The comedy feature Material is being shot in and around Johannesburg this autumn. Directed by Craig Freimond, the film tells the story of two Muslim brothers whose lives are rent apart by circumstance and a son whose secret pastime puts him at odds with his father’s ambition. Anton Burggraaf caught up with comedian Riaad Moosa and executive producer Ronnie Apteker on location at the Oriental Plaza in Fordsburg.

It’s a stormy afternoon in late March and a corner of the Oriental Plaza has been transformed. What is normally Moosa’s Sales Room, est. 1958, is now Kaif & Sons, est. 1943, and the bustle of daily shoppers has been replaced by a troupe of techies, make-up artists, wardrobe assistants and a makeshift canteen. Cameras are rolling on a pivotal scene from a new movie Material, directed by Craig Freimond.

Filming in Fordsburg and surrounds, Material is inspired by the real life story of doctor-turned-comedian Riaad Moosa. It stars South African-born actor Vincent Ebrahim from the British comedy series The Kumars at No. 42. The film is backed by business entrepreneur Ronnie Apteker and the production house is Robbie Thorpe’s TOM Pictures.

Moosa settles down for our interview and is surprisingly calm, despite the thunderclaps and the onset of rain. We could be at a family lunch or an aunt’s birthday tea. In fact, as it slowly becomes apparent, this is the general mood on set. There is little of the habitual anxiety that typifies a film set, where creativity and reason can so often succumb to the pressure of the schedule.

Moosa is upbeat. He starts with the story, which is universal: a family grappling with issues like identity, responsibility and duty. In the 1970s, an Indian family fabric business is forced from its premises during apartheid relocation, west of Johannesburg. The brothers Kaif – Rafiq (Royston Stoffels) and Ebrahim (Vincent Ebrahim) – fall out over the new location of the shop which is to be the Oriental Plaza. According to Ebrahim Kaif, the Plaza is an apartheid creation. Riaad Moosa plays Ebrahim’s son, Cassim. Cassim has stayed true to tradition by working in the family shop but he is secretly flirting with a career as a comedian. This sets him on a collision course with his conservative father who thinks stand-up comedy is something that no self-respecting Muslim should do.

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Producer Ronnie Apteker, actor Riaad Moosa and director Craig Freimond on the Material location shoot at the Oriental Plaza.

The film’s seven-odd-year backstory is a fascinating tale of big ideas, chance meetings and dogged determination. The script had several incarnations and there was a period when it went onto the back burner, when Freimond took on his most recent project, the delightful Jozi (2009).

Moosa: “The film is a result of conversations that I – and to a certain extent Joey Rasdeen – had with Craig over time. The story is not autobiographical but many of the contexts and experiences have been incorporated, especially the conflict points. ” Rasdeen plays Yusuf, Cassim’s best friend. “Craig came up with a lot of ideas in the versions we have had. There have been so many drafts but finally we got it right when we made the story between the two brothers, rather than focus on the father-son issue. Doing that seemed to spark a lot of creativity.” The original idea was really Apteker’s who became fascinated by Moosa’s personal story when both were doing the stand-up circuit in 2001.

So much for the storyline.

There was a challenge ahead for the creators: cultural authenticity. Moosa grew up in Cape Town so his story does not transpose easily to a Johannesburg setting. The accent is different, the cultural references are foreign and the history is not as dense. Furthermore, what might prove acceptable to a non-Indian audience (and this film will have a general release) could easily be a big turn-off for Indian South Africans. Says Moosa: “We had to write in a way so that the script is accessible to a non-Muslim audience at all times but there will be textures that are so specific that only Muslims will get.” Not an easy task.

But luckily for Moosa, a chance meeting with playwright Atma Ayob set the wheels in motion. Moosa was performing in Laudium when Ayob approached him to act in a play she was writing. It was a light-bulb moment. “She told me she had a doctorate or a PhD in literature – I’m not sure now – and that she was a playwright and from Joburg,” remembers Moosa. “And something went ‘ka-ching’. I just had a sense. I said to her, “I don’t know about the play yet but we are doing this movie.” I sent her the script and the following day she replied with whole scenes re-written. She had injected a cultural flavour, which made me laugh because it was so real, something you can relate to.” In addition to tweaking of the cultural and social nuances, Ayob helped develop the female storylines.

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Material also stars South African-born actor Vincent Ebrahim from the British comedy series The Kumars at No. 42.

Over lunch Moosa and Freimond unpack the technical differentiators of a performance for the camera and one for the stage. Both men have a history of working in theatre but this is Moosa’s first film acting role. In the discussion, Moosa’s endearing curiosity is balanced by a zeal that is typical: this is a performer with humility and talent, a rare and lovely combination.

It is also clear that the working relationship between Freimond and his cast – one that other actors have mentioned – is a warm and accommodating one, and this is something Moosa returns to during our interview. “Craig takes what we offer to see what will work. He really respects what we say. He lets you play and add things. It’s very creative and there’s room for improvisation.”

It is only over lunch that I realise Moosa has been speaking in a Joburg accent throughout our conversation. I can’t help show my delight at being so effectively conned. Moosa laughs. “We speak differently in the Cape, it’s much more musical,” he says with a distinctive, colourful lilt, at once amusing. I am suddenly caught between reality and fiction and it is as funny as it is bewildering. I am tempted to say (but don’t): “Will the real Riaad Moosa please stand up?”

The rain eases a little and executive producer Ronnie Apteker takes a break from set. He has been snapping away at the offset action with his mik en druk camera with the energy of a schoolboy in a playground. Mandy de Waal, writing in Moneyweb, described him as “a hyperactive, restless, creative workaholic.” She hit the nail on the head.

But Apteker’s talk is serious. He agrees with Moosa on the collaborative nature of the project, but feels it is more a partnership. He is also animated about the personal investment that key players have made. For Apteker the success of a partnership is measured in the degrees of humility, passion and purpose; when are these all present, everyone is acting for the higher good. “This is what all entrepreneurs do. Then you have the potential for magic,” he says. And this is what he sees happening on this project.

The potential for making magic drew Apteker to film in the first place. “I love telling stories. I love hearing stories,” he says. “I love photography and I love making people laugh.” But this is recent; his origins are in IT. He made a mint starting up Internet Solutions, South Africa's first internet service provider, in 1993, at the beginning of the dotcom boom.

Apteker sees the film business is one big gamble. “It is quite unlike any other business,” he says. “In fact, it’s a casino. You roll the dice and takes your chances. People talk about an industry but I’ll tell you there’s no film industry in South Africa. There’s a production industry and there’s a TV industry, but the film business is in its infancy. If this was about money, I wouldn’t do it. This is a high-risk casino. This is about magic, and if we make that magic then the money will come.” He is no stranger to making magic – his previous film projects include Crazy Monkey (2005) and Jerusalema (2008).

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Freimond directing Royston Stoffels inside the shop.

As with most serious pundits, Apteker feels a good script makes the difference between a good movie and an excellent one. Getting the script right was paramount.

“The first thing for me was getting the script right, and it is a magnificent script,” he says with beaming confidence. “Craig has written the best piece of screen writing to come out of this country since the days of Jamie Uys. It’s not just a good script; it’s a world-class, powerhouse script. It leaves a lump in your throat. For me, that it moves me already makes it a success. The actual making of the film is almost secondary.” He pauses. “Okay, maybe I am being a bit hardegat.”

The next part of “the journey”, as Apteker calls it, is selling the film and here he feels there is no one better for the job than Anant Singh. Singh produced Freimond’s previous film Jozi together with Helena Spring and Robbie Thorpe. “If the film turns out as good as the script, and as good as Craig and the lead actors, we’ll have to be very tactical and sensible about when we will release the film. When will also depend on how we market the film and there are some seriously big brands that we are speaking to to endorse the film. The marketing on this will be twice as big as what we did with Crazy Monkey. This film is an easier sell any way because it caters for all ages and it’s a comedy.”

On the art of filmmaking, Apteker has a unique spin, which is part personal passion and part lucid business sense. Here he is drawing on a life philosophy.

“The spirit of filmmaking is entrepreneurial because you are making a product in an over-traded market. That’s what entrepreneurs do. They conceive, package, make, market and ultimately sell a product. Except that here it’s a very difficult game. It would be much easier for me to open a pizzeria – and I know nothing about pizza. People need to eat but people don’t need to see films.”

This is sober point. In Apteker’s world, good business is based on the principal of supply and demand: if you supply something that’s good people will buy it. But in the art world, good isn’t good enough, he says. “Film is a leisure activity. People are very selective with their books, CDs, theatre, television and movies. To make money you need to be brilliant. Tsotsi would never have made it here if it hadn’t been for the Oscar. It’s an art film. And no one builds a business to win Oscars.”

Back on set, lunch is over and the assistant director is calling the next scene. Moosa needs to prepare for a moment.

He offers a parting shot on his hopes for the film.

“I want audiences to experience something different, and I want them to laugh,” he says. “After seeing all some of the scenes – and I don’t have a film background – they are much more emotional than I imagined. It affects people: the family dynamics, brothers coming together, people being disowned. And then you’ve got the comedy aspect. It’s unique. I believe we’ll have a really good movie but of course I don’t know if it’s going to be magical, like Ronnie is always saying. We’ll have to wait and see.”

With that, the crew are back in business, and the rain comes down, again. Freimond stands in the distance looking out into a black Highveld sky. Making movies is never easy.

On a set as unruffled as this and cloaked in the commitment, passion and love of its creators, there is bound to be magic. No matter the weather.

Material shoots in Jozi in March and April, 2011 and will be released later in the year.

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The rain comes down.