Tell us about the film? What inspired you to make it?
Back of the Moon is a film in the gangster genré with a love story at its heart. It has its roots thirty three years back in 1986 when I joined the Junction Ave Theatre Company who were workshopping a play about Sophiatown. I knew nothing of the place so I immersed myself in research. I went to the city library and read every fifties Drum magazine I could find. We interviewed journalists, politicians, musicians, house-owners and members of the legendary gangs. It was a heady mix of characters and I was fascinated by the life and anarchic vigour of the place.The play, which was a celebration of Sophiatown and a protest against the removals, turned out to be a big hit and travelled all over the world.Thirty years later I got the opportunity to revisit Sophiatown in a telenovela for Mzansi called The Road. We had these incredible sets and great wardrobe and when it was done my partner Desireé Markgraaff suggested that we make a feature quickly before it was all dismantled.
Why should people see the film?
It immerses you in that fifties world in a gripping and moving tale with universal themes.It is a brew both brutal and tender. There are superlative performances, brilliant cinematography and art direction – and great music from the era.
How is it “different” to other films in this genre?
It is a film about potential stifled and wasted by Apartheid – men preying on each other in a “pressure cooker” situation and a feisty, talented woman surviving their abuse by any means necessary. Ultimately though it is a love story which transcends this darkness.
Tell us about the people involved – actors, and producers.
Without exception it is a brilliant cast, most of whom I had worked with on The Road. Moneoa Moshesh who plays the female lead is a great musician who acted on The Road for the first time and blew us away. Our male lead, Richard Lukunku had had a brief role on The Road but he was so compelling and we had such a good time working together that I immediately knew that I wanted to work with him again. We wrote Ghost, the main antagonist’s role for Warren Masemola but he was not available when we had to shoot. I had met Lemogang Tsipa who had always played sympathetic roles but I suspected that he could go dark. He sure can. He was brilliant.
Desireé Markgraaff was both the initiator and the enabler of the project. I did not want to repeat the narrative of the play and when I expressed an interest in doing a gangster narrative, it was the enthusiasm of my friend, William Kentridge, associate producer Kutlwano Ditsele and the very eager cast that propelled the project forward. It was a totally collaborative process. Libby Dougherty wrote the screenplay but Richard Lukunku and Moneoa Moshesh were already on board as the leads and they weighed in on the writing. I had Zeno Petersen, our brilliant cinematographer and Dyllan Lloyd, our great production designer at my side. The editor Megan Gill returned from LA and brought her magic. Finally, it is Anant Singh and Videovision’s warm embrace of the finished film that has propelled it on to the screens.
Tell us about the relevance of making a film about Sophiatown?
Sophiatown was the lively but rough home to a diverse community close to Joburg’s city centre. Musicians, journalists and gangsters rubbed shoulders with politicians. In the famous taverns such as Back of the Moon and Thirty Nine Steps, people would drink illegally and debate the issues of the day. Political rallies that called for opposition to Apartheid were held at Freedom Square. The Nationalist government viewed it as a hotbed of opposition and targeted it for removal. The day before the first removal was scheduled to happen, hundreds of police descended on Sophiatown at dawn surprising the community. Before opposition could be organized, they forced people out of their homes. Over a period of five years from February 1955 they relentlessly evicted people street by street and demolished their houses. They renamed the area Triomf and white people moved in.
The film is named after a Sophiatown jazz club. Tell us about the music in the film.
In the soundtrack we used the great music of the period – the Manhattan Brothers, Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and the Harlem Swingsters amongst others. Philip Miller composed a hauntingly beautiful score reminiscent of those in the film noir films that the Sophiatown residents so loved to watch. And Sjava and Kwesta collaborated for the first time on a fabulous song, part fifties mbaqanga, part hip hop, for the end credits, which in a way appropriately sums up the spirit of the film.
Any other interesting bits-‘n-bobs that would help the punting of the film?
Back of the Moon was made with a vigour worthy of Sophiatown. We shot it in three hectic weeks – the last day was 18 hours long. Some of my favourite scenes have little to do with me. They are rooted in ideas offered by cast and crew. There were a lot of big fight scenes which usually take a lot of time to orchestrate and film, but the actors were incredible and gave their all. I was constantly terrified they would genuinely hurt each other.
Back of the Moon opens at cinemas in SA on the 6 September 2019.