About a year ago, I saw an article about an upcoming local production named Five Fingers for Marseilles. Billed as a western set in the Eastern Cape, the film immediately caught my eye based on that unique premise alone. Somehow I then forgot about it.

I’ve never claimed to be a clever man.

My stupid memory was certainly jogged though when the news broke last month that Five Fingers for Marseilles had been selected to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, a massive achievement for a local film. Along with the announcement came the intense first trailer for the film – and suddenly my attention levels had gone stratospheric.

The folks behind the source of all my new-found excitement were writer Sean Drummond and director Michael Matthews (the very same duo who had just dropped our jaws a few days earlier with a look at urban fantasy adaptation Apocalypse Now Now) and I was fortunate enough to have a chat with them one day before they flew up to Canada to promote Five Fingers.

One of the burning questions in my mind was just how the concept of a western set in rural Eastern Cape came about. It seems like the most dichotomous proposal for this genre of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to be transplanted to a South African province, but yet once Sean explained its origins, it made perfect sense. And just like in those classic westerns, it all started with the land.

Sean: We were traveling around the country – there were actually various road trips that fed into it. One was this sort of road trip we were taking for fun, and the other was scouting locations for another project we were looking to do for somebody else. And I guess, it was sort of born first out of the landscapes, these expansive mountain ranges on one side and plains on the other side that immediately harked back to those movie images of the west.

Having done my own road trip through the Eastern Cape at the end of last year, I can completely agree with the appeal of these sweeping landscapes. But that’s not where the eerily on-point western comparisons end.

S: But then we were finding these towns with these European names like Marseilles, which is a real place in South Africa, and it’s almost this surreal forgotten part of the country where us from Cape Town and people from the cities generally don’t go and don’t know. And you’ve got these colonial towns – and obviously the names hark back to where people were from originally – and each one has this township attached to them. But then with the dual change – the railway lines, the lifeblood of these townships, and the also the changeover of the country politically into post-Apartheid South Africa – those former colonials towns have crumbled and those townships have become towns in their own right. It’s almost a new frontier going on there.

Essentially everything Sean describes fits the western genre perfectly. We’ve seen that tale of technological progress causing towns to fold, and subsequently giving rise to outlaws, played out in technicolor on screen so many times before. But just because there were striking similarities to western stories, didn’t mean that this was where a western story should be told. Luckily Sean and Michael found a lot more inspiration in this world as they drove over 8000kms through the Eastern Cape and Free State, eventually discovering the town of Lady Grey, which had “everything and more that we were looking for”.

S: We went to live there for almost a month, researching, meeting people and learning real stories, getting the lay of the land, location scouting. And all of that informed the story.

We knew we wanted to put some of the best actors in the country in it, and I think we sort of had the feeling it would be an ensemble cast. And the story sort of grew organically into this story about these five or four guys who started as kids fighting for the sake of their community, which is freed, but by the time Tao our protagonist comes back – he runs after something that happens when they are kids – by the time he’s come back and has become sort of an outlaw in the western sense of the word, this town is free, but it’s sort of not. And the longer he’s there, he realizes that there are things going on that are keeping it in the same sort of patterns of oppression that it was in before for a huge portion of the community.

This creeping constant corruption and oppression and the youth having to rise up to fight it, is certainly an idea that will strike home to many in South Africa with our political past. It’s a conflict that has so many timely parallels in our modern society as well, and when it came to bringing this allegory to life, it was the themes of the western genre that rung the most true.

S: “All story is conflict”, is the mantra, but in the western literally the conflict is the story. It’s such a pure form of storytelling – Man against man, man against himself, man against the land, and man against history as well. And I think all four of those things naturally fit into that space, and we wanted to tell a story that was super honest but through the lens of the genre. And it’s modern day, and it’s out there.

With it being the modern day though, there are certain things that we need to be wary of. The western genre has traditionally been one that is very white-dominated. People of colour were generally not the headliners here, and in fact, often got represented appallingly. Now in Five Fingers for Marseilles, we have a reversal of that in that it boasts a very African cast and tells a very African story.

Michael: I feel like it’s part of what we wanted to do, but we’re also very conscious of being white guys who made the movie. And I think we’re preparing for the criticism going “Well, who are you to tell this story?”. But I don’t think there was any doubt that this was the way we wanted to tell this story, these were the actors we wanted to put in and this was the world we wanted to set the story in.

And sometimes when something speaks to you strongly… I mean we devoted eight years of our life to it. And when I say devoted, I mean it was all-encompassing, because we believed so strongly in this vision. And I don’t think there’s another version. Like I wouldn’t want to do an Afrikaans western, that vision doesn’t ring true to me personally.

