Oliver Schmitz’s latest film has been picking up decent reviews for its depiction of a rich young black actor who hooks up with a poorer childhood friend to do some research for a TV gangster role he is auditioning for. As they get to know each other again, each sees attractions in the other’s life.
Oliver, a quietly-spoken man in his 40’s, talked about his new film ahead of its release, at a season of South African films at the National Film Theatre in London last year.
"Like many people in a new society, I was trying to make sense of what was happening. I saw that filmmakers from a younger generation in South Africa were grappling with issues of identity. They had grown up with apartheid but reached adulthood just as it was changing. What I found fascinating was this split developing between kids in the township and kids who had better chances. They were not sharing the same experiences and I could see that could lead to antagonism and resentment. I eventually settled on this story of an actor and a gangster where there’s an interchange of identities."
Oliver accepts that criminals and gangsters are seen as heroes on TV. "We live in a society where there is ambivalence in morality and a blurring of the lines. Soweto gangsters model themselves on gangsters from Hollywood movies and gangsters on TV will be emulated by smalltime gangsters in the townships. Plus there’s the resentment issue. You’ve got kids for instance who consider it fair game to take what they don’t have. The Jo’burg region is the worst but crime has risen inevitably in Cape Town too. The rich are seen as legitimate targets now."
Oliver thinks that post-apartheid South Arica still has many problems. When I ask him what he thinks about Mbeki and the government, he simply issues a quiet warning to the powers-that-be about artistic censorship. "The role of artists," he declares, "is to expose legitimate points of criticism and if we reach a point where that’s not accepted, then there must be something wrong with that society."
Schmitz was worried that in Cannes last year, the South African Ambassador would give a frosty reception to his film, but the exposure of the professionalism of the carjacking gangs was something that the Ambassador felt was worth highlighting. As Oliver says, ‘everyone has either been a victim or knows of someone else who has been one."
During the Apartheid era, censorship was taken much more seriously by the authorities which makes the production of his first film ‘Mapuntsula’ all the more remarkable. Oliver produced a dummy script for the authorities, then filmed a different much more hard-hitting story. There were close shaves with policemen as the film was shot, then in post-production, the authorities demanded to see it. Oliver sent them a copy whilst at the same time getting another out of the country. He feared the worst. "The strange thing is, our lawyer later told us, the Police actually lost the copy we gave them and were too embarassed to come back to us about it! We clearly had a guardian angel above us !"
The result at least is that Mapuntsula, arguably the best film telling the apartheid experience from within the heart of the country, is the most broadly seen South African film, even though most have only seen it on video. That frustrates Oliver, since he would love to see more home grown product shown in local cinemas rather than Hollywood films.
Othello, South African style
Oliver has always made a conscious point of using local cast and crew as much as possible and his next, an adaptation of Othello, will follow the same approach even if there may have to be a few compromises given that he is working with a German producer. Why the Bard?
"I wanted to film Othello in a South African context. On top of that, you can’t help but run into issues of censorship. There have been moves to remove certain literary works from the school curriculum in South Africa which are deemed to be politically incorrect. Othello is one of them, Hamlet is another – it's a bit bizarre to ban them – issues should be aired and debated – hence my desire to film Othello!"