Sophiatown, one of Johannesburg’s most famous suburbs was established in 1904. Before 1913 black South Africans had freehold rights, and they bought properties in the suburb. By

Filmmaker Michael Raeburn
the 1920s whites had moved out, leaving behind a vibrant multi-cultural community of blacks, coloureds, Indians and Chinese. But on 12th February 1955 apartheid authorities flattened the suburb; around 65 000 residents were forcibly removed and a new neighbourhood was born. Blue-collared Afrikaners were moved in and the area near Melville, west of Johannesburg’s city centre was re-named Triomf – the Afrikaans word for ‘triumph’.

Almost forty years later Marlene van Niekerk's novel ‘Triomf’ was published to massive acclaim. It went on to win the CNA Literary Prize, the M-Net Book Prize, and finally the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, the most influential international prize there is for African writing.

The 500 page novel which came out a few months after South Africa’s first fully democratic election in 1994, recounts the monotonous daily lives of a family of poor white Afrikaners, showing how apartheid failed even those it was ideologically designed to benefit.

The Benade family – Pop, Mol, Lambert, and Treppie – are very extreme people – a dysfunctional family rattled by alcoholism, mental illness and poverty. Mol has an incestuous relationship with her son Lambert, who in turn is slightly retarded and prone to fits, while the violent Treppie is driven by demons. Living in isolation and dreading the upcoming elections and a new ‘free’ South Africa the family are desperate to escape; but are forever trapped within themselves and their kin.

Last year the suburb was re-named Sophiatown and now thirteen years after the novel caused such a stir in literary circles (The Mail & Guardian named it one of South Africa’s best 10 novels) filmmaker Michael Raeburn is starting pre-production on his screen adaptation of the story. Although the book spans a longer period, the film is set in the five days leading up to South Africa’s first democratic elections.

Raeburn, no stranger to controversy, was born in Egypt and grew up in Rhodesia. In 1969 he made the agit-prop documentary Rhodesia Countdown which advocated guerilla war against Ian Smith’s white minority government. As a result the filmmaker had to flee the country through Zambia and he completed the film in London. He would be under a banning order until 1980, when the country was freed. Ten years later he made Zimbabwe’s first feature film, the optimistic and uplifting old-fashioned romantic comedy Jit about a young man’s pursuit of a beautiful girl that is stymied by a pesky and boozy ancestral spirit. Amazed and angry at the deterioration of the country, Raeburn made Zimbabwe Countdown in 2003 a devastating accusation leveled against Robert Mugabe, the hero of the filmmaker’s youth whom he believes betrayed the ideals of the liberation of the country. Once again Raeburn is now persona-non-grata in the land where he grew up.

He has often faced flak about being a colonialist, a ‘Britisher’ making films about Africans, and now as he tackles an Afrikaans feature film the hecklers are once again having a field day. “Culture can be a rich source or a suffocating one in that it limits your views and your openness of mind. I have one foot in Africa where I was born and lived until I was 23, and one foot in the West. This can either make you somewhat schizophrenic and impotent even, or a tremendous asset. In my case I have sought to make it positive. My work is essentially a bridge between these two worlds. That is its basic purpose.”

Raeburn who co-wrote the screen adaptation of ‘Triomf’ with Michael Kohll says the book was given to him by someone who thought he was the right person to make a film of it, “I saw the potential of a fable about the end of an old world and the beginning of a new one (apartheid versus the free South Africa) all hidden away behind a universal story of a poor white and dysfunctional family. It’s very much in the mood of Sam Shepherd and Tennessee Williams. In fact Shepherd read the script and loved it. It’s got this heady mix of mad humour and dangerously emotional intensity that’s very unique.” He knows that any independent film has to have originality to survive, and with his own slightly schizophrenic personality he seems the perfect choice as a director for the piece.

Last year Raeburn’s second novel “Night of The Fireflies” was published and it gives some insights into the barmy yet intelligent, original and expressive mind of the filmmaker. Set in Maputo in 1984 it follows a film director tying to find his lost-lover in the war-torn city who ends up being the guest of a strange psychic man with healing powers.  Marrying the political with the personal, elements of science fiction with new-age spirituality it’s a completely original book, which has had its fair share of problems reaching a readership because it doesn’t subscribe to an easy genre.

The provocative, unusual nature of the book is something that the “Triomf” film shares says Raeburn, “The film like the book does not fall into a safe category. It is highly disturbing to everyone here or overseas. It is also politically incorrect to everyone. Here people say – we tried to get rid of these people for 3 centuries, why must we now see a film about them; overseas the film is not a costume drama or an action adventure of some sort, and it is not a film about bad rich whites and good poor blacks – so to some it is irrelevant! The combination of white trash and a guy screwing his mother has not attracted TV finance here or anywhere. What’s worse is that local investors in general do not feel this film will improve their social or corporate profile. But in the end it’s just the story of a family – you will be attached to some characters and afraid of others. It’s also a very funny story in a dark way and so in that sense it could take place anywhere in the world. I mean if a movie like this was set in America, no one would say it was letting down the country.”

It’s been an uphill struggle to raise finance and if it weren’t for European donor funds and an ‘angel’ private investor, who ironically is Zimbabwean, the film would not be approaching a start-date. At one point it was budgeted at over 6.5million Euros and Emma Thompson and Richard E. Grant expressed interest in playing roles; but Raeburn says unless he could tie down Nicole Kidman or Angelina Jolie the subject matter was just too difficult for financiers to swallow.

As a result he’s doing it on a shoestring – less than 10% of which it was originally going to cost. “There are 2 French funds and a Zimbabwean private backer. That’s it. The budget is so low I dare not tell anyone for fear of ridicule. But luckily the story is not expensive to shoot. I have very committed actors, a crew that is practically a family doing the film out of enthusiasm for the script, and marvelous locations in Joburg. So in this case it is absolutely possible to make a quality film on a shoestring. I have total freedom as there is no big producer breathing down my neck, so if the film fails I have no one else to blame!”

The tight budget also enables him to make the film in as authentic way as possible – without having to get stars like Tim Robbins go through half-baked dialogue coaching to play South African. Lionel Newton, Vanessa Cooke, Eduan van Jaarsfeldt and Paul Luckhoff play the Benades and last year all the actors pitched in to make a short promo of the film designed to attract finance. It was this promo that caught the attention of the private investor.

On the eve of the shoot Raeburn is upbeat, about his cast, his crew and the locations he has found in the real suburb in which the story is set. “It’s been terrific. If I had asked a studio boss to get a designer to build the main location as a set, it would not have been as perfect as what I have found under the Brixton tower here in Joburg. Everything I need is within 2 kilometres of the tower including our office and accommodation.”

The film has had a long prep and has been going on in a low-key fashion for several months. Rehearsals started on the 7th of August and the shoot begins in stages until September 20th when it goes into full production mode until November 3rd.  After spending years trying to raise the finance, Raeburn is determined to spend the right amount of time on his new cinematic idiosyncrasy in order to do the best job.