INTERVIEW WITH REVEL FOX
Revel Fox's new film is an intimate, honest film which draws on the real life experience of Fox's own daughter who battled with drug addiction while trying to make it as a musician. With its sparse dialogue, Long Street tells its story with feeling, compassion and elegance.
Set in Cape Town, the film is a closely rendered portrait of the fragile relationship between recovering drug addict Sia (Sannie Fox) and her mother Maria (Roberta Fox). When Sia is thrown out of rehab, she has to return to her mother's home. The two women have long stopped trusting each other, and their relationship is a simmering sea of anger and disappointment. At the same time, Sia's father Wesley (David Butler) is suffering from writer's block and has a deep desire to reconcile with his daughter and estranged wife, but cannot find a way to express himself.
When a Zulu singer named Andiswa (Busi Mhlongo, in one of her last appearances before her death) enters their lives, her commanding presence and musical genius brings the mother and daughter together again. Andiswa uses the healing power of her voice to allow Sia and Maria to forge their relationship anew and discover things they didn't know about each other and themselves. The result is a poetic, powerful, music-driven film about contemporary middle class ennui in urban South Africa.
Fox took the unique decision to cast his daughter Sannie Fox and his wife Roberta Fox, both of whom are well known actresses and singers in their own right, to play Sia and Maria. "I wanted to make a film that is both entertaining and helpful to people," he says. "Taking my cue from the music, I wanted to pass on something I had learned, to connect with people who are going through similar experiences. Watching the three women - Busi, Roberta and Sannie - as the story unfolded was an unforgettable experience."
Cape Town's iconic Long Street gave the film its name and provides the ideal backdrop for the story about the path a mother and daughter have to travel before they can be reconciled. "Long Street is the spine of Cape Town," says Fox. "It's where people hang out, where musicians rehearse and perform. I enjoyed blurring the lines between the film and Cape Town itself. The city is the star, so we recorded its secret places, its changing history, its walls and of course the mountain."
Actress and songwriter Sannie Fox's blues-rock band Machineri - named a "genre buster" by the Sunday Times in its recent feature on SA rock - features prominently in the film, as does the music of Busi Mhlongo. "The highlight of making the film was definitely the opportunity to work with many wonderful musicians, like Busi Mhlongo, Sannie Fox, Leslie Javan, Alex van Heerden and Greg Georgiades. They brought something very unique to it," says producer Florian Schattauer.
Long Street is set in and around the city of Cape Town's iconic Long Street. At 3,8 kilometres, and stretching more than 20 blocks, Long Street is one of the oldest streets in Cape Town. In the olden days, it was really the longest street in the town centre, reaching from the harbour up to Tamboerskloof, heading towards the mountain.
In an appealing clash of cultures, the street is known for its numerous, well restored Victorian buildings with their beautiful cast-iron balcony railings, as well as its Muslim mosques. There are some great historical sites such as the Metropole Hotel, built in 1894 and the Mission Church, one of the oldest churches in South Africa.
It links to a number of interesting side streets, including Longmarket Street where daily a colourful market is held on Greenmarket Square. Here African curios, paintings, clothes, leather goods and various other items are sold.
To this day, Long Street remains a lively, vibrant street, inviting people to take a walk past antique stores, numerous book stores, curio shops, galleries, music stores, photo and travel shops, backpacker hotels, clubs and discos.
It also features a wide range of pubs, cafés and quaint restaurants offering a variety of African, Indian and international food.
Symbolically, Long Street provides the ideal backdrop for the film and its story about the path a mother and daughter have to travel before they can be reconciled. While in production, the film was called The Life of Sia and Song for Three Women. However, the influence of the location was so strong that it ultimately gave the film its name.
The film's sparse dialogue is complemented by a soundtrack featuring the music of acclaimed songstress Busi Mhlongo. Known as the queen of Zulu music, she died from breast cancer earlier this year. Originally from KwaZulu Natal, she was a virtuoso singer, dancer and composer.
Drawing on various South African styles such as mbaqanga, maskanda, marabi and traditional Zulu, her music is fused with contemporary elements from jazz, funk, rock, gospel, rap, opera, reggae and West African influences.
"Busi's reinterpretation of maskanda expresses the agony, the ecstasy, the pain and joy, the trials and ironies of life in modern, urban South Africa," says Long Street director Revel Fox. "Busi made her big screen debut in Long Street, having worked with me previously when we made a documentary about her called Voice of the Spirit."
In the film, Mhlongo plays a Zulu singer called Andiswa, who enters the lives of Sia and Maria. Her commanding presence and musical genius brings the mother and daughter together again. Andiswa uses the healing power of her voice to allow Sia and Maria to forge their relationship anew and discover things they didn't know about each other and themselves.
