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ZULU?

by Paul Blom / 20.10.2014

When I first heard about this new movie, I found it strangely interesting that someone would remake Zulu, the mid 60s film starring Michael Caine, which was set during the Rorke’s Drift battle between the British and Zulus. But, as it turned out this film is based on the Grand Prix winning 2008 French novel Zulu by Caryl Ferey. The movie has been retitled City Of Violence in some parts of the world, including South Africa, which director Jérôme Salle is not too happy with. The film blends a heavy concoction of new South African situations of crime, drugs, gangs, and personal demons, with remnants of apartheid-era atrocities.

It closed the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and is now hitting our screens with its more ‘commercial’ title.

What makes this significant for us is the fact that what is essentially a cop thriller plays off against the backdrop of the familiar Cape Town setting, throwing local issues under the spotlight with a Western cinema veneer. Our history of political movies defined our industry for a long time, but it seldom let the issues be a subtext.

I met up with the French director, Jérôme Salle, who returned to Cape Town for some pre-release press, and he shed some light on his latest effort.

Paul Blom: Not many filmmakers get to jump straight into their positions as director. How did you reach this point?

Jérôme Salle: I got into making movies a while back. I stopped school early, at 16, and eventually became a press photographer for a while. At around the age of 30, I started getting a good salary as an art director, and I thought that if I don’t stop this now it will become my job forever. I wanted to tell stories and started to write scripts and got going that way.

The not-so-great movie The Tourist, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, was based on your very first movie Anthony Zimmer

Yes, after my movie a Hollywood studio bought the rights from me to make this big production with great stars and director, a wonderful location… but I don’t know what happened there!

What attracted you to the book Zulu?

My editor said I should read it, he thought it would make a great movie for me. It was already optioned by a French company. I read the book and loved it, but thought I’d never be able to make a movie of it – it’s a South African story. About two and a half years ago the producer told me he’d pay for my ticket to fly to South Africa and check it out. I’d never been to the country and you can’t say no to this kind of offer, so I spent a few weeks in SA, which convinced me.

Nothing wrong with a free holiday in a nice spot like Cape Town! Many local stories have been the subject of films made by non-South Africans, from Steve Biko, André Stander, to Nelson and Winnie Mandela. It’s a point some may feel negatively about. What’s your view on this?

I changed my mind about making the movie because talking to many people here, I had the feeling that being a foreigner could actually be a positive point in fact, because I didn’t have the ‘weight of the past’. I’m white, and when I talk to black, white or coloured people, I don’t feel guilty, there are no ghosts around for me. That can make things easier.

Perhaps it could lean too much in a specific direction if made by locals, who are close to the history, making it a bit too objective?

On the one hand, being out of the story was a great help, but on the other hand, in order to tell the story and be loyal to the country and people living here I decided to come alone, except for my operator and assistant. Otherwise I decided to hire a lot of SA crew and SA actors (except for the two leads of Whitaker and Bloom).

How much of the original story was changed in the film?

Besides shortening it, the book contained a lot of long explanations of situations. As a French book it wasn’t written for a South African audience, who may know all of that background – details like the Truth And Reconciliation Committee, who Inkatha is and so on. So a lot of that got condensed.

The movie is released here as City Of Violence…

I didn’t have much to do with the title change – I wasn’t very happy with that, but the studio decided on it. The original title refers directly to Forests’s character. But Orlando also mentioned how popular the 60s Zulu movie is in Britain.

zulu

Far from a Boer-War era battle, this film could easily be seen as either a modern cop thriller or political drama, or a meeting of both, but with very personal character-driven issues. The characters are both struggling with injustice, and fleeing their pasts?

For me it is more universal than a completely South African story – it talks about forgiveness and how important and difficult it can be to forgive. But, taking place in SA, it is a local story (regardless of the book being written by someone from France), so I wanted to be loyal to the country and try to be surrounded by local people in making it.

That authenticity definitely helped, from Inge Beckmann’s role to the gangsters (the criminals coming across as very convincing, authentic and kaapie, sometimes outdoing Orlando and his Afrikaans accent). How did you experience shooting here?

It was great, honestly. Of course it’s a great location to shoot, but it was mostly because of the people working here in this industry – the crew, the actors, they’re great people. They’re very professional but in a good spirit, very efficient. And it was the same experience for Orlando and Forest. For us as a few foreigners coming in from the US, France and Britain – we all had the same feeling at the end. I spoke with both of them yesterday, they were so jealous, you know, saying “we wish we could be there with you!”

Cape Town has so many different types of location possibilities for any kind of movie.

I heard before from people who’d worked here on commercials, and they all said it’s a wonderful place to shoot, again, not just because of the locations but also the people. I can’t wait to come back, not necessarily to shoot an entire movie, but at least part of one.

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Whether you watch City Of Violence / Zulu as a straight forward dramatic cop flick (that happens to be set in post-apartheid South Africa) or read far more into it; it is a good addition in expanding the scope of the local cinema milieu that was once only reserved for struggle movies and slapstick hidden camera comedy.

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