Long Street: Revel Fox' love letter to Cape Town
By Daniel Dercksen
Revel Fox is back in action and this time it's personal.
His new film Long Street is an intimate, honest film which draws on the real life experience of his own daughter who battled with drug addiction while trying to make it as a musician.
"It is about the dangerous journey a young girl makes from a very dark place towards safety," says Fox. "It is about the forces of addiction and recovery vying for control. It is about the breaking of trust between a mother and daughter and the attempt to win it back. It is about how music comes to the rescue."
It also marks his most personal film to date.
"I think all artistic projects are personal, but this one really leaves me with nowhere to hide," says Fox. "The film is largely a fiction but it is informed by life experience. Friends and family have been quite positive. They know me and they know what inspired me to make the movie. They know and how difficult this journey was."
For Fox, the subject of addiction was a difficult one to tackle.
"People find it easier to run away from it. It's easier to come up with some reason why families get into trouble with drugs and wash one's hands of it all. Families who desperately need support are often left out in the cold, like outcasts. I wanted to look at recovery in a way that everybody can relate to. Filmmakers are often pressed to show the most violent and degrading aspects of experience, as if this was somehow honest and truthful. But ultimately it's all about putting forward ideas."
For Fox, Long Street is also his love letter to Cape Town. "It is the town of my childhood. I think the history of the Cape is fascinating and the mixtures of culture and architecture, give it a unique flavour. We have followed Jan Van Riebeek all the way to Nelson Mandela. I like to peek into all the hidden corners and to see it from every angle. I hope the character of Cape Town will be preserved and all South African citizens learn to love it and call it their own."
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."
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.
The story depicts a closely rendered portrait of the fragile relationship between recovering drug addict Sia (Sannie Fox) and her mother Maria (Roberta Fox). 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.
"Working with my wife and daughter was a great experience," says Fox. "I know they are talented actors so this was really just a matter of giving them the space to work. Watching them, a real mother and daughter working in such an intimate way and going into difficult emotional territory was unforgettable. But they didn't do it alone, they had a wonderful cast working around them."
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 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."
"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.
Fox admits that the most difficult aspect of making the film was to "go from the idea to the page."
"There were incidents I felt very strongly about. They had to be in the film. These were the map around which I then built the film. The story came out of this and finding it presented a huge challenge. The journey from page to screen was exciting because I had complete faith in all the actors, musicians and filmmakers who came on board."
Talking about what it takes to be a filmmaker in contemporary South Africa, Fox says that "You have to believe in what you are doing and keep the faith."
"I think one has to be realistic and very stubborn. If an idea is worthwhile, people will want to get involved. If the idea does not excite others, it could be a warning light. But if you believe in the idea you have a chance to see it realised because it is becoming easier to make films. The new digital technology means you can make movies for less money."
He firmly believes that there needs to be more determination to open up opportunities for local directors.
"I think we should help young filmmakers positively and not discourage their ideas. I also think making films is a skill learned over time and that directors need more than one chance to grow to their full potential. I would also like to see more films that can surprise us, films we never could have predicted. I look forward to exciting and original films from young Black directors."
His love for movies began in "a dark room with a beam of light passing over my head."
"It seemed like a religious experience, a catharsis. I found myself becoming part of worlds beyond my room. And that dream has kept me going."
He knew that he was born to tell stories somewhere between seeing John Ford's epic western 'The Searchers' and Jiri Menzel's poetic coming of age tale, set in a time of war, Closely Observed Trains.
He has worked in film and television in South Africa and the UK for the last 25 years and is perhaps best known to South Africans as the director of the award-winning film about a young trapeze artist, The Flyer that received praise at the Locarno, London and Rome Film Festivals among others. 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.
The vision of two directors inspired Long Street.
"Two directors named Bergman," says Fox. "Israeli director Nir Bergman made a film called 'Broken Wings' about shock waves in a family when the father suddenly dies and how they slowly learn to deal with their grief. And Ingmar Bergman who got so deeply under the skin of relationships, in many of his films, such as 'Cries and Whispers."
Fox hopes that local audiences will embrace his dream and that Long Street will move people and involve them.
"I have tried to make it work the way music does. I wish people could sit back and watch the movie the way they would listen to a piece of music - if that makes sense. I tried to be entertaining, real and positive. I hope it will open up a conversation about the topic of addiction and also about what films are about. I hope it will stand the test of time. I hope they will enjoy seeing another glimpse of Busi Mhlongo."
"The film is 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."
"If I had money I would go out and buy the rights of a book I like. But in the meanwhile I am always writing and hope to do something very different. I would like to do a movie aimed at an international audience. Perhaps a film that has a famous movie star in it. I am also at work on another Cape Town project of course, this one a comedy thriller about a disillusioned detective who falls in love and gets his life back."
Copyright © Daniel Dercksen (Interview published with permission in the Sunday Tribune, October 3, 2010)
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