Among the featured tracks by Mhlongo are "Afrika Nithini Na" and "Oxam". "The film is largely driven by the powerful combination of music and the three women - Busi, Roberta and Sannie - who express themselves and their relationships through song," says Fox. "It's made all the more poignant by the fact that this was one of Busi's last appearances. I asked her to bring whatever she could to the film and she did. Long Street is a wonderful way to say goodbye to her."
Fox took the unique decision to cast his daughter Sannie Fox and his wife Roberta Fox, both of whom are well known actresses and singers in their own right, to play Sia and Maria. Sannie Fox's blues-rock band Machineri - named a "genre buster" by the Sunday Times in its recent feature on SA rock - also features
Sannie writes the songs and lyrics for the band and does the arranging and instrumentation with fellow band founder Andre Geldenhuys. Songs featured in the film include "The Searchers", and "Machine I Am". Cape Town music fans will also spot the music of her previous band Mama Know Nothing, including tracks like "Cuckoo Child" and "Colourful". "I wanted to record the music live," says Fox. "Just as the musicians play it, with as little technical intervention as possible. I think musicians have lots to tell us beyond words and that is revealed in the film."
"The highlight of making the film was definitely the opportunity to work with many wonderful musicians, like Busi Mhlongo, Sannie Fox, Leslie Javan, Alex van Heerden and Greg Georgiades. They brought something very unique to it," says Long Street producer Florian Schattauer.
Alex van Heerden, an accordionist and trumpeter, died in a car accident just after filming finished. "The score for the film was continued by Alex's fellow musician, Leslie Javan, who is continuing with Alex's work in Franschhoek for the social and economic upliftment of local communities. I mention this because the movie is so much about inter-relationships and inter-connectedness."
Q&A: FLORIAN SCHATTAUER, PRODUCER, WRITER
Florian Schattauer is an independent producer and the founder and CEO of Shadowy Meadows Productions, a Johannesburg-based film production company. He is also the founder and managing trustee of the Blackboard Trust, a South African non-profit organisation dedicated to the creation and presentation of South African art. His producer credits include I Mike What I Like (2006), Long Street (2009), and The Bull on The Roof (2010). A lawyer and arts manager by training, he has taught arts management at Webster University, Vienna, and the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is currently in pre-production for Ntshavheni Wa Luruli's new feature Elelwani (The Promise)'.
What inspired you about the story?
I was drawn to it because of the fact that Revel, the father, told the story about his daughter's drug addiction and cast his wife Roberta Fox and daughter Sannie Fox to play the parts of mother and daughter. I thought that was unique, something that hadn't been tried before.
As the producer, what were your main duties and responsibilities?
We went through quite a long script development process which I steered by bringing in two script editors; I also ended up doing some of the writing with Revel. Of course I also put together the financing of the film, oversaw production and post-production, the festival strategy and the initial release strategy.
What were the biggest challenges involved in the making of the film?
The script development and financing processes were the most challenging.
How long did it take to make the film?
It took a little over three years.
What are you most proud of having achieved with this film?
The production values are high. Aesthetic and technical elements are of critical importance in this type of film, so we paid a lot of attention to lighting, sound and décor.
What was it like to work with Revel Fox?
It was (and is) a very good working relationship. I think the long script development process kind of glued us together and we found a deep mutual respect for each other.
What were the highlights of the making of the film for you?
The highlight was definitely the opportunity to work with many wonderful musicians, like Busi Mhlongo, Sannie Fox, Leslie Javan, Alex van Heerden and Greg Georgiades. They brought something very unique to the film.
Q&A: REVEL FOX, DIRECTOR, WRITER
Revel Fox is a filmmaker from Cape Town who has worked in film and television in South Africa and the UK for the last 25 years. He is perhaps best known to South Africans as the director of the award-winning film about a young trapeze artist, The Flyer. After graduating from the London National Film and Television School, Revel worked as a director and editor in the UK until 1994. Since his return to South Africa, he has directed numerous drama series and documentaries for South African television. His first feature film, The Flyer, was released in 2005 and shown at Locarno, London and Rome Film Festivals among others.
When did you start working on Long Street?
I started working on the project in 2007. It really dovetailed with working with my daughter. She was studying drama and also starting out as a musician. I used to follow her around, capture small dramatic scenes and also film her music.
What inspired the story?
Our family went through some very bad times in the past. I was frightened. I wanted us to be well as a family. My daughter was very young, but she seemed unreachable - taking drugs and risking her life. I could never have contemplated making a film at that point because I myself felt broken. Gradually, however, things got better. My daughter took her life in her hands and began to take positive steps. She worked hard at her music and her acting. One day I saw her coming up the street. She stopped when she saw that a duck which had escaped through a fence and was walking into the road. My daughter picked up a stick and gently ushered the duck to safety. I felt relief and joy, and I thought I must make a film about this - not about the duck as such, but about the wonderful potential humans have to do good, to be kind, and to lift themselves up. I am drawn to the mystery of life, the presence of hope and the power of music. As Blanche says in A Streetcar Named Desire, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." This might well apply to me.
