Jann Turner’s South African Comedy, “White Wedding,” began its U.S. theatrical run last Friday, September 3. Turner provided indieWIRE with an exclusive clip and commentary from her film, which won the Audience Award at the Mill Valley Film Festival, back in 2009.
“White Wedding” is the story of a man trying to get to his wedding. Elvis (Kenneth Nkosi) has to get from Johannesburg, where he lives, to Cape Town where his bride Ayanda (Zandile Msutwana) and her mother are making final arrangements for the celebration that takes place in just a few days time. That means Elvis has to travel across South Africa, a country the size of Texas and California combined, picking up his best man Tumi (Rapulana Seiphemo) and his bride’s grandmother along the way. But things go wrong for Elvis from the moment he sets off. When at last Tumi and Elvis do hit the road they get lost in the back roads of the Eastern Cape where they are hijacked by Rose (Jodie Whittaker), a heartbroken English backpacker who throws them violently off course with her affection for George, a goat foisted on them by Ayanda’s grandmother. Meanwhile in Cape Town, Ayanda is struggling to cope with her mother’s excessive arrangements for the big day, an amorous ex-boyfriend and a control freak of a wedding planner. With Elvis going in and out of cell phone range, communication between the bride and groom breaks down in every way and it becomes less and less likely that Elvis is going to make it to the church on time.
“White Wedding” is also a comic and romantic take on people encountering one another with prejudice and assumption – and being forced by circumstance to connect and thereby finding affinities that are liberating and humanizing.
The scene I’ve selected occurs about halfway through the film as Elvis boils over with frustration at all the obstacles that are flung in his path and obstructing him from reaching his bride. It’s also about character clashes and culture clashes. It’s played in three languages (four if you include Goat).
South Africa has eleven official languages and most South Africans speak at least two. Urban black South Africans, like Elvis and Tumi, will converse in a mixture of four or five languages, switching fluently between them in a way that can be both inclusive and exclusive, depending on who they are talking to and what they want to communicate. When we were writing the film Kenneth, Raps and I were adamant that the story needed to be told in a way that truly reflected South Africa as it is now – that meant our characters had to speak as South Africans do, in a tapestry of languages. As the director, it was important for me to retain that authenticity because the film is a character and performance piece and one simply gets better performances from actors speaking in their first language. Too many South African films have actors speaking English, which might be their second or third language, and yet portraying a character who is a Xhosa or Zulu speaker.
Culture clashes are also central to the film. In this instance, Elvis and Tumi have come to the Eastern Cape to pick up the bride’s grandmother and take her to the wedding. But the grandmother, infuriatingly and very typically, refuses to go and offers a goat instead. This is a gesture that cannot be declined without transgressing too many social codes. For Elvis and Tumi the goat is a gift of meat for the wedding feast. It’s an animal that will be slaughtered and cooked – not a pet to be given a name as Rose does, calling it George. Rose wants the goat to be given a comfortable leather seat rather than shoved into the trunk where Tumi and Elvis assume the animal should be transported. Tumi, who is trying to impress Rose, is persuaded to put the goat in the back seat instead of the trunk of the car. Elvis becomes furious and rants at Tumi in Zulu, knowing that the English Rose won’t understand what he’s saying about everything that has gone wrong on the journey so far. And now, to top it off, he has to share the back seat of the car with a goat. Rose asks Tumi to translate, but Tumi doesn’t know where to begin without hurting Rose’s feelings. Instead Elvis steps in to tell a lie: “I’m saying South Africa is a beautiful country.”
I chose this scene because it illustrates all the factors that came into play in the choices I made directing the whole film. The scene takes place in the rural Eastern Cape, where we found ourselves and our convoy of equipment barreling down a dirt road in pitch darkness trying to find a compound of huts behind a mountain that our AD’s had secured as our location the day before. As the sun rose and the gorgeous setting in which we’d made our base camp became visible, we were really glad that we’d made the effort. Not only did being there allow us to capture the vast, rugged vistas of that region, but I also believe that being there is what gives the film its very live quality.
We made “White Wedding” with less than a million dollars, so production was a constant race against time. We had 18 days to get the story in the can. (Although it wasn’t a can, it was a hard drive because we shot on a Sony 900 digital camera.) And we had no contingency, so we had to make our days. We wrote the film with limited resources in mind and I knew that both the comedy and the drama would have to come across in the performances; coverage would be simple because we didn’t have time for fancy lighting and camera rigging. In this scene we used mostly natural light with some bounce boards, shooting a wide master and then close singles on each character. The DOP (Willie Nel) and I knew that if we succeeded in simply capturing the life that Kenny, Raps and Jody were creating in front of the camera then the scene would fly, which I think it does.