« An allegory on the end of apartheid and the beginning of a new world »

Speaking with Michael Raeburn on Triompf, by Olivier Barlet

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Olivier Barlet : Michael Raeburn, we are in Cannes and you are presenting your latest film Triomf. It took you eight years to do that film, didn’t it?
Michael Raeburn: Yes, I bought the rights in 2000 and it took eight years, because the problem with making African films is that nobody’s really interested outside Africa, and even sometimes in Africa. So financing is very difficult. And there isn’t in Anglophone Africa the same kind of subsidies that would be available for francophone countries. That’s why Anglophone countries have always been rather behind, until the arrival of South Africa which has been a big boost and the disaster of Zimbabwe where something was beginning to happen, when I did Jit, and is now dead. Anyway, looking for money for an artist film or even any film, you end up having to deal with Europe and America, the First World. That is a difficulty because for example in South Africa, there’s been a fund available and you have to bring a respectable sales agent. The first thing they ask is « Who’s in the film? ». That’s the choice you have: you need a star, a name. Triompf is about what we call « white trash », « trailer trash », it’s a very poor marginal white society in South Africa which is an unknown world but there are at least a million of people living like tramps. I’m not really making a film about them, at all, but the film is set there and it’s an allegory on the end of apartheid and the beginning of a new world. This family is somehow the central pivotal story that is a metaphor for death and rebirth. Anyway, I arrived with this film and I decided « Okay, I can use well-known white actors who are good to play in this film » so I got Tim Roth who was very very keen, Jessica Lange, Sam Shepard, who loved the script, it was very similar to Southern States poverty, white poverty, which is almost a genre in America, trailer trash movies, they created that genre, Monsters products with these really strange people, a lot of incest… Then, in Cannes, two years ago, one of the Fortissimo agents said « Tim Roth, Jessica Lange, it’s not good enough, you have to get someone like Meryl Streep » so that was it, I decided to go back and do it in Africa. Of course, there are two things that emerged from that: one is you have a very dangerous situation of producing a film of quality technically but from every point of view with very little money. You have to shoot fast, you don’t have any protection. Something goes wrong, it’s a complete disaster: disasters at the door waiting, every day, just waiting. So it’s a miracle for me that the film has been finished, a complete miracle, and that it seems to work. People respond to the film, the actors are good, the camera is good, the locations are extraordinary, there’s good music. The whole thing works, I couldn’t have made better with 10 millions euros. It would have maybe not been so good. That’s very rare that I’ve had that freedom. I didn’t have that freedom in The Grass is Singing or other films I’ve done. In Jit, I had that freedom, but that’s only the second time in my life that I’ve had this kind of freedom. I’m not talking about documentaries for this is another problem, because your television is saying « This is not right, this is too short. »
Finally you found private funding which helped you finish, get the necessary money for the film.
Yes, I had the Images Afrique and the Fond Sud which when I was doing it as a six million and a half million euros budget was just dust. And then when I cut the budget, it was suddenly half the budget so it became extremely important and I got a private investor involved from Zimbabwe. We went to school together. He had some money and he put it in the film. He saved the film, a mécène. We made it for that kind of money, 400 000, 500 000 euros, that’s including the 35mm print and shoot, which is in itself about a quarter of the budget.
The film is out of a book. How did you come to the book? Why this book and not another?
Some friend brought me the book in Johannesburg. I said « What’s this book » and he said « It’s about poor whites » and I said « You must be joking. » But then I read the book and it’s a long wonderful allegory of change. Because the characters are poor, their emotions are very extreme, they don’t hide them. There’s only one film I can refer to that is similar, that is Affreux, sales et méchants by Ettore Scola, which was also a scandal when it came out in Italy. It was about poor people behaving very badly.
It came out in 1976.
