Jozi Vibesby Andy Davis / 25.02.2010
There is a default position when watching South African comedies, invariably, you will cringe more than you laugh, and wish you could dissolve yourself into a puddle on the floor and ooze out of the movie theatre, undetected, to the safety of your computer where you can create some cyanide criticism that will hopefully crush the spirit and end the career of the film maker. It’s not intentional, it’s just that so many South African comedies are such kak. In fact it’s almost a formula that the only way to enjoy locally made comedy films is to just watch the trailer, because they’re basically the best parts condensed, a highlights reel with all the genuinely funny gags. The movie itself just stretches them out between long moments of cinematic gawkiness, leaving you to ponder your navel, your popcorn and scheming that perhaps South African comedy should be a 30 second discipline.
So it was under the weight of this incredible burden that I found myself in the preview for a new comedy called Jozi, written and directed by Craig Freimond. I was quite impressed with Freimond’s debut, Gums and Noses when it aired late night on M-Net. A cautionary and riotous tale of an advertising creative whose life descends into chaos due to his addiction to the booger-sugar. Now there’s a story I’ve witnessed in reality, several times over. Although clumsy in parts, it had moments that sparkled and a kind of madcap energy throughout. He also didn’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of the South African experience that helped place the film’s suburban white frivolity into a more real context. A context that is AWOL in most South African comedies and totally overbearing in most South African dramas, and Freimond seems to be able to tread that line quite carefully. I had also seen a few episodes of Sorted, his TV show starring Lionel Newton. So I was intrigued to see what this new project was all about.
Then Craig Freimond contacted me directly and asked me to watch and review his film. Which is a good ploy, really. Then, when I failed to pitch up at the screening, he called me up and politely asked, “where are you?” It was unnerving having your integrity questioned by a director whose career I thought I’d have to assassinate. But he was intent on getting me to see this film. And man I’m happy he did. Because truth be told, I loved it.
Jozi’s set up is simple, a scriptwriter James, played by Carl Beukes (guy with the flaming sleeve from the Windhoek ad), who, again, develops a deep love for the booger-sugar, gets writer’s block and it all spirals out of control. It’s a milieu that is familiar to many urban South Africans, mainly whiteys, who find some kind of gainful employment in the creative industries. There’s a realism and attention to detail throughout that helps to locate the comedy, like the scene where he hauls his dealer out of church on Sunday morning to score some coke. The dealer admonishes him, before handing over the packet. It’s both recognisable, realistic and absurd. And in the execution it’s also damn funny. Eventually our man James is so coked-up and full of himself, that while ranting about how Johannesburg is contributing to his writer’s block, he throws his producer’s laptop out the window. This leads to all his friends getting together and performing an “intervention” and packing him off to Daspoort – a notorious drug rehabilitation center that kind of sounds like Noupoort.
“Gums and Noses was obviously very much about that.” Says Craig Freimond in response to how his movies always seem to hinge on the abuse of cocaine. “Because there was just so much of it going around at one time, that I just found it funny especially the little behavioural things that go on around it. In Jozi, the cocaine reference was just purely incidental. We had this idea about a guy who goes on a binge, but we also had this friend who had been in Noupoort and when we were scratching around for ideas early on, he had a long meeting with us and told us all about his experiences at Noupoort – and it was so ridiculous and funny and visual – in a way we fell in love with it. The coke thing just sort of fulfilled our purpose, with a guy who thought he was king of the world when in fact he really wasn’t.”
It’s in rehab where James meets Lionel Newton’s character Martin. By this stage, I must admit I’m starting to laugh out loud. And I’m a bit surprised. The script is tight, the action is frenetic and each scene is set up in a way that delivers a punch, and it really feels like the movie is building momentum. Comedy, unlike any other genre, really relies on its structure. That and the fact that Jozi has a really tight and well-developed script, but still seems to allow the characters to play and improvise with their roles. As Craig Freimond puts it, “One of the most important things with comedy is to try and create a sense of calm and play and freedom when you’re shooting under fucking arduous conditions. So you’re trying to create this oasis in the tsunami of a film set. To try and shield them from the pressure so that they can kind of do what they do. And that’s often where you get stuff that’s off the page. A good example is the scene when Lionel is pulling the vegetables out of his undies, I couldn’t stop Carl laughing in that scene. And if you watch the film again you’ll see he’s just corpse-ing. He can’t keep a straight face. But that kind of energy is what you’re looking for, but you’ve got to manage it carefully.”
After a few months James, with Martin’s help, manages to escape the rehab and returns to the city and takes up residence in his parents’ empty house, which they are trying to sell now that they’ve emigrated to Australia. His girlfriend has moved in with his ex-friend and nemesis, Carl, played to perfection by a smarmy Nick Boraine. James vows to win her back, and finally lands a job at his old company writing for a popular sitcom Jozi Jives, a kind of saccharine faux-rainbow nation inspired sitcom that acts as an interesting foil throughout the film because it draws parallels between stereotypical South African comedic situations and the more realistic action in the film, which more closely mirrors the reality you and I are used to. So the film starts working on a meta-fictional level, at once critiquing and commenting on the state of South African comedy and the fake, constructed ideals of post-apartheid nationalism, which becomes a larger statement about the quintessential isolationist Johannesburg suburban experience. So it can get quite deep, if you’re that way inclined. But it never labours these points. It just sets up the action in this milieu without really getting bogged down in the politics. And it keeps you laughing. That’s where much of the freshness of this film resides, in the skirting between the heaviness of our social reality and being playful at the same time.
“I love the idea that on one level we’re deconstructing this idea of a forced Rainbow Nation thing, but then on another level we’re reinforcing it in a way that we all sort of understand, that it is who we are. ” Admits Freimond. “But just because that is who we are, doesn’t have to mean we have to have it forced down our throats in a way that becomes self-conscious with these sitcoms and the Castle ads and whatever. I understand the theory behind it, but in a comedic sense those things are dead because they’re based on the premise that it’s all fine, when it’s not all fine. It’s complicated.”
Another aspect is Jozi’s meticulous attention to detail. Throughout the film there are a series of really great cameos from some of South Africa’s most recognisable actors including Robert Whitehead (Barker Heyns from Isidingo) as James’ father in Australia and a master stroke with Tobie Cronje as the rehab’s psychologist who tends to quote cheesy song lyrics as inspirational therapy.
“Ja, you often get this thing in South African films where people take a huge amount of care choosing the leads but as soon as you get to the second and third tier you’ve got these actors who are actually damaging the movie.” Admits Freimond. “They’re not adding anything. I think movies like this are a collective effort and every little cameo has to add something, so that it builds up to a whole. I really hammer away at that. So the idea for getting Tobie in there was really important. And he did it really well. You think it’s such a tiny little part, that it’s almost inconsequential but it ends up being really important. You know if it’s done right, it keeps the ball in the air, as opposed to dropping it. And that’s something I’m really big on.”
Finally, and I’ll stop gushing in about two sentences, the film has a kicking original, all South African soundtrack featuring high quality tunes from the likes of The Black Hotels, Desmond and the Tutus, HHP, Laurie Levine and aKing, an emotional sucker punch that deepens the experience, locates the film and lends a kind of cultural connectedness to what you’re seeing on screen. By the end of the show, you can’t really help but smile. In fact, I’d like to see it again.