Merging the themes and nuances of western genre with this African flavour was very important though. Luckily, as the filmmakers got to experience firsthand, this was already happening in real life in these areas.

M: If it felt like it jumped out, if it felt like we were trying to put a western idea in like a gimmick, then we were aware of that sort of thing. But I think 90% of the time, with the more time we spent there, the more we just saw somebody wearing this outfit that I would have thought that was too much or unrealistic. Or that sort of hat that looks like a cowboy hat, people wear those sort of things. And guys would come in on their horses and that sort of thing.

That was always definitely going to be an aspect of the film, that you could sit and have this conversation about how western it is vs how realistic it is. Even the music and everything. We’re trying to ride the line of leaning towards western where we can and it doesn’t jump out as being western, but then what makes it original being South African.

This naturally blended world of African and western though offered up some very unique appeal though, with characters in Lesotho blankets and balaclavas on horseback with rifles offering striking visuals. It’s certainly also a departure from the images we normally see from this region.

S: We just didn’t want to fall into that trap of, I guess, poverty porn where “Ooh, life is so hard in these small towns. All these people are beat down!” Obviously it’s a town in peril, which is an integral part of the story, but it’s also a thriving place and there’s wealth in the town and the characters are vibrant and there are heroes and anti-heroes and they’re all complex. We wanted to break that mould of expectation that like “Woe is me. It’s a small dusty town in South Africa.”

Sean and Michael got to know that small dusty town very well, returning numerous times over eight years to build up a relationship with the community. When things eventually kicked off, they did six months of pre-production work there and five weeks of on location shooting. And through all of it, the local community was involved in every step of the way.

S: We were casting in town, we cast all the supporting roles from Town, we brought all the extras in from town. We had Town on our crew, wherever we could fit them. On nearly every department, there were local peeps helping. Big security, transport guys, so yeah it was like a co-production between us and the town which was quite cool. So that helped also with authenticity, genuinely having people from the area in the movie.

One of the unique challenges though of keeping everything so uniquely local is that the film is shot in Sesoth – an African language that neither of the filmmakers actually speak.

M: The language part of it on the directing side, it was quite nerve-wracking. I felt that I should learn Sesotho, but then I felt like, my Afrikaans is very bad and if I imagine directing in Afrikaans and even though I know a bit of the language, that doesn’t really help. You either know it and understand the nuances and are really in, or you’re not into the real part of the way people speak.

So for me just it became that we knew the script well, and exactly what all the lines were in English. And a lot of actors, they’re acting outside of the lines anyway. Quite often you’ll lose lines, or you’ll change lines, but the important beats in the scene of what the character is trying to communicate to another character is at the core level and not necessarily what they’re saying. So I could watch the scene play out and know emotionally how everything was playing out in the English version. So I wasn’t following the lines, so much as following the story playing out to follow if it was working.

There was an advantage to Sean and Michael’s lack of Sesotho though, as they brought in a local writer to translate their script who helped them “with some of the cultural vibes as well”. They were open about “not knowing what we don’t know “ and even had the cast and crew helping in “bringing that world to life and the African-ness of it, making it authentic.”

And all of that, nailing that African authenticity but making sure it is up to a high enough standard to appeal international, involved hard work. Lots of hard work.

S: It’s just putting our blood, sweat and tears into making [these films] to the level that they can break out and travel. Which is probably why Five Fingers took eight years to get made – because we weren’t willing to compromise on it.

But I think we’re seeing the reaction now, because the reaction to the teaser at least has been like “Holy sh-t. This looks like something I would want to watch!” and that’s coming from inside South Africa and from out of South Africa, which is really cool. We obviously want it to do both, we want it to blow up in South Africa, be something that people have never seen before, but we also want it to travel and we want people who might never have watched a South African movie, from any corner of the world, to go “This is the one I want to see”.

Well, it’s safe to say that it’s definitely the one we want to see. Officially, it will still be a while until we do get to see it though. After TIFF, Sean and Michael will be showing Five Fingers for Marseilles at BFI London, FantasticFest and some more top film festivals, building some hype before the actual public release on 6 April 2018.

There is a surprise though. In order to qualify for Oscar contention – because yes, they’re not aiming for low-hanging fruit here – the film needs to screen for at least one week publicly before the end of September. To do this, Five Fingers for Marseilles will be screening at Tygervalley Centre in the Western Cape for one week only, from 15 to 21 September. You can book tickets for the week on SterKinekor’s website. We know we will definitely be doing that.

Last Updated: September 12, 2017

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