Yes. What I liked about that is that it did echo of that film and also the world of Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard. You have characters living on the edge of despair, with lots of dreams and frustration, of failed dreams. They are basically nobodies and they’re suffering. The men can get very violent because of their frustration and the women very weepy. There are a lot of emotions at that level of poverty, which is very in the faces, it’s not withheld. I think also there’s a certain madness in most of my films. The Grass is Singing is about a woman who cracks up because she can’t take the intensity of Africa, Winds of Rage, a film I made in France, is about a peasant farmer whose children are always living and he goes mad, commits suicide. The main character in this film, who drives the film, is also on the point of insanity. What’s interesting about this is that it is in South Africa in 1994 when the first democratic elections were taking place. These people live in a very claustrophobic way, they’re cut off from society, despised by their own people because they’re dirty, they’re drunk and they swear all the time. There’s a class thing in the film, there’s a scene on the party, the African Nationalist Party where he sees a bunch of bourgeois and says « We are your shame, we guarantee to let you down. » This is class anger. The book was very rich, it had class, it had race, everybody’s racist. The black character doesn’t like the coloured guys, with mixed race that is. The mixed race guys don’t like either the black people or the white people. The white people don’t like anybody. The white people don’t like the Jews, in this film. These people who have prejudice are interesting because it’s everywhere in the world, it’s the same thing. The context changes but it’s the same thing. When you’re angry and you pick on someone from a different class or colour and you hit them. I thought that was interesting to show but what was particularly interesting is to have a film where the politics is in the background, and a very strong politics, which are the elections. It’s five days to the elections, that’s the story of the film which takes place over five days. Every time you switch the television on, there’s a riot or someone’s saying the elections have got to work or it’s the end of the world, somebody’s saying everything’s going to be fantastic afterwards. Everybody has some stake in this election, and then every time, very often outside the door, you have these parties going by, the Zulus go by, the National Party go by, the fascists go by. It’s very colourful because you never see that happening in general elections in France: Zulus going by in leopard skins, the fascists going by on a horseback. The point of that was not to be exotic but to give relief from the tense claustrophobia in the world of the house which was heavy, tense and dramatic. I mean, at the end, two people are dead. You need to get a dramatic structure. You need to get some relief from the tension. So when we go outside the house, generally, we breathe a sigh of relief and something very strange and funny and light is going to happen. That was the idea.
The space has a very important role in the movie.
Exactly, it’s about claustrophobia. In order to feel claustrophobia, you have to see immensity and you have to look at the heavens.
Could we say that the house is a kind of apartheid itself?
There’s a secret in the family so there’s this level of metaphor in the film. The secret is that there is a lie. Apartheid is based on a lie. The lie is that blacks are inferior beings, according to the Bible. They’re born to carry water and cut wood, that’s it. That’s the basis of apartheid, basically. The end of apartheid and the end of this family are parallel stories. That’s why I liked the book. But it’s very hidden, it’s subtle. It’s politically very strange. For me and for people who manage to see this, it’s a political film. But the politics is there by way of a story, a human story, which is a metaphor for everything else that’s going on: the end of white power and the beginning of black power.
I was very impressed by the sexual side of the film. It gives the impression that you wanted to put on the table the whole relationship to sexuality and to impotence of this regime.
That’s the way these people live, I’m not doing it for any sensationalist reasons, it’s a story about incest after all. I was very pleased at the projection yesterday that there were some black Africans from different countries. I was a bit worried because people can be quite prudish about seeing underwear, whether in Africa or anywhere. But I wasn’t sure, there haven’t been many so-called African films that have this sexual crudity. They were all relieved to see a film that wasn’t a cliché African film. It was just a film, it takes place in Africa and these people behave like that and that’s it. A woman from Kenya, a filmmaker, said, « It’s just like that where I live. » I said, « What do you mean? » and she said, « Everybody’s there, there’s somebody having sex with his sister, another is beating up his wife and there’s another one drunk all day, I just felt it was like being at home. » At that level of society which is poor and deprived, you can see that all over the world, people are all the same. The proletarians are fucking, shouting, swearing, hitting each other and bleeding, they’re all over the place. You go into the streets of any city in France, you’ll find these people. They look like they came from Triomf, everywhere. That’s just the way it is. The sexuality doesn’t have more than that, except that that’s the way Treppie is impotent, he talks a lot about sex and he wants to shock everybody, he’s stirring the shit all the time and driving everybody to the edge. He’s the catalyst in the film. But you see the sex scene at the beginning of the film, it’s an incest scene and for the other people in the house it’s just something that goes on all the time. One guy is having a cigarette, the other guy’s just waiting until it’s all over but no one talks about it. Then in the next scene, they’re having a chat about nice little things as though nothing happened.
