Bright Featureby Sihle Mthembu / 21.10.2010
“I was five when I consciously watched my first film – a spaghetti Western called The Unholy Four,” says maverick South African film-maker Jahmil XT Qubeka. It was a turning point. He spent the next decade and a half obsessively watching movies. “I was eventually a walking catalogue of film. From old classics like Citizen Kane to the latest Hollywood junk. I even watched films no kid should have seen, like the banned version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”
Born in the Karoo, he grew up in East London and is rapidly becoming one of the most intriguing and exciting young director’s in the country. Qubeka won the Peabody award in 2005 for an Aids documentary he made for Sesame Street. He’s worked on feature documentaries that have been screened at the New York African Film Festival and LA Pan African (Zulu Meets Jazz which explored the libratory thrust of the music in Durban’s lokshn’s), a short film called Shogun Khumalo is Dying (which looked soulfully at the great beyond), and wrote indie favorite uMalusi. His feature debut this year A Small Town Called Descent – which had our own portly Roger Young evoking Spike Lee and Sergio Leone at the Durban International Film Festival earler this year – takes in ethnic tension and murder and opens the way to more provocative local cinema.
His work is vital and restless. “There are so many (breakthroughs), as I grow as a filmmaker, and more importantly as a person. I keep experiencing what you term ‘breakthroughs’ that surpass the significance of previous ones”. Qubeka is counting on his debut feature to really get his career up and running internationally. Set in a rural town called Descent during the 2008 xenophobic attacks, the film tracks a trio of Scorpion investigators probing a disturbing murder-rape. Qubeka was inspired not solely by the appalling attacks but the way those attacks were handled by the media and how many South Africans’ outrage wasn’t heard. “For me it was a call to arms, those Xenophobic attacks. Most South Africans didn’t have a voice, or the means to express their condemnation of what happened. I chose to pick up my laptop and write!”
A Small Town Called Descent effectively mixes in documentary techniques to situate the reality of the story. But Qubeka struggled with the conceit. “I never felt it to be quite honest,” he says. “Docs and features are different disciplines, requiring different skill sets, but for me its all Cinema! As long as you’re telling a story using moving pictures – I see it all as movies. A lot of my documentary work has classic cinematic qualities.” Many of Qubeka’s techniques (from voice over narration to archive footage) show up the fluency he enjoys between film practices. Maintaining creative control throughout the production process was crucial, but tricky. ”You want creative control,” he says, “because you want to fulfill the vision that you have. Also no one else can be blamed! But the pressure of maintaining your vision often means your own judgment gets clouded.” Those pressures are part and parcel of the tough South African film industry. “The schedule was tight and the budget was even tighter. We constantly had to think on our feet.”
The great local cast helped. Paul Buckby. Vusi Kunene, Fana Mokoena, and Hlubi Mboya. “I love actors,” Qubeka says. “Their personalities and temperaments fascinate me. Each individual requires their own unique form of communication.”
And what of the critics? “The response has been good,” Qubeka says. “We didn’t win anything in Durban but there was a special request for an extra screening of the film by the public so that was very encouraging.” It’s currently doing the world festival circuit and should have a wide national release in February next year. Qubeka is disarmingly upbeat about the future of the South African film industry. “There are young guns everywhere, youth with talent and drive. As a local filmmaker friend of mine said to me recently when I asked how’s business, he replied: “the feature is bright!”