The South Africa in rookie director Jann Turner’s White Wedding (select cinemas September 3) is not that of 2009’s sci-fi District 9 (a USA/New Zealand/Canada/ South Africa co-production with a $30 million budget), Leonardo DiCaprio’s Blood Diamond (a $100 million Hollywood release), or even that of the exquisite low-budget Tsotsi (a UK/South Africa production) which won the 2006 Oscar for best foreign film. (South Africa submitted White Wedding for the foreign film Oscar in 2009.)
Below, Turner talks with TOH’s Sophia Savage about how her “crazy, beautiful country” inspired the story, the country’s modern identity after its history of “savage repression,” and the challenges facing South African cinema.
Q: How did your relationship with co-stars Rapulana Seiphemo and Kenneth Nksoi influence the story of White Wedding?
Our particular relationship began twelve years ago when the three of us were working together on a daily TV drama called Isidingo. Kenny often jokes about the first time he saw me on set – I was a director and he was acting on the show – and how he just “saw white.” So our friendship, as in the movie, had to surmount the prejudices with which we encounter one another in South Africa. Being thrown together on the soapie we spent a lot of time in each others company and when we got past the black and white we found many points of connection and those have grown into a deep friendship. We did have some funny moments when we drove, one Christmas, from Joburg to Cape Town together and found ourselves the subject of curious and concerned attention in the small towns where we stopped along the way and some of those events made their way into the film. The truth is though, that when we set out to make the film we set out to make an entertaining story about an ordinary guy who is just desperate to get to his wedding. Issues of race and the tensions in the way that people from different backgrounds – include white English and Afrikaans speakers and black Zulu and Xhosa speakers – came into the film because in South Africa you can’t avoid confronting those issues if you are telling a story that is a true reflection of our crazy, beautiful country.
Q: What were the difficulties you faced making a low-budget film on various South Africa locations?
We wrote the script with a small budget in mind and we designed the film so that the landscape would be a character and allow us to set our scenes in beautiful places, even when we didn’t have time to collect a lot of coverage. That meant taking a whole crew and all the gear on a road trip across the country, so the logistics were pretty enormous. But we were working with a crew that were family, most of them people we had worked with before and they really gave their all, as did the actors, so that made our work easier. And we were lucky. We had absolutely no contingency so we were incredibly fortunate that the weather and our cast and every other variable involved just worked beautifully for us. This was one of those projects that comes along very seldom, where you just feel blessed every minute of the ride.
Q: What is the state of South Africa today?
South Africa in 2010 is a country where we are all still just beginning to get to know one another, after a long and terrible period of separation and savage repression. We are struggling with all the things that brand new democracies struggle with and we’re not always getting things right, but we have a great spirit and a great work ethic and dammit, we’re trying!
Q: What are your hopes for South African cinema?
It would be wonderful to see South African cinema with a domestic following that’s as energetic and lively as French Cinema and an international presence that’s as big as American Cinema, but we have a lot of challenges to face if we’re to get there. We need more cinemas locally and we need to bring down the price of theatre tickets and DVDs so that we can build local audiences. We need more local financing and support for cinema. We have incredible stories to tell and wonderful landscapes to set them in and talented actors and highly skilled crews, so we’re ready to do the work.
Q: What’s next?
We have just finished our second feature together. We shot it in October in the sizzling heat of Limpopo province. Paradise Stop is written by Kenny, Raps and myself. We also produced the film as Stepping Stone Pictures and – as with White Wedding – our financing came from Ken Follett Presents and the South African Department of Trade and Industry. The film is being distributed in South Africa by Helen Kuun and Indigenous Films and we expect it to open there in March 2011. Paradise Stop also stars Raps and Kenny, but we have a large cast with many new faces alongside some familiar ones. It’s an action comedy about two friends who are trying to figure out how to do the right thing from different sides of the law. Once we’ve finished handing out leaflets on the Santa Monica Pier and stopping people in Whole Foods and doing whatever it takes to get the word out about White Wedding in the USA, we are going home to Johannesburg to finish writing our next movie, which is called Fifty Coffins and we plan to shoot it in and around Johannesburg in June and July 2011.
Here’s the trailer: