Andrew Worsdale tries but admits to failing in an attempt to do a Gwen Gill – socialite column – at the premiere of Michael Raeburn’s ‘Triomf’ held late last month at Nu Metro’s Montecasino complex. Instead he looks at responses to the film and Raeburn’s distribution plans.

aug-triumf
Triomf Premieres In Fourways
Last month Michael Raeburn’s Triomf, his courageous low-budget adaptation of Marlene Van Niekerk’s award-winning novel, had its premiere at Nu Metro’s Il Grande cinema at Montecasino, hosted by the Gauteng Film Commission. The 509-seat cinema has the biggest commercial cinema screen in Africa – a massive 285m². Perhaps not the best choice for a film as unrelentingly intimate as Triomf but nevertheless the event was packed. What seems like all of Johannesburg’s serious showbiz ‘luvvies’ were there, alongside media people, literati, cast and crew, academics and musicians. I intended to do a Gwen Gill or socialite type write-up but I confess to having some stringy Calamari and abandoning my intentions, choosing to just watch the movie instead and soak up the atmosphere without taking notes.

The film is a hard one to get into; but once you’re in its strange world you’re sucked in for the mad ride. The novel delves into the dynamics of the dysfunctional poor-white Benade family on the eve of the 1994 elections.

Mol, Pop, brother Treppie and son Lambert are extreme people - rattled by alcoholism, mental illness and poverty. Mol has an incestuous relationship with her son, who in turn is slightly retarded and prone to epileptic 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. They are scruffy, tawdry, wretched and even ridiculous characters - a microcosm of history’s has-beens, and although Van Niekerk’s book is mercilessly funny it’s also touched by a heartbreaking poignancy.

The film took Raeburn eight years to make. Originally he had stars like Jessica Lange lined up for a big-budget version; but eventually he succumbed to a small budget and tenaciously got his adaptation in the can. The result is a movie that stays in the mind long after one's seen it - it still reverberates in my mind - always a great sign.

It’s a textbook continuation of the themes Raeburn has dealt with in all his work – living on the edge, the personal vs. the political and psychological breakdown against social upheaval. An audacious, dramatically potent flick it’s polemical yet poetic and hallucinogenic at times as it explores identity, madness and family ties.

In many ways it reminded me of the American Film Theatre series from the seventies, conceived to merge the worlds of film and theatre. The premise was to take dramatic works of art and turn them into cinematic works of art by broadening out the action, thereby appealing to lovers of theatre and film. The result was amazing performances from Lee Marvin in The Iceman Cometh and Alan Bates in Simon Grey’s Butley, the only film directed by playwright Harold Pinter.

In Triomf, vigorous performances from Vanessa Cooke, Lionel Newton, Eduan Van Jaarsveldt, Pam Andrews, Obed Baloyi and Paul Luckhoff give South African film characters we have never been brave enough to show until now. The movie was first seen locally at the National Arts festival in Grahamstown and Theresa Smith of The Star wrote: “The film has a deliberately claustrophobic feel that emphasises the family's insecurity, which is leavened somewhat by some hilarious comical moments. The acting is unfailingly strong, the language is sharp (both subtitles and original Afrikaans) and the raw, unflinching way the story is thrown at you makes stuff like Poena is Koning look like amateur hour. There is no way this film would've been made 15 years ago, but now, South Africa is going to have to get ready for some self-reflection beyond politics. In a way this film takes what Bunny Chow started even further - it gives local filmmakers permission to make films about ourselves that aren't predicated on truth and reconciliation. It may have a political angle, because of when it is set, but ultimately it's about how secrets and lies destroy a family, and by extension, society at large.”

Others weren’t so kind.  CUE, the National Arts Festival Mag, has a website and ‘Lindsay’ offered these ‘insights;’ into the movie on its blog page – “I seriously hated this movie. The whole Sophiatown-Triomf-Sophiatown topic is such an interesting one…the film just had weird hallucinations, incest, drunkards and (made) me feel seriously sick at times.”

