There’s a Lawrence Arms* song that goes, “There’s a park in the city where I used to go, but now it’s covered with fences and cops and lightposts. And I’d never go back if anything was the same, but it kills me to know that it’s changed.” That’s what it was like going back to Westville Boys High to meet up with Durban filmmaker and music journalist, Claire Angelique.
On my way in I passed an old Golf GTI with the license plate “SLEAZY–ZN.” “Ha, for all their posturing, they’ve still got some guy from Pinetown parked outside looking for a fight,” I thought. Inside the concrete monster, barred corridors exposed battered-looking kids limping and nursing sprained necks with icepacks, carrying “Rugby Festival 2009” bags and a look of destined-to-fade stoic importance. After the My Black Little Heart screening, to an auditorium full of slack-jawed, gawking mini-suits, Claire Angelique got in the old Golf GTI and I followed her to Waxy ‘O Connors for the interview.
I don’t know any full-blown addicts. Well, not that I know of – unless you’re talking about caffeine, nicotine and prescription medication. Sure, everyone’s a dabbler (some more than others), but everyone hasn’t been gang raped three times and hooked on hard drugs since they were 12 years old. So I didn’t know the protocol. “Do I offer her a joint?” “Should we really be drinking?” “Is she on a program?” I thought.
But Claire Angelique’s the kind of person that makes cigarettes disappear like they never existed in the first place and sets you at ease with a surprisingly (no, miraculously) un-jaded and pure-looking smile, casually knocking back anecdotes like the time she fucked up her knee skating in London and was rescued by a hooded stranger. The stranger turned out to be Cedric Bixler–Zavala, who sat her down on The Mars Volta tour van to recover.
Claire hates the word “underbelly.” “Because once you use it, there’s nothing else,” she explains. But My Black Little Heart is exactly that. It’s a “semi-autobiographical” tale of hopelessness and loneliness, fuelled by tik, heroin, cocaine, AIDS, muti killings, and the darkest parts of Durban. But the word underbelly works just as well to describe the tormented fragility and naïve innocence encased within all the bedsores, needles, exploitive pornography and violent males. A weak spot, an Achilles heel, that fragile part of the Death Star that leads to its destruction – better?
Claire wrote My Black Little Heart in “2005/2006,” the film was shown at the Durban Film Festival in 2008, is-and-has-been toured internationally, and currently, she’s on an educational, anti-drugs screening tour, visiting places like The Chatsworth Anti Drugs Forum, Toyota, Standard Bank and Westville Boys High – apparently, Toyota and Standard Bank have both got huge drug problems with their staff.
“The Chatsworth screening was hectic,” she says. “Everyone was like, ‘This is pornography! This is filth! This was supposed to be an educational film!’ Then some chick ran up to front and started screaming, ‘Wake up! It’s happening in the Muslim homes! It’s happening in the Christian homes!’ That was cool. I was like, fuck yeah!”
So, why did you make the film? Did you just want to tell a good story, educate people, or work through your own personal demons?
Something just clicked. They always say, write what you know. And slowly, from all my journals and notes – I love writing. I write all the time. I’ve been using my 2003 diary for the past six years – the story of these two girls (Chloe and Katie) started to come together. My next film, Ntabamhlope/White Mountain, is a political thriller about South Africa’s biological warfare program during Apartheid.
Sounds a bit “mature?”
It’s a film about chemicals again; only this time it’s anthrax… Ha ha. But it feels like the film I want to make when I’m 55, not right now. I still want to write about youth culture. So I’m also working on a film called Umbilo Road, that’s still about Durban, still about characters in Durban, because right now, that feels like what I’m most in touch with. There’s just too many of these amazingly interesting situations, and colourful situations, to not make a film about them.
And where did you get your inspiration for My Black Little Heart? Are you a fan of Kids? Trainspotting?
I love Harmony Karine. Big influence. He wrote Kids and I love him as a filmmaker. I loved Julien Donkey–Boy. Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot Julien Donkey–Boy and just won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, shot my film. When I saw Julien Donkey- Boy, I was like, “That’s my cinematographer!” And I got him. I also love the films of Federico Fellini, Fritz Lang, Andrei Tarkovsky… Directors that decided to do things differently and shook everything up on its head. The way I made My Black Little Heart is very different to other South African films. I purposefully went out there to try and destroy the notion of what a “South African” film looks like.
And this newfound role of educator? Was that always your intention?
I’m pretty honest about my drug usage. I’ve never, like, hidden it. I’m addicted to heroin, I’ve been trying to get off it for years and years, and I don’t want other young girls to go through the same thing. This is the whole dichotomy, I suppose: I don’t want them to go through it, but it’s fine for me to let myself get fucked up all the time. But I don’t want them to go down that road, even though I’m still travelling down it myself. I do still have my misadventures in town, but it’s in a different context. I’m like, “What am I doing buying smack from the same guy I was buying from seven years ago when I was hustling?” Now I can rock up in my car, with some nice threads on and a couple thousand in the bank. But it’s still the same dirty job.
And is the plan to tour the film until somebody picks it up?
When a film’s finished, you need to get a sales agent. We were lucky, because just from reading the script, way before we’d even started shooting, Trust Film Sales bought into the film. And they’re the largest film sales company in the world. At the moment, there are some really bad legalities involved in the film, between the producers. There’s a lot of infighting over money and who owns what, which has stopped the film, really, from having a smooth ride. So my agent started letting me do these school tours, because once the film’s sale agent sells it to a distributor, then the distributor owns it and I don’t have a say, and I can’t go around making these kind of personal connections.
And are a lot of the characters in the movie the real deal?
Yeah. When we were casting the Nigerian drug dealers, I went and spoke to my dealers and we had these long discussions. Some of the situations we got ourselves in were pretty scary. There’s a scene in the film where Katie drops a letter off at the escort agency. I wanted to use this place, because I’d been involved in that area and knew some of the women, but the owner wouldn’t let us shoot. In my head, the scene had to be shot there. So there were two hours when the owner wasn’t there, and a gung-ho crew/cast pulled in, right by the harbour. I was paying girls out of my own pocket. Then we got a phonecall that the owner was coming back.
The only professional actors are the rapists. I needed professionals for that scene – it’s a hardcore scene. It was pretty funny though, I was lying there naked, covered in fake cum and they’re going, “Are you alright? Do you want some coffee? This scene’s so hectic, I’m so sorry.” I ended up talking them through it. And Mr. Leigh, Chris Hurst, he’s the head of the drama department at UKZN, and my NA sponsor. He’s a real live actor.
What about your family, have they seen the film?
Funny story. When I came back from Denmark with the completed film, my parents hadn’t seen anything. They knew I was making a film etc. etc., but I needed them to see it. So I went to their home, dropped it off and left. I went straight to the bar and got pissed. I got home two hours later, knocked on the door, and my dad answered. I was like “Soooooo?” But he just gave me a huge big hug and said, “You’re so brave.” My mom was pretty startled, but lately, she’s become a very aggressive fan of the film. It’s pretty difficult being that honest with your parents.
In between the journals, film screenings and twilight bridge smokes up in Assegay, in a lot of ways Claire Angelique seems like the loneliest girl in the world. When I asked her if her heart was really black she replied, “Yes, broken, black and bruised,” and dragged hard on her (or rather my) cigarette, following her answer with silence and breaking eye contact for the first time. I didn’t know what to say. Luckily, the manager was a friend of mine and we got the drinks for free.
*”Quincentuple Your Money” – Cocktails & Dreams (2005)