It’s very shocking, and you see all the people of this district watching them, without saying anything or not intervening in any way. It’s a spectacle.
When the shoot was on, I saw the most amazing things going on. What was going on in the film was kind of gentle compared to what I saw happening around, on a Saturday night.
The new people who are moving in the district are terrible as well, aren’t they?
Oh, no.
I mean, the colored people nearby make fences, they revenge, they’re horrible as well.
Yes, but they’re very real as well, it is a low-class suburb but the blacks moving across the road are quite middle-class and they just smile, they just go inside, they don’t say anything, they’re very dignified and they just laugh. Which is what I was pleased to see the audience stir. See « les petits blancs » behaving this way was just very good. At least to see them for what they are. But the colored guys improvised, it’s funny. Basically, there’s this aggression which is everywhere. But South Africa is a violent society because apartheid was a violent system and all the races were divided. The coloured speak Afrikaans, they speak Dutch, they don’t speak any African language. They wanted to be white. Now they want to be black so they’re in the middle. But the blacks say they’re not black people, they’re coloured people, they’re not one of us. There’s always division but it kind of works much better. I think it’s very positive that people may live in different areas but they mix in work, they have these friendships, these interracial marriages, separate and together. There’s a black middle-class, a very powerful one, thank God, a positive action in business. There are a lot of very good things going on. The film is set in 1994 so in other words the divisions were still much sharper. This guy is saying, « Now they’re just coming in the neighbourhood, these coloured guys, who do they think they are? They think they’re big deals. »
It is difficult to see the new South Africa in the film…
Well, I must say, very ironically, the most multiracial stratum of society is there today, because they’re all poor, their intermarriage is much more evident and dominant. There are black, white and coloured kids playing in the street, it’s incredibly integrated. No one locks the door and this is in the middle of Johannesburg. It was the most relaxed face of Johannesburg. You go in the middle-class suburbs and everybody’s living behind fortresses, protected with guns at the door, wire and everything because they’ve got money so whether they’re black or white or green, they’re living in fortresses. They’re much more divided in fact. They mix at the shopping centre, which is very chic, or at the cinema or in a restaurant but they don’t mix that easily. There, in the poor areas of South Africa, it’s very very mixed. That is truly multiracial. The rest of Africa is not as multiracial as down there at the bottom. It’s extraordinary.
How was it for you, coming from Zimbabwe, making a film in South Africa?
Well, the thing is, historically in fact it’s hard to divide up the countries down at the end of Africa. I like to say it’s Southern Africa because we’re very interlinked. The British called apartheid a meritocracy. When you got enough education and you become a gentleman, you can vote. This is apartheid. They had whites-only seats and blacks-only seats. It’s exactly the same thing. Also, there was a great mix of movement, of people up and down between the two, all the time. South Africa, it’s not even as different as France and Italy, it’s almost like the North and the South of France. My country’s still South Africa, whether it’s Mozambique or in Namibia. My next film is in Namibia. There we have a German presence, historically, instead of a British presence. Although everybody was there: the British, the Germans, the South Africans. They were everywhere. For me, below the Congo is like one place, historically, more or less, with a bit of differences.
Is that the feeling of the people or is that only your feeling?
