We are at the Cannes Film Festival, you film is being screened in the Un Certain Regard selection. What were your first feelings when you found out you had been selected at Cannes?
I was very quiet. I didn’t speak for a few hours! It as a bit of a shock; when you spend so much time trying to achieve something, when it finally happened, I was very tired! All the stress just left me, but I was still working on the film so I didn’t have much time to react. I just had to immediately go back to work. But it’s a truly amazing experience. It was also very nice to be able to tell my family, to phone my mother and tell her the news.
You have been to Cannes before to participate in the Cinéfondation. How did that whole process work? What did it bring you and how did it help you improve your project?
The Cinéfondation is amazing; it’s an indirect way of learning because you live with other filmmakers from other countries and they have other styles. Inadvertently you learn more by just sharing. After I wrote the script the first thing that happened was that I had dinner with some of the people I was there with and we discussed it; it’s fantastic for a filmmaker to be able to write a script and then have six other filmmakers around him who are all writing scripts and to talk about it. It makes your film better. So it’s a brilliant space and it also gave me the opportunity to encounter the French industry, which allowed me to meet the producer of this movie. So it was an important step.
Did you have this movie in mind for a long time?
Not really. I got the idea at the end of 2009 and then by the middle of last year I’d already written five or six drafts. It liked that because Shirley Adams was long, I was young, I liked the idea of the beginning to the end being rapid.
What gave you the idea of making such a provocative film?
I think I definitely wanted to make something very different to my previous film. I wanted to discuss a character who was more difficult for the audience to understand. I think that my first film was a learning experience for me, but I think I chose an easier character then. She was a victim, she was a mother, and it was very easy for the audience to connect, to empathise. Here I wanted to challenge myself by having a character that was a little more dynamic. And so the challenge in the writing, the directing and the way we told the story was all about getting the audience to go yes I like him, then no I don’t like him, then maybe I like him. The whole time it’s a journey.
That’s interesting, because the film is never told from the character’s point of view. It’s like he is looking at the world, and you show him looking at people a lot, but your camera is also looking at him
It’s the audience’s point of view and I suppose my point of view too. I think that conceptually, when you watch a film, you are watching something and someone and I love to watch people. I don’t mind having to sit in an airport waiting for an airplane because I get to sit down and just watch; you learn and see and understand a lot about people from how they behave. I enjoy that a lot and think that it’s always a great challenge for me and I really enjoy having to try to recreate reality because, in front of the camera, it’s not a real moment, it’s a constructed moment in which you need to recreate reality.
You also play on the question of language a lot, on Afrikaans and English. For these people, English is some kind of external reality, a sign of new society.
Yes, what I find interesting about Afrikaans, or Afrikaans-speaking people, in Bloemfontein in South Africa is that it really is its own society. It’s a very advanced and beautiful language and for me it’s interesting how it’s a part of South Africa. But it’s a part of South Africa that I don’t come from and so I wanted to talk about the dynamic of the language possibly dying, because a lot of young people speak English to their friends, because everyone speaks English, even if their parents still speak Afrikaans. For me, it was also interesting to get inside that society, because I was a tourist: I don’t come from that heritage, I don’t come from that city, I don’t come from that kind of culture, so I really enjoyed being able to get inside it. And I think that the language dynamic is already in my previous film. I had a similar thing with the disabled son who spoke English to everyone but his mother would speak Afrikaans, so I think it’s a generational thing.
So language is part of the character
The language is part of the country. The language is a symbol of our history, our colonization, our previous government. I think that that is an interesting aspect of South Africa, that language really becomes a symbol of the mix: it’s African but it’s also European.
Did you develop that kind of character to show how these people, with the history they have, the heritage you were talking about in your director’s note, how they react, what their contradictions are in general?
Yes, I think that Francois is an example of a kind of society where your choices are not your own. He has done things in his life, his life looks the way it does right now because he feels that he had to be that person, and I think that that’s a huge element of South African society, this need to be what everyone else expects you to be. In the past, that meant that you had to tow the line. Even today I think that there’s that same challenge. And that for me is a scary thing. It’s also something that I think is a complete reality; we still think in terms of race in South Africa. Race defines who you are, how much you earn, where you live, etc. When we think about rich black people, we make certain criticisms, and when we think about poor white people make certain criticisms. And when you switch it around, if you’re a rich white person that means your money is old, and if you’re a rich black person that means your money is new; these are the stereotypes and we associate all these different things, whereas with Francois, he’s someone who doesn’t care about money at all. He’s only ever gotten money and made success to hide who he is. It was never his ambition. It was purely to protect himself from being exposed. It’s confusing, but interesting.
It’s quite a courageous film given the subject, because it’s not easy in South Africa to talk about that. It’s a country where gay people have a voice, but at the same time, and particularly in that milieu, it’s not easy for them at all.
