Helmer of the Banned Durban fest opener speaks to Variety about his approach to filmmaking
Jahmil XT Qubeka may be a young South African filmmaker, but he’s accomplished plenty in his time so far in the industry. His work has been highlighted at film festivals around the world, and his 2005 HIV/AIDS documentary, “Talk to Me,” won a 2005 Peabody Award. His 2010 film, “A Small Town Called Descent,” premiered at the 31st Durban Film Festival, and his latest pic, “Of Good Report,” which he calls “Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf’s perspective,” was set to open the 34th Durban Film Festival on Thursday, but the opening screening was cancelled when the South African government refused to grant the film a license. Before the dramatic events surrounding the cancelled opening night unfolded, he spoke to Variety about his approach to filmmaking.
Tell us about your new film project, “Of Good Report.”
The film charts the somber tale of a deranged man’s attempt at getting away with the brutal murder of a teenage beauty queen. In all honesty, this film is my indulgent homage to everything I fell in love with in what is termed “film noir,” or as I understand it to mean: films with a dark, unnerving edge to them. I would loosely describe it as disquieting whilst delivering an eerily engaging insight into a fractured mind.
The film is very macabre, yet it is fused with a humorous sensibility which for me was an imperative in order to make it palatable. Often the only way to deal with some of the uncomfortable bits is to have a nervous chuckle at them.
What inspired this project?
I intended the film to be a serial killer origins story. Our protagonist is a social misfit who grows into an inadequate man hell-bent on satisfying his shameful lust. It is told from the perspective of the perpetrator, which can be challenging considering that most of what he does can hardly be described as redeeming, to say the least. I am fascinated by the darker aspects of the human psyche.
You host “The Films that Made Me.” Can you explain how the five films you feature had an impact on you?
The five films that I selected at some time or another in my life moved me to such a degree that they directly influenced my storytelling. Although they are all very different films, they share a common thread. The directors were what I would consider mavericks. The first film is Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” — a film that for me challenged the very DNA of what constituted narrative filmmaking. I vehemently disagree with the common assertion that this film has no story. To the contrary, the narrative is very evident.
John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” — this remains one of my all-time favorite films. Not enough praise can ever be given to Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman for their stellar and inspiring performances. The other three films are Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Quest for Fire” (I really hope no one ever re-makes this classic), Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” and Oliver Schmitz’s “Mapantsula,” a 1987 South African film that set the bar so high for local filmmaking that it has, up to this day, not been surpassed in its balance between characterization and plot.
What are you bringing to the South African film market?
I intend to bring anarchy, mayhem and dissent to an industry I feel is a sleeping giant. I want to tear the whole rule book to shreds and say to younger filmmakers, “Let your soul pilot your endeavors. It’s okay to fail if you gave it your best shot.” I am an eternal optimist with a strong streak of narcissism.
As a South African filmmaker, what kinds of challenges do you face?
As a filmmaker of African Descent I find that my artistic expression or work is not judged with the same discerning eye as that of my European or American counterparts. What I mean by that is, even if I set out to make a relatively universal story, because of the African context, the work is often viewed differently. For instance, my film “Of Good Report,” could have been set anywhere in the world. This could be a teacher in New Jersey. But because my character preys on young girls in a far flung, poor, rural village in Africa as opposed to Soho, London, the film will not be seen as a serial killer origins story, but instead, it will be seen as a story of grave social depravity that leads a young man of meager means on the wrong path. The socio-economic stigma cast on African art by external eyes can often be deflating. It’s almost as if the outside world does not want to see us making anything else but movies about HIV or child soldiers. But I won’t let it get to me. I have too many films to make.
With Nelson Mandela in the news, a lot of outsiders think of South Africa in terms of race and politics. Do local audiences want this topic addressed, or do they prefer escapism?
The entire world is fixated with race and politics. Look at the Trayvon Martin case in America. Race will always rear its ugly head. The Mandela saga has obviously brought our country under focus, but I just think that is a reflection of how we all feel about race and politics globally. I do think though it is time humanity lets the old man go in peace. He has done his part, now it’s our turn.