Well now we’ve moved on. The boundaries that were drawn up by colonial administrators to create countries with new names, which weren’t countries at all and this is a big problem in Africa. Cutting right through tribes: Tanzanian Maasai, Kenyan Maasai, they are Maasai first. I didn’t have any problems about making a movie in South Africa. I’m now a resident of South Africa because I was thrown out again of Zimbabwe so I can’t go back there at the moment. There are a lot of Zimbabwean film people working in South Africa because we had fourteen years of independence before South Africa and lots of movies, the beginning of the film industry. A lot of people went down there to work. So it doesn’t cause a problem at that level. Where the problem happens is at the bottom level where there are a lot of refugees from poor countries from all of Africa. There are many people from the Congo, Nigeria, Malawi. There must be at least 15 millions of people there, illegally for most of them. The local people hate them, they say, « They’re taking our jobs. » It’s a tragic situation and it’s the story about Africa. Instead of going to Europe, there’s another country that is almost a first-world country and it’s called South Africa. There’s a lot of money, a lot of jobs but there’s a lot of unemployment. Just the other day, there was a terrible story about Malawians, Zimbabweans beaten up, tortured by people exploding with anger and telling them to go home. But that’s at the level of the working-class.
So you didn’t have that kind of relation, people telling you « What are you doing in South Africa, making a film about us? You are not from our country »?
Yes, you inevitably get this everywhere. I even got this from the channel Canal Plus when I was doing a film here once. Somebody told me that I had no right making a film in France and French because I’m not French. But it’s unusual because France is very open to foreign artists. In smaller countries sometimes there’s certain insecurity.
There was a workshop held by Emma Thompson, who at one time was going to be in the film, and someone said, « What a hell is this foreigner coming to do a film about Africa’s people and so on. » This is just one of those stupid questions. You can only make a film about what you know and in a globalized world, poor whites, in the southern states of America, in the north of Paris or down at the bottom of Africa, it’s all the same. The thing is I also know South Africa from all my life. It’s not new to me. You wouldn’t ask the Chinese director who went to America and did Pride and Prejudice, he didn’t even speak much English. What right does Nabokov have to write in English? He wrote in every language of the countries he lived in: German, Russian and English. If the final thing is false and doesn’t work, well you can say it’s because the guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The argument goes even further because for example Hollywood makes films all over the world, Marlon Brandon is playing a Chinese man, the film is no good then because you need to have a Chinese man playing a Chinese man and that’s it. I just think this is a waste of time. If I’m asked that, one answer is « Why didn’t you make the film? Why didn’t one of you Afrikaans make the film? Where were you? » They weren’t queuing up to buy this book. You go and make your own film. This is my film. You like the film or you don’t like the film. They were even saying one of the actors wasn’t Afrikaans, his second language was Afrikaans. « Well you can’t have an actor like that ». The actor is brilliant, we have a dialogue coach, and he’ll get there in the end. Then they’ll say « He doesn’t speak quite right, he doesn’t have the right accent for Johannesburg north, he sounds like he comes from Cape Town. If you get hung up about that, the film must be really bad. And then there are even people who say « That’s not Triomf where you shot the film. » Triomf is finished, it’s become a middle-class suburb. So I had to go up the hill and shoot it somewhere else. You always get that and I get it all the time. « What are you white guy doing making this film? » I happen to be born in Africa because I’m lucky to know, to come from Africa and also to be able to deal with the western world. All my work is for me dedicated to be a bridge between the western world and Africa. For me, Triomf, all of them are the same thing. There’s always this bridge. Without compromising the reality of the situation, I’m not making a Constant Gardener with this white person coming out to save Africa or that Sydney Pollack film « Out of Africa« , with people shooting lambs and running around, which is fine but it’s not an African film, there’s a difference there. The Grass is singing was about an African situation, it was about colonialism and the reaction against it. Some people are prejudiced and can’t quite handle it. I never have that problem very much in Africa, with Africans because they recognise me being the same and they respect the film. The French accept this very much so. But I went to Canada to present Jit and it shocked them that I was a white man. It was the Native American Festival and they were really deeply depressed.
