Rapulana Seiphemo, Jann Turner and Kenneth Nkosi
Rapulana Seiphemo, Jann Turner and Kenneth Nkosi

Robyn Dixon of the Los Angeles Times profiles South African filmmaker Jann Turner, whose father died in her arms from an apartheid assassin's bullet when she was 13 and who now, 33 years later, directs gentle comedies about the country she loves.

This is the birth of a South African movie, at a kitchen table in suburban Johannesburg. Two black men and a white woman work a comic moment. Their voices compete, louder and faster. They backtrack and rework the scene, exhilarated, laughing.

Kenneth Nkosi and Rapulana Seiphemo, screen stars in South Africa, spark as if they’re lightning charged. Jann Turner sits at her laptop, eyes dancing, fingers tripping over the keyboard, trying to keep up.

The film’s called Fifty Coffins: A Love Story. As they banter, a character’s name morphs from Lazeeboy to Zeeboy. A finale emerges from thin air, as Nkosi and Seiphemo leap to their feet, their voices husky with excitement, improvising a scene involving coffins and crooks and rival brothers.

With the kitchen door open, the air is heavy and warm. Beyond a curtain of lush foliage a swollen storm cloud threatens to burst.

For a few hours in Turner’s kitchen, the contagious disillusionment of post-apartheid South Africa evaporates. The sad, exhausting stories of crime and racism are chased away by the sound of people laughing.

This is the South Africa – ordinary, decent, human – that Turner’s father died for.

Rick Turner was a banned anti-apartheid academic. Early one damp tropical morning nearly 33 years ago, he was shot as he stood in his daughters’ bedroom in Durban.

“He died in my arms,” Jann Turner says. “I was 13.”

Her sister, Kim, was 9. The girls lived mostly in Cape Town with their mother after their parents divorced, and were visiting their dad for the holidays. He’d been planning to take them for a beach walk, if only the rain would stop.

The family believes it was a political assassination.

South Africa is filled with so much pain that it often bleeds into the arts. Turner and her two partners’ production company, Stepping Stone Pictures, makes films that are funny and light on the surface, with dark underlying themes.

The idea for their first movie, White Wedding, written by the three friends, starring Nkosi, 37, and Seiphemo, 43, and directed by Turner, was born on a trip the trio took several years ago. They stopped for gas and realized that people were staring. Especially a tall white Afrikaans-speaking man, who looked more concerned than most.

“And this big Afrikaner guy comes up and asks me if I’m all right,” Turner says.

At a restaurant stop for lunch, the bathroom sign still said “whites only”.

“It didn’t feel threatening. It just felt humorous and sad,” she says.

White Wedding, which was in independent US theatres this fall and will be released on DVD later this month, is nominally about a road trip: Nkosi’s character, Elvis, is on the way from Johannesburg to his wedding in Cape Town with his best man, Tumi, played by Seiphemo, amid setbacks, conflicts and doubts that he’ll ever make it. Along the way, the two men pick up a young white English woman and a goat.

But it’s really about South Africa’s race relations.

The low-budget film, hugely successful here, captures some typical South African moments.

There’s the signpost with arrows in opposite directions for the same place. There’s the scene that plays on the fact that when you turn up in a remote African village with an “appointment”, it doesn’t mean the person you’ve driven hours to meet will actually be there. In this case the main protagonists finally get to a remote village to meet an elderly African woman, only to find she’s “gone out” and no one knows when she’ll return. And there’s the hostility when two black men walk into a hotel with a white woman.

“The story is South African,” Turner says, “and every interaction in this country is loaded with issues of race.”

As friends and creative partners who happen to be of different races, Turner, Nkosi and Seiphemo have had their share of racial tension. After a long hot day’s filming on their second movie, Paradise Stop, which will be released in South Africa in March, the cast and crew were lounging in the foyer of their hotel in Limpopo province. They all looked sweaty, tired and dirty.

The hotel owner walked in and eyed them disapprovingly.

“They all stink,” she said loudly in Afrikaans, “even the whites.”