Why did you want to tell this story?
I wanted to make a film that could be both entertaining and helpful to people. I took my cue from music and tried to make a film that would grow and soothe the way music does. I wanted to pass on something I had learned, to connect with people who go through similar experiences.
What was it like to have your wife and daughter take on roles so close to home?
I wanted to make a film that was absolutely true and real. Because my wife and daughter can both act and sing, I had faith in what they could bring to the table. Although we all had to stand naked and exposed, I was excited to see how their creativity was realised. It was a scary risk to take, but given everyone's consensus I thought it was worth a try. It's what I would call "cinema of the real."
The film is largely about the impact of addiction on a family, yet it never preaches. How did you get that right?
Through the process of being involved with an addiction struggle, I learned much about myself. At first I tried to sort the problems out on my own but I found I couldn't. I became weak. I needed comfort, and advice. Many people came forward to help. I saw then how all people are the same; we all have the same hopes and dreams, and some of us falter while others pick us up and help us carry on.
Why did you choose Long Street as a location?
Long Street is the spine of Cape Town. It is where people hang out. It is where musicians rehearse and perform. In the film, Long Street stands for Cape Town too. Because I lived in England for many years I came to appreciate Cape Town, its history and architecture.
The film brings Cape Town to life. What were the things that struck you most about the city while you were filming?
I enjoyed blurring the lines between the film and Cape Town itself. Cape Town is the star, so we have recorded its secret places, its changing history, its walls and of course the big old mountain.
We waited for the south east wind and turned over the cameras, we waited for the white table cloth to come down the slopes and we filmed. We heard the Muezzin's call in the Bokaap. The only thing I could not convey is the smell of fish when the northwester blows. I often see mysterious, old rusty poles sticking up from the ground in back alleys and pavements, so I created an ongoing story about them in the film. Why are they there? Like that unfinished highway that will never be completed and hangs in mid-air. Like the wide open ground of District Six, standing as a reminder of past sins. There are so many things to say about Cape Town and I am hoping to do another film about a different side of the city.
Music plays a vital role in the film. How did you choose the music and what were you aiming to achieve?
In my next life I want to be a musician. Because everybody around me plays music and it always touches me, I wanted to record it live - just as the musicians play it, with as little technical intervention as possible. I think musicians have lots to tell us beyond words. I made a documentary about Busi Mhlongo a few years ago and found her very inspiring. I asked her to bring whatever she could to the film and she did. Long Street is a wonderful way to say goodbye to her because she is beautiful in it and she passed away shortly after we completed the film. So again, the music grew organically from what I heard around me.
We also worked with Alex van Heerden, a wonderful accordionist and trumpeter, who was helping to create a music academy at Solms Delta. He died in a car accident just after filming finished. The score for the film was continued by Alex's fellow musician, Leslie Javan, who now continues the work at Solms Delta. I mention this because the movie is about our personal inter-relationships and inter-connectedness.
What were the highlights of the making of the film for you?
Working in a very special and sacred place with all my actors. Giving them the freedom to do work with little intervention. Working with a small team of people who all had much to offer creatively. Bringing music and real life all into the same film. Taking a big risk and finding out what you fear is not so bad. And watching the three women, Busi, Roberta and Sannie, as the story unfolded, was unforgettable.
What were the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge was to take a real life experience and turn it into an entertaining, sometimes sad, sometimes amusing film. I had to work with reality and be honest with it. I had to be responsible to the people who put themselves on the line for me. I tried to film their words and music as truthfully as I could. I think the final film is very close to what I saw and felt.
Sannie Fox (Sia)
Sannie Fox is an actress, musician, songwriter and lead vocalist. A University of Cape Town theatre and performance graduate, she is a prolific stage actress who has performed Desdemona to critical acclaim and has worked with theatre companies such as the Cape Town-based Magnet Theatre. Sannie played Caesar's wife in the feature StringCaesar, directed by Pail Schoolman and set in Cape Town's Pollsmoor Prison. She received a South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTA) Best Actress Nomination for her role as Sia in Long Street. She has founded three bands - After Black Betty and Mama Know Nothing, Sannie's latest musical brainchild is Machineri, a Cape Town-based three-piece blues-rock band whose music is featured prominently in Long Street.
Roberta Fox (Maria)
Actress and singer Roberta Fox is an acclaimed theatre and television performer and has most recently been nominated for a 2006 Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Mike van Graan's political thriller Green Man Flashing. Roberta received a South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTA) Best Supporting Actress Nomination for her role as Maria in Long Street.
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