wanted me to,” says Stillerman. “But this is a way for me to give him a forum to talk about it. A lot of people ask me how he feels that I’m not taking over. He’s got a conflicted view of it. It’s given him so much, but it’s taken a lot from him too – his calm, his time, his happiness.”

These are all things Stillerman and his crew, a team of four fellow filmmakers from USC (none of whom has ever been to South Africa before) intend to go into, when they begin filming this month.

As Stillerman acknowledges, the shop may be a conflicted space but it also provided the means with which his father was able to send him to university and film school.

“He affectionately and pejoratively calls it his ‘empire of dirt’ and he has said he wants it to go down with him. On the other hand, it really is his contribution to society – his brick and mortar – and I know he will be sad to see it go one day.”

Stillerman is prepared to go down roads that haven’t been travelled in his family. “I’m going in with the express plan to not hurt anyone – even as we discuss some of these difficult issues, like guilt, and childhood, and the idea of what it meant to be a business during apartheid in the early days. Questions around what it means to run a successful business with poor customers can’t be avoided. That’s part of what makes my dad interesting and a business in South Africa interesting. I’m not looking to paint him as a saint. That’s not true of anyone,” explains the son.

“The thing most people were particularly interested in was the relationship between my father and his customers. We really do feel like it’s got a universal element – what is the relationship between the effort we put into our careers and the effort we put into our lives outside it?”

If the faith of over 170 backers, who funded the film’s production on Kickstarter, is anything to go by, Stillerman already has an audience.

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