Candace Whitehead of Die Burger was also disturbed, “I’m still trying to decide what to do with Michael Raeburn’s Triomf. I thought that after a few days I would be able to digest what I had seen, and come to terms with it, but going over it in my head I’m still not comfortable with it. Throughout the film I was disgusted and shocked, and after the first hour I sank into my seat and felt sick. All the hype before the premiere suggested that this film was ‘lekker, scary, funny’, I only found it scary.”

Author Marlene van Niekerk, however, liked it and sent Raeburn a note: “I congratulate you on a very interesting and also extremely funny movie! Please congratulate the actors on my behalf, after all your struggles and hard work you can be proud of a very satisfying result.”

It did have screenings in Cannes where Michel Amarger of Radio France International neatly summed up the film’s individuality: “This new film by Michael Raeburn is a pearl, and one of the most vibrant signs of the sort of films that can be made in South Africa today. At last a digital movie designed for the big screen, with well-constructed images, subtle colorisation, individualistic framing and actors directed with a master’s touch. The characters are as truculent as they are touching. The tension is constant from beginning to end. In this explosive spectacle, spectators are compelled to question their own impulses and uncontrolled emotions. By daring to make this film, Raeburn shatters the norms of South African cinema. People used to television will receive an electric shock… Triomf is the result of independent production that can regenerate the standard landscape of South African cinema.”

I asked Raeburn about the reception the movie has received and he said that audiences generally felt relief that the subject is not a politically correct moral story, and that, “after 14 years we are now ready to look at our society from inside and do stories like American, Japanese, European cinema would do. Anything that grabs you and you think might grab the audience.  A white middle class lady said she never knew such people existed and was quite horrified. The Afrikaners I spoke to were glad to see ‘everything hanging out’ with no shame. And some black South Africans laughed a lot which was very good to see for me as I find the film very funny in parts. I guess they are more distant from the subject matter so they feel free to laugh, while some whites feel embarrassed to be associated with such low lifers. Journalist/Editor Laurice Taitz said it was like watching a car accident – I guess she doesn’t get the chance to see many! She found it not at all funny, whereas the writer of the book, Marlene van Niekerk said her family was rolling about laughing on the floor through the whole show! So basically it takes all sorts, as they say.”

Ster-Kinekor rejected the movie, reckoning that it won’t recoup the cost of its release. That’s a massive pity; I honestly believe that there’s an audience for the film on a limited release. Then again, the so-called art circuit is not particularly arty or groundbreaking at all. Raeburn says: “We are talking to all the players at the moment to find the best way to nurse a special and very different, one-off movie into life. No point blasting it away with 40 prints. No one has considered this: South Africa is like the USA – it’s divided into provinces (states) with local press and many miles between cities.  I see no problem opening in Joburg before Christmas, and then waiting till after the summer and beach season in the Cape to open in June. The publicity on this film will be considerable – all the press will have something to say. So people will be waiting to see it for a while yet.  I need to find the best time and the best cinema to show it in, town by town, and build on this for the DVD release and broadcast prospects.”

In the meanwhile he’s taking the film to festivals around the world. I asked him for any general comments and tips he had for young filmmakers desperate to get their movies made and seen. His reply is inspiring: “The reactions make me realise that Triomf will certainly stir people up, move them, amuse them – and therefore inevitably through the press and by word of mouth attract a broad audience. And I hope it will encourage young filmmakers to do their intimate powerful stories (and counter-balance the over abundance of TV’s safe and sanitised drama) of which there is no shortage in turbulent SA. I want artists to acknowledge that this country is extremely rich in unique stories – more so than Europe, for example, where you get this feeling that everything has been said and the audience is saturated by artistic works and therefore is blasé and bored by everything including their own lives. I would like young filmmakers to make no compromises but to plunge into the particular worlds that they know best and tell it as it is. I had no one telling me what to do with Triomf – no producer breathing down my neck – I was free to make a film with no holds barred. The price I paid for this was very low funding.”

After his eight-year struggle to make an epic movie on the shoestring budget of R5 million, Raeburn says his next movie will be “a very expensive film with lots of crew”. And hopefully better calamari at the premiere.

For more on the film and Raeburn go to: www.triomf-movie.com and www.michaelraeburn.com