Social realism with an Afrikaner voice makes a play at fest

Skoonheid” — 27-year-old South African Oliver Hermanus’ sophomore feature that is competing in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard — has strong ties to the festival: it’s the first official South African/French co-production, following the treaty signed at last year’s Cannes, while Hermanus developed the project as a guest of the fest’s Cinefondation, created to inspire and support the next generation of international filmmakers. It was while at Cinefondation that Hermanus met the film’s producer, Didier Costet (“The Execution of P”).

The pic tells the story of Francois (Deon Lotz), a white, fortysomething family man, who develops an unhealthy and destructive obsession for the son (Charlie Keegan) of an old friend.

“It’s the story of a man who is of a different time and feels left out of the new South Africa,” says Hermanus, who further describes Francois as a man “who struggles to suppress his latent sexual desires.”

Hermanus was mentored by Roland Emmerich, who helped fund his studies at the London Film School, but his graduation film, “Shirley Adams” — the story of a single mother caring for her paralyzed son — was a far cry from Emmerich blockbusters like “2012,” with the Dardenne brothers a more evident inspiration (Hermanus has also cited Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas as an influence on his work overall). The film competed at Locarno and won a number of smaller awards but tanked commercially as Hermanus’ social realist style didn’t mix well with the country’s escapist cinema leanings.

” ‘Skoonheid’ means ‘Beauty’ and Francois’ life is devoid of beauty,” says the filmmaker, “so (d.p.) Jamie (Ramsay) and I immediately decided to make this film look as expansive in scale and color as possible to strengthen the facade that the character has created for himself.”

He describes Lotz as “a true film actor” who has “a completely organic approach to making films. … Francois will linger with you for some time to come.”

“Skoonheid,” the first film in Afrikaans to compete at Cannes, was shot on the Red Mysterium in CinemaScope and co-produced by South African service company Moonlighting (“Safe House,” “Invictus”).

Although “Shirley Adams” earned a paltry $7,000 at the box office, Hermanus didn’t feel pressure to make a more commercial film the second time around.

“As a young director, I am still cultivating an audience, locally and internationally,” he says. “The ‘who is the audience?’ problem in South Africa cannot be solved overnight because that audience needs to be created, not mined.

“Imitating Hollywood genre films in the simple hope of making a profit is not the reason why I want to make films. Didier has given me the safety to grow as a director and try new ideas. I was under no pressure this time around to compromise on my creative ideas; if anything I was allowed to further explore them — a dream for any creative person.”

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Social realism with an Afrikaner voice makes a play at fest
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