Visionby Russell Grant / 27.09.2013
Russell Grant sits down for a chat with Durban-based videographer and director Luke Mason as he comes to the end of a course at the DUT Video Technology in Durban and finishes off his first film Illana. They talk about about how Mason ended up behind the lens, whether the city of Durban is restrictive to creative talent, and whether the colour of the artist has any mark on their work.
MAHALA: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into film making?
LUKE MASON: I’m 26 years old and I live in the Durban city suburbs. I have been blessed with a really cool, artistic family and grew up as part of a tightknit tribe of umhlanga surfers: four like-minded families sharing a beach cottage on the South Coast. I did some travelling after school and a Social Sciences degree at UKZN to extend the vacation. I had aspirations to write a novel that collapsed in on themselves and I dropped out of Honours to bum around in stokkies and look miserable for a while. My friend Shani Van Straaten, the then Production Coordinator at Fly on the Wall Productions, gave me my first film job. I exploded onto the set of a big budget National Geographic commercial with mad wonderment in my eyes, the production assistant from hell, stepping on toes and climbing into armpits – pointing at a 5D and asking: “Does that thing shoot video?” Watching Tony Tex, Grant Appleton, Filipa Domingues and Bryan Little work together in pursuit of a precise vision was like whoonga: a life changing experience. I enrolled the very next month at DUT Video Technology in Durban, where I have been for the last 4 years.
This is your first big project. How has it been with getting funding, finding actors and crew etc.? We all hear about how difficult it is working as a ‘creative’ in Durban. That there’s no industry or support or talent. Have you found this to be the case?
It’s a fairly substantial piece, much bigger than anything I’ve attempted before, but it is by no means a ‘big project’ in filmmaking terms. Illana is my final student work and would have been an impossible undertaking without the support of Pete and Cary Burnett, DUT Video Technology and the cohort of young filmmakers with whom I have studied. The National Research Foundation awarded me a R40 000 scholarship, which, augmented by a bit of my own money made up the production budget for the film. For this small money we are running as a 12-18 person, 2 camera crew for 11 days – 8 of which are in the bag. The joke on set is that the movie is being produced by favours. People have been incredibly generous with their expertise and equipment and I have enjoyed having some of the best camera operators I know shooting second, and even third camera on the production. DT Broadcast continues to refuse to charge us for specialised mounts and equipment un-available from the DUT stores.
Production design was done almost exclusively in my mother’s garage and Durban fine artists Daniel “Mookie” Chapman and Ashley Jewnarain donated their work to the film just for the love. My key allies: AD/Script Editor/Production Designer Shanelle Jewnarain and DOP Jared Hinde are incredibly talented up-and-coming filmmakers from the DUT community who, working with a sharp, driven student team, have performed above and beyond all of my expectations. I cast my leads, professional actors Clinton Small and Jules Ruby by basically latching onto them and refusing to take no for an answer while my supporting roles came from Facebook casting calls and my phonebook. It is precisely because very little independent creative work is produced in Durban that a project like this is possible. We are hungry. Everybody is committed to their art and wants to produce the best work possible.
Without giving too much away, tell us a bit about the film and what inspired you to make it.
Illana is a love story set in a politically volatile South Africa. A violently twisting short film that deals with angst and loss and a moment of being shaken from selfishness and forced to reconnect with society. It is a metaphor for a growth moment in my life when I realised that the meaning I was searching for was rooted in the outside world and I would have to get out of my own head to find it.
Your lead actor says he’s been working (as an actor) in Durban for years and has never really struggled. I know this isn’t the case for everyone in this town, but do you think we might be moving forward as a creative industry finally?
Durban is a small pie. I have friends who eat very well here and others who don’t. The video industry mainly comprises corporate, soul for butter stuff. This place is a talent factory that stubbornly refuses to back itself. If you want to make it in Durban there is a feeling that you have to do it for yourself. In the last eight years I have watched scores of creatives try and cut through the jungle. Meters from the other side they run out of steam and can no longer swing the panga. They board airplanes and head to places where the roads are well maintained, they trade in their sherpas for a station wagon. By the time the next hopeful begins the jungle is back thicker than ever and we are left hoping he/she has a stronger arm. This is not for everybody. I am not an entrepreneur, I like station wagons. So I’m off to Cape Town for some big production experience. I love this place and want to come back here to make films, but I have huge lessons still to learn that the Durban industry does not have the scale to provide.
