Andrew Worsdale speaks to Michael Rix, the maker of Tengers, South Africa’s first feature length animated film, which takes a darkly humorous look at the realities of life in Jozi.

nov-tengers
The Darkest Comic Take on Joburg comes from Clay
Tengers is a full-length claymation movie that is at turns deeply comic, then tragic and finally very moving.  It is a unique movie, a loving but satirical homage to the frenetic metropolis of Johannesburg and what the realities of day-today life are for the average (Gau) Tenger.  Although it’s animated, the film is definitely not aimed at the kiddie’s market – it has more in common with say South Park than Wallace and Gromit, despite the use of claymation.

The story revolves around an out-of-work twenty-something writer, Rob, and his best friend Marius, a policeman trying to make ends meet on a meagre salary, and how they both try to pursue romance.  Rob is in love with Christine who works at a bank, but spends her spare time painting a Remembrance Wall Mural in memory of victims of violent crime.  Marius, meanwhile is pursuing a romance with a policewoman, Nicky, whom he believes is his ideal woman.

When Rob buys a lottery scratch card he ends up wining R20,000 a month for life – then his life takes a turn for the worse despite the good luck.  Someone appears to be trying to kill him, which leads to increasing comic and eventually tragic pandemonium.

Thirty-three year old Director Michael Rix worked for almost seven years on the project, which started out as a hobby that he worked on after hours and on weekends.  Whilst studying film at the Pretoria Technikon Rix developed a passion for low-budget clay animation after he made a one-minute short that scored an undisputed 95% from the resident lecturers.  Since leaving the film school in 1996 he has worked as an insert writer, director, animator and editor on numerous television shows ranging from Rise Up and Read to various Supersport Specials.  He also made a live-action feature Man In The Street in 2003, which also dealt with the gritty side of Joburg life and played to critical praise at Cannes but failed to get a local distributor.

But he had always set his sights on making a feature-length Claymation movie that would satirize life as he felt it was in Johannesburg.  He says that Mick Jackson and Steve Martin’s LA Story was his initial inspiration.  The 1991 film was a delightfully scatty account of life in the city of angels complete with snobbish restaurants and random muggings.

“I remember watching it when it was first released,” says Rix, “and thinking ‘This could've been about Jo'burg.’  I also loved the way it was dealing with essentially dark subject matter in such a light and fluffy way - there's an incredible power in that, because I think audiences in general don't like being preached to while being entertained, so if you can incorporate serious issues in an absurd, entertaining way, I think ultimately you will speak to a wider audience.  For myself, I just thought animation was a safer territory to be in - you can achieve the same levels of irony, and if the silliness happens to creep in, it's more forgiven within the genre.”

He says he has many animation influences and is even a big fan of the old Disney classics, “but unfortunately the success of these in the Western world narrowed the scope of animation to be viewed as ‘kids entertainment’.  Which in itself is ironic, because judging by Disney's first feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I don't think that was his intention.  That movie has some seriously dark elements.  Sure, it was designed as pure entertainment, but I think it was originally intended for a more mature audience.  The style of Tengers was always supposed to be ‘a poor man's Wallace and Gromit’, very rough-around-the-edges, just like Jo'burg!”

Although his movie deals with serious issues, it’s very patriotic about those who live in Gauteng with their resolute and sort of schizoid sense of humour about life in the sprawling city.  “I think the underlying message of the film was always: We as Tengers (or South African even) have become desensitised to the issues.  But I also wanted the film to be hopeful, and reactive.  If it stirs up feelings within one audience member who walks out thinking ‘I've got to do my bit to help this situation’, then I've done my job.”

In many ways the film is acutely funny and politically incorrect, but did he intend to make a protest movie, “I'm not by nature an angry person, so no, I don't think the film is angry.  But I do think it's reflective.  I wrote it in the same way as a stand-up comedian might approach his subject matter.  It's observational first and foremost - Have you noticed this about our society?  Isn't that absurd? -  But hopefully in the same way that good stand-up comedy highlights these issues, it plants a seed, and the next time you are confronted with a similar situation, your perception is somewhat changed.”

“Quite simply, the film is written from my perspective as a white male in our new democratic South Africa,” he says, “I was a little tired of seeing SA movies dealing with racial issues, completely laced with white guilt.  They just don't ring true…I've lived half my life in apartheid SA and half in democratic SA, and I was just leaving school when the change came about, and we were all just forced into this new multi-cultural situation without any kind of preparation.  That is the perspective I'm coming from and I wanted the film to have honesty, and not to tread on eggshells the way local filmmakers so often do.”

The film started life almost 9 years ago, as a sideline project amongst directing and editing jobs for TV, “After writing the script and convincing myself that I was happy with the final draft, I storyboarded the entire movie shot for shot and then broke each shot down into a rough time frame, estimating how long it would take to create the set needed for that sequence, then the characters within the sequence, organising additional props, etc., how long to shoot, how long to edit. Then based on the spare time I had available, I worked on it as a hobby.  The first sequences were shot on DVCAM, in the garage of the town house I was staying in at the time, and edited on a friend's Adobe Premiere. I put rough voices and sound effects to those in another friend's sound studio, hoping I could then take the 12 odd minutes to a film production company who might see the potential and give me completion funds.”  Unfortunately he encountered rejections all round so he continued work on the project on his own whenever he could find time.

The clay Rix used for the production is standard plasticine which he bought from an art shop.  The sets he mainly constructed from cardboard, which he then painted.  “The raw materials were fairly inexpensive and I could justify buying what I needed on my credit cards as making this movie was my hobby.”  Five years went by and he shopped what he had already made at Sithengi, hoping to find completion funds.  “I made a few local and international contacts, but as I’ve found out in the film industry, unfortunately they all turn out to be big talk, no action.”

It was eventually his brother who convinced him just to get it done no matter what.  So he set up a website (www.tengers.com) and journeyed to the Cannes Film Festival with the opening scene in the can, trying to attract private investors. Despite a good reception, no one was willing to invest, even for as little as R1000 - a piece.

Undeterred he re-bonded his house in order to get enough capital to take the project further, he invested in an HDV camera and a Final Cut Pro editing suite and turned the loft in his house into a make-shift studio.  A couple of months later and he had the first half an hour assembled¸ - with rough voices and effects and organised a screening for potential private investors at Montrose School in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs.  The response was great and a few more investors came on board (the film has a long list of Executive Producers) and he was able to assemble the second act of the movie, after which he went through the screening process again to find completion funds.

A few more investors come on board and the National Film and Video Foundation gave Rix a small amount to help finish the movie and he ended up striking bargain basement deals with friends in the industry for a decent final mix and professional voices on the soundtrack.  Now that the film was complete he took it overseas where it won Best Animated Feature at the DIY Film Festival in Los Angeles and went on to play and be invited to numerous festivals in Europe and the UK.

Despite his exceptional achievement, and the fact that he’s made a uniquely South African film he’s still struggling to get a local distribution deal.  “Initially I thought the uphill battle was ‘getting it done’, but I now see that the climb has only just begun.  The powers-that-be feel there is no market for it in South Africa. Fortunately, the critics, so far, have all been behind it, and I'm hoping this can create sufficient word-of-mouth within the public, for people to start saying ‘Why the hell aren't they releasing this movie?’ or at least ‘Where and when can I see it?’”

Rix is doing his utmost in guerrilla style, to create awareness for the movie, even creating Facebook profiles for the main characters to create a ‘viral’ campaign online.  Personally, this particular writer has made friends with the characters online and I urge anyone interested in distinctive South African filmmaking and stories about Johannesburg to track this movie down with the same kind of passion that it took this interesting filmmaker to make it.