By Frisco Rosso
The Vandals recently caught up with Material producer Ronnie Apteker to discuss the film and its future prospects.
Material is a heart-warming comedy crafted by producer and entrepreneur Apteker and director Craig Freimond.
Starring Riaad Moosa and Vincent Ebrahim, Material is set in the predominantly Indian and Pakistani suburb of Fordsburg, Johannesburg, and tells the story of a father (Ebrahim) stuck in the past and his son Cassim (Moosa) who wants to break away and change tradition.
Moosa is one of South Africa’s most prominent and popular comedians. Those who have seen his stand-up routines will agree that his hilarious comedy, coupled with unique poise and ability to work the room, is practically flawless and commands the undivided attention of his audience. Expect an equally engaging performance from Moosa in Material, along with his slick, witty delivery.
The inspiration and foundation for Material stems from an earlier short story by Apteker, based on Riaad Moosa’s move from medicine to stand-up comedy.
“I wrote the story in 2004 about Riaad Moosa giving up medicine and becoming a comedian,” said Apteker.
Having seen Freimond’s Gums and Noses, Apteker was impressed by the director’s foresight, talent and the work he’d produced on such a limited budget. But Apteker was also mindful of Freimond’s ability to tell stories and develop the characters within. Equipped with the vision that would ultimately become Material, Apteker met with Freimond and the pair went to see Moosa perform.
“When Craig saw Riaad perform he said ‘this guy’s incredible’, and things kinda went from there. What I had written down in the story and what we put into the film are worlds apart.”
Keen to ensure a genuinely authentic insight into life in Fordsburg and the challenges faced by young Cassim, Apteker and Freimond paid close attention to detail and tapped into local knowledge and experience. Moosa’s input proved to be invaluable.
“Riaad was involved in the scripting, the shot construction, quite a lot of the direction and very involved in the editing. So Riaad was there every step of the way to make sure that that everything from the inside out was being portrayed accurately.”
“The script was dissected with a magnifying glass, there wasn’t one bit of dialogue or cultural tradition or behaviour or routine that wasn’t understood to the fullest. Everything about the film is genuine and I think that’s why it resonated so well. We didn’t guess anything. The film is 100% genuine because there were Muslim story tellers at the core – they weren’t just hired to act. So Material is definitely told from the inside out.”
Feedback from Fordsburg has certainly been favourable according to Apteker, with Material renewing and inspiring interest amongst Johannesburg citizens who had previously felt little inclination to visit or shop in the area.
“We’ve had all kinds of feedback from people in Fordsburg – they’re all thrilled with it. One shop owner in the Oriental Plaza told me a lady came to the shopping centre because of the movie and spent R4,000 in his shop! The film’s done a lot of good,” said Apteker excitedly.
“This thing has exceeded all expectations. When we locked the cut and the film was tested we knew everyone would dig it but not to the extent they did. It’s actually quite overwhelming.”
Having gained kudos and acclaim through local release, the Material team are gearing up to showcase the movie internationally at the Venice International Film Festival in August, Toronto International Film Festival in September and the BFI London Film Festival in October. The team is anxiously awaiting feedback and is hopeful of a spot at three festivals, as they are crucial for enhancing Material’s credibility and exposure.
“We’re trying to get some credibility which is very difficult – there aren’t many avenues where one can gain advantage or credibility. A few are media ones, say if we were on Larry King or Oprah Winfrey, but that’s not going to happen. We could get a famous critic or commentator to say something about it, but I don’t know those people.
“Once you get in somewhere like the Toronto Film Festival, which is coming up soon, it’s a huge endorsement that film distributors take very seriously.”
The decisive ace up Material’s sleeve in terms of the London Film Festival could be the profile of Vincent Ebrahim, famous for his role in the long-running British television programme The Kumars at No 42.
“Everyone in England over 35 knows the Kumars, and we hope we have the greatest chance of getting in to London. Then Toronto’s in September and Venice is at the end of August and we haven’t been rejected by any of the three at this stage so no news is good news!”
Material was unfortunate to have been rejected by the Berlin International Film Festival earlier in the year, but Apteker and co did receive some telling feedback that sheds some light on overseas perspectives of South Africa and the continent as a whole.
“One reason we got feedback was because Jerusalema was screened in Berlin and we know the people there. Material went through four rounds of screenings and they had two comments:
1. It’s not an art film, but they can still live with that – they liked it and thought Riaad was amazing.
2. It didn’t look like an African film.
“That was a hard one to swallow.”
“Blacks and violence. Tsotsi and Jerusalema. When we say ‘South Africa’ people don’t seem to register, they just hear ‘Africa’ and we are in Africa after all.
“When they say that the film doesn’t really look like an African film we say ‘so what does it look like? What does that mean?’ It’s actually quite racist, it’s stereotyping and this is the problem. If every film that comes out of Africa is black and violent then we’re going to perpetuate a stereotype.
“There are 1.3 million Indians living in South Africa and yet people don’t know that or seem to care. Material is not what people are expecting. They say it’s an Indian film but it’s still about Indians in Africa.”
Hopefully Material will help to counter oversees misconceptions of South Africa and will go some way to shattering the perceptions of what a South African film should look like as well as what it means to be South African and what a South African perhaps looks like.
All going well Apteker, Freimond and producer Robbie Thorpe aim to produce their next film in London away from the limitations South African film makers are continually having to endure, but it’s early days yet.
“Craig, Robbie and I are gearing up for another film to shoot in London. There the proof’s in the pudding, you can’t do it here (South Africa). To make a film that’s better than Material with this kind of marketing we have to go.
“Everything has gone up in price in South Africa, petrol, cameras, everything. Whatever Material brings back we can put into the next film but at the moment there’s not much coming back. So we need to find a bigger market and England is the most logical step for us. They have a big cinema industry.”
South African cinema has a relatively small audience and a poor track record when it comes to supporting local films. There is also the inclination amongst many viewers to deride the offerings of the country’s film makers. South Africa is technically at the mercy of independent film makers as there is no national film industry to speak of. Although there have been some howlers over the years we are fortunate to have cinematic beacons of brilliance that have captured the hearts and imagination of cinema-goers at home and abroad.
“We’re sick of hearing people say things like, ‘wow that really was amazing for a local film’ or ‘Material blew me away. I can’t believe it’s South African’. It’s quite derogatory when you say that. They don’t walk around in England going, ‘you know, that wasn’t bad for a British movie’.
“It’s a terrible condition but there’s no point in complaining. If you can’t change it then you go somewhere else. We’ve got big baggage here.”
Material is a notable example and an inspirational ‘must-see’ for film-lovers and potential film makers alike. Aside from being a wonderful story that resonates universally, the film displays the prowess and potential of South African film making. The time is now for the discerning South African eye to recognise, embrace and endorse our world class talent, lest it be continually forced to pastures greener.
Material is out now on DVD and The Vandals wish the Material team every success at the upcoming film festivals and beyond.
With more tension than your mother’s suspension, I am Frisco Rosso. I’m likely to deliver a few lines worth at any given moment regarding film, music, sport, books and anything morally unsound that strikes a blow between the eyes in the name of entertainment.