You’ve managed to rope in a great deal of Durban film talent to work on this film, all of whom you are on friendly terms with. How important is it for Durbanites to collaborate with other Durbanites to make creative visions come to fruition?
I suppose it varies depending on the discipline. Film, particularly fiction, is a massively collaborative medium, so a creative community (especially in the absence of large wads of money) is a necessity. It is always good to be pushed by the work of your peers in all artistic realms, to constantly strive to get better and to realise that these days the standard is international, not regional. The best thing about our small scene is the friendship and camaraderie we enjoy. The last thing Durban needs is another small territorial guppy with a superiority complex.
How much of this film is about Durban itself? There seems to be a vision of Durban which so many artists default to in this town; a Durban of bunny chows, sunny beaches, and interesting slang. How have you (if at all) tried to transcend this image in your film?
Durban is one of my favourite subjects. It’s a truly weird and wonderful place. This film is largely about physical and psychological divisions and is thus well housed in our fractured city. I have been more concerned with situating my characters within the context of South Africa’s pathological normality than trying to create a vision of Durban. My description of the city is thus heavily mediated by the psychological state of my protagonist. The politics are more important than the geography in this film. I am however painting with the colours provided.
A big problem for many artists, especially those coming from disenfranchised or disempowered backgrounds, is the expectation for their work to speak of their experiences: black people must write about racism and oppression, women about women’s rights or abuse. As a white artist it is somewhat easier to step out of your situation and write about whatever inspires you, but it can also be difficult (certainly not as difficult, to be sure) as a young white artist to speak about his own experience (especially a privileged one in South Africa), an expression which can often come across as narcissistic and dull. What have you tried to with this film in this regard?
I don’t think the colour of the artist should dictate the colour of the work, but in the same breath we have to speak from a place we know if we have any hope of encapsulating some truth. We are students of our own experience. The subject matter is here for all and equally valuable from all perspectives. What is important is the work. The experiences mentioned above are powerful, formative parts of our identity. They are South African experiences and thus the expectation that our art deals with them is not unfounded. What we would rather not see about our own country we queue around the block for if it comes out of Hollywood. I think that fostering a more representative artistic milieu is very important.
If the expression comes across narcissistic or dull it’s probably for a reason. Maybe it’s time for white South Africans to stop trying to step out of our situation whenever life in this country feels a little too robust. There’s an underwater world beyond our own reflections and it’s ridiculous that we shouldn’t learned how to swim. It’s part of the subject matter. I’ve tried to tell a human story: about love and weakness, struggle, courage, prejudice and resilience. I’ve tried to stay conscious of my writing and asked for lots of help.
This film must be taking up a huge chunk of your time. How are you managing to pay the bills while spending all these gruelling days on set?
My wonderful girlfriend Kathleen, our family and the Durban University of Technology. I have been granted an opportunity to pursue my work with unending support in my home life. Thanks guys.
What are your aspirations for this film? Here in Durban we’re blessed with the DIFF (Durban International Film Festival), so surely that must be a goal for next year? Any dreams of mainstream success with this one?
My first aspiration is that it not be kak. If it isn’t kak I would like to explore the idea of developing it into a feature. I would like to get it into some festivals and travel with it if possible: either that or I hide it under my mattress and act like nothing happened.
There’s been a lot of talk about the growth of our film industry in recent years, what with the studios currently being built at the old Natal Command. Are you optimistic about things? At least in terms of the money coming in?
Very optimistic! Durban is a great place to make films, especially in winter. A studio is a step in the right direction. Plus there might be a roller-coaster. Who doesn’t need a roller-coaster?
Does your film contain anything that might get the FPB’s back up? (I hope so)
Naaa, it might be a bit critical about certain aspects of the way things are done around here, but last time I checked, speech was still free.
* Images © Russell Grant