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 Stander

I often say that the very best thing about this job we do, this job of making films, is that we get to penetrate realms that most people in their lifetime would never experience. We trip in and out of people’s lives, passing through strange places, getting straight to the centre of it without a moment wasted, as schedule dictates. And if we are any good at what we do, then our senses are ripe to soak up whatever each of these brushes with the unknown can offer. The experiences, unlike a film’s too-short life in the theatres, will never leave you.

STANDER SHOOT, JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
MAY - DECEMBER 2002

In a yard in the township of Tembisa, coal is collected in sacks and delivered by horse-drawn cart to the millions and millions of shanties that surround the Johannesburg city centre. At six o’clock, when it comes time to light the fires and cook for the evening meal, the whole place will turn a grey thick cloud that coats your lungs.

On our first day in this location, I met a boy who hovered on the edges of our scouting party. He looked hard and nasty, and would pull scary faces when I looked his way—eyes rolled back in his head, with only the whites visible. And he was the blackest boy I had ever seen, not the natural colour of his African skin so much as the crusted coating of coal dust that covered it. “Stay away from him, he’ll rob you blind,” they told me. So in my usual instinct to do exactly the opposite of what has been ordered, I walked right up to him and snapped enough scary-face shots with my M6 that he eventually ran out, and his façade melted away.

“He doesn’t talk, and he doesn’t understand English,” they said. “A good-for-nothing.” So I asked him—in English—to show me his favourite thing. He led me to the enclosure where they keep the mules, and pointed out his best beast. With every whisk of the mule’s tail, he would collapse in a fit of giggles, and make me do the same.

We came back to this location several times during the shoot, and each time he would inch closer to get a look at what we were doing, eventually staking his place in front of the monitor by my chair. He showed up one day with a phone charger, which someone had left behind, insisting in his sign language that I find the owner. One day he got his friends to give me a martial arts display in the ash heap, their roundhouse kicks and jumps generating a floating ash cloud worthy of the best special FX crew. I stole the idea for our fight scene. On the big crowd days, I gave him my camera to shoot the throngs of township people who had gathered behind the police tape to watch. He’d lift the camera, and shouts would go up with people begging him to photograph them. Showmen, all. And now the coal boy was the one that everyone wanted to get near. On the last day, I brought some of the photos he’d taken, including my favourite photo of him that we framed and covered in plastic to stand a chance against the ash and dust.

One year before, he had lost both parents to AIDS. He now lives under the collective care of the community, or anyone who can feed him. School is unaffordable.

* * *

A few hundred metres south of the glass and steel skyscrapers of downtown Jo’burg is the Mai Mai Market. It is not a picture perfect location, although we would drape it with DP-approved fabric awnings to make it shootable. To make our scene, we would weed out evidence of the recycled tire sandal-makers, and men scraping cow hides to be painted like the harder-to-come-by leopard skins. We would hide the coffin-makers, and the children in non-period high-tops to lay bare to the lens the collection of monkey skulls, crocodile jaws, sawtooth shark noses, antelope hoofs, scales, roots, and various indecipherables. This is muti, the traditional medicine of South Africa. Traditional, and very much a part of modern African life.

This particular part of the shooting schedule was intense. No matter how hard we pushed, we were consistently facing unpredicted set-backs, leaving us in overtime or with unfinished days. Warning letters were arriving at wrap every night from the higher-ups, but I’d leave them unopened because I already knew their contents. The next morning, a grip slipped me a folded newspaper packet. “Muti,” he said. To make the shoot flow better. In the packet was a vial of red oil with a pleasant but unpinpointable smell, and some dry, ground up grey matter. The contents of the packet were a secret, as well as the fact that I’d been given them. In the mornings, I was to bathe in the grey matter, and dab the oil on my skin. Somehow, surrounded by mind-bending reminders of mortality, and in the cradle of the very beginnings of mankind, this kind of gift takes on an import that in another situation wouldn’t really apply. When in Rome…or in this case, Egoli, Mpumalanga, and Kwazulu-Natal.

After a few days of ash-bathing and oil-dabbing, there was at least one effect to report: going through a mysterious daily ritual, one’s senses are wide open, alert to any unusual change, or new rhythm, or stimulus that could be attributed to a power beyond our ability to comprehend.

Day five after the Mai Mai shoot, we were still in overtime, and as a North American used to instant gratification, I gave up the faith. Without it, the muti has no power. So everyone will tell you.

These experiences hang in the fringes of the film for me. They are in the edges of each frame. They have nothing to do with what is on the screen, but I cannot watch the film without it evoking a  visceral reaction that takes me back to this wild, wild, ride.

I am forever changed.

 

In the late-1970s, Andre Stander (Thomas Jane, The Punisher), a Johannesburg police officer, became South Africa's most wanted man. Deeply affected by the indiscriminate killing he witnessed and took part in during Riot Patrol, Stander reevaluated his life and defied the system. His form of civil disobedience: a series of audacious, high-flying bank robberies, with the young police officer often returning to the scene of the crime as the lead investigator. Stander was eventually jailed, but following a daring breakout he and his gang executed a series of increasingly perilous bank heists. Their flagrant disregard for authority made them South Africa's most popular anti-heroes.