The western genre as we know it is unique to a specific period and place. However, “The Five Fingers of Marseilles” simultaneously honors its cinematic ancestors while subverting the genre, exploring new territory by placing the story within an Indigenous South African community simmering with a legacy of colonialism. Directed by Michael Matthews and screenwriter Sean Drummond have created a welcome expansion of the western genre, particularly within the context of African cinema, where it has been underutilized for years.
“We started with a real world view of wanting to make a South African project that would travel and would find international audiences, and not only appeal to South Africans,” Matthews said in a phone interview. He was joined by Drummond, who agreed. “We felt it was time for a South African story to find its place on the world stage,” he said. “People who know westerns can relate to the film as a western, although we hope that they’ll also be open to engaging with it as something much more.”
Across the African continent, there have been few examples of the genre over the years. “Le Retour d’un Aventurier” (“The Return of an Adventurer,” 1966) from Nigerien director Moustapha Alassane, is regarded as the first African western. The homage follows a band of wannabe outlaws who pillage a Nigerien village. Senegal’s Djibril Diop Mambety (“Hyenas,” 1992) — one of African cinema’s godfathers — borrowed features of the western to tell a story of love and revenge that parallels a critique of neocolonialism. The same can be said for Chad director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “Daratt” (2007). Finally, Tonie van der Merwe’s “Umbango” (1988), coincidentally a South African western that predates “Five Fingers,” was produced during the last days of Apartheid. The film was a product of a government film subsidy that saw many movies ostensibly made by white filmmakers for black audiences, between 1973 and 1990.
“Five Fingers” takes the country’s troubled history into account. Set in a gritty world filled with anti-heroes and scheming villains, the story unfolds across two separate time periods: Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa. The community of Railway, attached to the remote town of Marseilles, are the victims of brutal police oppression, and only the young “Five Fingers” are willing to stand up to them. The leader of the five, hot-headed Tau, kills two white policemen in an act of passion. He flees, leaving his brothers and friends behind, but his actions trigger a conflict that will leave both Marseilles and the Five Fingers changed.
Twenty years later — in a post-Apartheid South Africa — Tau returns to the town, now a feared outlaw known as “The Lion of Marseilles.” Scarred and empty, he renounces violence and desires only to reconnect with those he left behind. At first, Tau finds Marseilles at peace: the battle for freedom was won, and now the remaining Five Fingers are prominent leaders of their town. However, after reuniting with childhood love, Lerato, it becomes clear that Marseilles is caught in the grip of a vicious new threat. Crooked cops have now been replaced by a dangerous gang. When he and his loved ones become direct targets, Tau is reluctantly compelled to fight once more, as the Five Fingers rise again.
“I’ve long loved the idea of bringing the western into a South African space, but not in a way that risked gimmick or stuck to the expected,” said Drummond, a western buff. “And I found a story I was burning to tell, a chance to explore a part of the country little seen, explore little known histories and a chance to write compelling characters for the best actors in the country.”
Set in post-Apartheid South Africa, the story unfolds in a world informed by its past, as the undeniable scars Apartheid left on the country reverberate throughout.
“There’s political allegory in the treatment of South Africa and the legacy of Apartheid, but we certainly pushed universal themes,” Drummond said. “Questionable governance leads to people being left to sort of rot in the interests of those in power. This is a theme that plays out in nations all over the world, even in the United States. It’s also a theme of the film. So there’s a universal look at how, in the wrong hands, bad leadership can drive people, cities and countries to ruin.”
Gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Shaun Harley Lee, who takes advantage of the panoramic vistas of vast open landscapes that are the backdrop of the film, the Marseilles of the title is very much a real town in South Africa (although the film was shot in Lady Grey, a rural village about 160 miles away). The region is home to several so-called “postcolonial towns” named after European cities, like Paris, Barcelona, and Rome. “What you now have are towns with the indigenous people filling in the Westerners’ shoes in terms of the local government, kind of like a new version of a formerly colonized world,” Drummond said. “A key question asked — which is touched on in the film — is what the next steps are for the indigenous population, who are living in a world that now operates with Western ideologies, and not their own.”
The film’s cast speak a modern blend of local languages — Sesotho, Xhosa and Afrikaans — and the filmmakers were initially unsure if they wanted to shoot the film in English. “Those were conversations we had from the start, particularly when thinking about financing,” Matthews said. “In essence, if it was in English, it would be seen as more accessible, making it easier to finance, easier to sell. And it was the same consideration when we were casting. We had to look at whether we should go after some known black American actors to play the lead roles, and maybe have them speak English, but with local accents.” Eventually, New York-based production company Game 7 Films supported the decision to stick to the local dialects. “We all just sort of stayed strong over the years, and maintained the decision to keep it very authentic,” Matthews said. Otherwise, the film would stand to lose what integrity it has.”
After seven years of development, “Five Fingers for Marseilles” made its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and later secured a limited theatrical release. For the filmmakers, the outcome is a thrilling development for South African cinema. “There haven’t been many South African films released theatrically in the U.S., so we just really hope that this leads to a lot more interest in African stories,” Drummond said. “We’ve definitely got the filmmakers and the talent in Africa, but we still have a long way to go.”
Uncork’d Entertainment releases “Five Fingers for Marseilles” theatrically in New York and Arizona on Friday, September 7, with a national rollout to follow.