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.
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
* * *
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.