No. I think that that’s the other amazing dynamic in the country, you’re right; the South African constitution is very supportive of people who are attracted to the same sex, and that’s amazing, because in Africa that’s a very rare thing; the continent is still extremely conservative. That’s really important, and something I’m very proud about in my country; it is this beacon of modernity in terms of rights and freedom and humanity. But, it’s a conservative country too and the majority of the country is conservative, and I think that a character like this is still grappling with that wanting to be himself. But then he sees two other gay men and they’re an example of how, in the same country, it’s totally fine. But for Francois, he just can’t.
This character is really self-destructive I couldn’t help but think of another example in French politics at the moment.
I know. That situation that’s happened now in New York, no one knows if it’s true or not yet, it’s one person’s word against the other, but yes it’s quite ironic that this has happened at the same time as the film screening. But the truth is that these things do happen.
That’s very clear in your character; someone who has such self-control suddenly loses everything.
I think that probably the thing that causes that loss in my film is beauty. Francois is like a fortress, nothing penetrates his control, but this element, this object he sees – he sees Christian as an object – this object destroys all of that and Francois can’t help himself. I like to argue that for every person there is that other person that has that way of unlocking this behaviour in you where you lose yourself. With the situation with your politician in New York, if everything is true about what happened, then it’s a perfect example of how we think that people are in control, we don’t know why he did it, but, if he did, the reason why is he wanted to do it, and he thought that he could.
The title Skoonheid, meaning beauty, comes from the character who is beautiful
From both, I mean beauty is ironic in terms of Francois because there is a beauty to his life, he loves a very beautiful life, has very beautiful children, very successful, it’s beautifully constructed, it’s a very beautiful paradigm, it’s a very beautiful secret, a very beautiful space that he lives within, and then of course there is this beautiful object, this beautiful person that Francois wants to be. But I think also that beauty is the poison. It’s the thing that destroys him. And so it’s all of those things for me. And I think that either you take it as a beautiful image, a beautiful person, a beautiful irony, or you take it as a warning about what beauty can do.
How did you work on the music, because music plays an important role in the film, notably heightening the tension?
Yes. I had a great relationship with the composer. For me, the music had to help the audience to see Francois’ sensitivity. Music has that power to make a hard character softer, so it becomes thematic for him, it’s in his head, it’s lyrical in terms of his feelings. So the places where there is music are the places where I wanted to enforce the fact that what he’s experiencing is not just lust; there is a strong emotion and a very honest emotion that is also taking place, which is probably the beginnings of love. It’s a love of this person, and the music’s task is to enhance that.
You tell the story through cuts, through what is not said, you progress step by step. The spectator has constantly to search for the meaning, for what is going on
I prefer the film to be that way around, for you to have to decipher rather than you deciphering it too quickly and then waiting for the film to catch up with you, knowing where it’s going and what’s going to happen. I try very hard to make that difficult for the audience. For me, Michael Haneke is fantastic at doing that, where you just know that there’s something going on, and you try very hard to work it out. The Tree of Life yesterday was an experience I enjoyed, because it also allows everyone to have their own interpretation.
Yes, but you also lead the viewer to different possible paths. When we look at the swimming pool, for example, and think he’s in it, it’s quite Hitchcockian, with certain objects bringing different meanings
I enjoy those things about making films. I enjoy that kind of construction. I think that more than just the way the film gets shot, it’s also the way it gets cut that makes it possible to play like that. I think that my natural behaviour is always to try to hide things, to reveal them gradually, or to try and give you the information hopefully as simplistically and subtly as possible. It’s my own preferred style.
You truly navigate between thriller and
No, between thriller and distance.
Yes. I’ll hopefully be able to decipher how it all works out once I have a little bit of distance from the film, because when you make a film like this constantly, you become desensitized to its impact. And so for me, it’s now day 1 where I get the reaction from the audience, to finally understand what the construction has generated. And that’s also very interesting to finally see how people react.
Have you any idea of the reaction in South Africa?
This is my big problem because I can’t imagine. Part of me thinks that South Africa will be very blasé, and part of me thinks that it will be very shocked. Part of me thinks that in South Africa they’ll go,’ah yes, this is actually my uncle, my brother’, or whoever, there will be an element of familiarity about it, but I’m very keen to know what the reaction’s going to be.
You, as the filmmaker, do not judge the character Francois in the film.
That’s a very important aspect for me, of course. It’s not a judgement of a character, it’s a portrait. And, just as my previous film was a portrait of a mother in Cape Town, this is a portrait of a man in Bloemfontein and my approach is exactly the same, showing you everything.
Do you think that the conservative part of society will manage to react positively today?
I hope so. Maybe by putting it all there on the screen and seeing the truth of it, it will help people understand, and to understand Francois. Because he’s not alone.
And would you say that’s important today in South Africa?
For us to talk about things? Definitely.
Yes, for people to look at themselves.
I think it’s important for any society to be honest and exposed and comfortable. And it’s a relief for me to be able to make a film about Francois because by making this film I feel like I’ve put something out there and you’re not hiding anything anymore.
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