Back to the film, I understood that you wanted to deepen the dark side of the people and how it can create such a regime, from the private side through the politics.
Well, you’re dealing with the death of one world that everybody wants to get rid of. So if you call that dark, yes. But we do get rid of them at the end. Who dies? It’s the guilty, Treppie, who was very vicious and Pop, who isn’t responsible for his actions. Who survives is the innocent, Lambert because he’s handicapped and the good, Mol. Then there’s the character of Sonny, who represents the new world, who drags the body of the dying out of the flames, of the handicapped. Lambert is the future, he’s being saved and brought out of the flames to be given a new life. It’s Icarus, a new life, a new birth. It’s a sort of Greek tragedy in a way. Sonny is like the Greek chorus, he comes and makes declarations about the end of the world is now and the new world is coming. This intensity, the incest and the whole thing is like a Greek tragedy. But I tried to make it funny and I was very pleased to see people laughing yesterday because sometimes you don’t know if you should be laughing or crying about this. It’s on the edge. Affreux, sales et méchants was like that, you didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. You end up just smiling a bit but that was interesting to do and there’s also a question of distance. In South Africa, in all communities, there’s a distance between you and the subject. The whites know it, because obviously this is whites, the coloured, the mixed race people, this is very familiar and at the working-class level in black society, the poor, this is just very regular stuff. So they don’t feel that they have to feel sorry for these people. They laugh at them without problem whereas the European audience or the Americans, they see all these poor people, they feel more unsettled, they’re not quite sure what they’re supposed to do. They’re not free to react if they’re feeling sorry or horrified or shocked all the time by these people. They’re not quite sure what they should be doing, it’s a problem for them. There isn’t the distance. I think that must have happened with Affreux, sales et méchants because people were scandalized. I thought it was hilariously funny. Everybody in France laughed because it was happening over there. « That’s fine, it’s not us, it’s them. » That’s just too complicated, people react differently according to where they come from, what cultural baggage they’re carrying, what political and intellectual baggage they have.
When I say the dark side, it is also to bring people to the idea that nothing’s ideal, men are like that and we have to accept it because it is part of our history. Without knowing that or having that in mind, you can’t really go further.
Well I suppose the one level you’re pointing at is a very low level of existence, an animal level of existence. But then we are animals.
It’s important to know it sometimes.
I like that because often in the West, there’s a level of superiority. « We know what’s right, democracy, freedom, moral », which really gets up the nose of people in the Third World. We don’t like to hear them telling us how to behave. We forget about the Holocaust, the Germans, the fact that Europeans eradicated the entire population of the Americas. You don’t want to hear it. That’s short-term memory. That’s part of the film’s universality I hope but I don’t know, it’s too many things, I just got into the characters, the situation and I found a richness and a complexity, something to talk about, the reason this interview is happening is there’s something to talk about, that’s all. I’m not saying what any answers are to anything. I’m not sure why, I hadn’t thought about why there is so much of the sexual element in it. It’s funny because of Treppie’s character, because he’s impotent and he’s rude, vulgar and sensationalist so he loves telling dirty stories, being dirty and insulting people with sexual language. That’s one reason for it and the other reason is that sex is part of the story.
The black man, Sonny, finally gives a revolver, giving them the means of violence. So he’s part of it, actually.
The freedom in Africa was gained through a war. That’s all. In a gentle kind of a way, it’s entered the arms struggle, turn around the other way, you go and you shoot yourself. In fact he’s shooting them. But again it’s a story in direct. You don’t get a guy with a AK47 breaking into the house and killing everybody. You’ve got a very strange thing of a guy giving him a present, which ends up destroying everybody. He kills his father with this thing.
So he’s a kind of warrior himself.
Yes.

Trancription : Lorraine Balon///Article N° : 7944

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