Thursday, August 12, 2010

This one ain't no Hollywood Hijack story!

Oliver Schmitz at Cannes.

It was a moment of absolute magic at this year's Cannes Film Festival ... when South African born-and-bred Life, Above All got a ten-minute standing ovation at the Cannes World Cinema Showcase. A seasoned yet appreciative audience of critics called it a "heart-warmer” and a “tear-jerker”. Their response was a really big deal and boded well for the film's future.

Life, Above All is the story of a young girl (newbie actress Khomotso Manyaka) who plays 12-year-old Chanda, who has to battle against the gossip, superstition and lies which are poisoning her small village near Johannesburg. Her baby brother dies suddenly and the community of Elandsdoorn gossips that this is because her mother has HIV. So she goes on a journey to restore her mother’s dignity. The movie is based on the international award-winning novel Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton.

South African filmmaker Oliver Schmitz is no stranger to Cannes, this was his third time there. He took Mapantsula to Cannes in 1988 when it was selected for Un Certain Regard. He is also known for his movie Hijack Stories and a directorship in iconic movie Paris, Je T'aime.

Oliver was recently in Durban to promote the movie at the Durban Film Festival, held at the Suncoast Centre. I caught up with him there ...

My first questions to him were:

Q: Is there life ahead for Life, Above All? What now? What reaction did it get from South African audiences?

"Even though the Durban audience, was a lot more laid back than at Cannes the reaction was great. People were very emotional and responsive and the audience was appreciative."

Q: Any chance of an Oscar?

"Yes, I do hope Life Above All will be nominated for an Oscar. In terms of quality it should be taken seriously. The distributors in South Africa are NuMetro and there will be screenings next month (September) to qualify the film for the Oscars. Already there are three of four lobbyists in the States working towards this. Lobbying for an Oscar is treated almost like a political campaign."

Q: Is local more lekker? South Africans telling their own stories and using their own actors?

Oliver believes it is important to fight for projects that are genuinely South African and that he has always been a very strong advocate of this. "The story told will carry that film. There have always been stories that were validated by that response and it is possible to do this on a world platform. Some of the best movie critics such as the New York Times and Time magazine gave the film reviews that couldnt be bettered.

The cast of Life, Above All at Cannes.

"The critics said that young actresses Lerato Mvelase, Khomotso Manyaka and Harriet Manamela 'stole the show at Cannes', even though the buzz at the South African parties was around Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard for their role in the Winnie movie. Life, Above All was not even mentioned and it upset my actors at the time."

Q: What of the "Hollywood Hijack stories" though? That's South African stories made by big American directors using their own stars ...

"This is not necessarily good for the South African acting fraternity," Oliver told me. ""It is often an awkward mixture, although Clint Eastwood did a good job. It is important to use South African actors although this is not an easy route financially. Internationally the debate is not that important of course. But local funders need to step up."

Q: So it is patriotic in terms of filmmaking to use South African actors? Even young relatively unknowns, such as in Life, Above All, and Gavin Hood's cast in Tsotsi?

"South African actors are starting to make a name for themselves, take Hijack Stories for example. It's the same calibre of movie as my new one."

Q: So why does he live in Berlin now, working for German TV, and not in South Africa?

"If only I could live off my South African films ... but I need to work, learn my trade and make a daily living. I am going back to Berlin to start pre-production work on a TV movie for next year. I haven't stopped working for ten years!"

Q: What lies ahead for the movie?

"I am hoping that South African audiences are sitting up and taking notice. I believe that the film will do well."

The Durban Film Festival was the first introduction of Oliver's new film to South African audiences and from everything I have heard this movie will blow local and international audiences away .... watch out for it on your screens ...


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