Helmer Porteus Xandau’s animated pic “Hillbrow” explores the conflict that has arisen in South Africa over efavirenz, one of the antiretroviral medications formulated to treat AIDS that is now being used as a hallucinogenic recreational drug. Offering a dramatized look at urban South Africa, the film explores a reality that is not well known outside of the country. Variety spoke with Xandau and creative director Sven Harding as they presented their animated feature project at Annecy.
How did you get involved with this film?
Sven Harding: Well, (with) Golden Planes we make live action TV commercials. But Porteus had written a script and we worked out that it would be best to do it in 2D animation. So we approached local illustrators and put together a package. A French delegation came over to Cape Town in October of last year and we knew we had this idea to do this movie, this story, in 2D animation and this kind of crystallized the thing when the French delegation came over and they were talking about Annecy. We followed up on the lead that they’d given us about Annecy and submitted. We had a finished script. We submitted an outline and they went: ‘It’s a great idea. Come and pitch it to the people at Annecy.’ So that’s what happened.
I’m actually a live action director, but I’m involved. It’s a very boutique production company and I got involved because this is what we do. We kind of work as a team and we all kind of multitask with the projects, so this is one of the projects we’ve got going on.
What made you want to tell this particular story?
Porteus Xandau: Long story short, five or six years ago now I read an article in a newspaper about efavirenz being used as a recreational drug. It was a very, very small piece in the newspaper. I was just flabbergasted that this actually hasn’t had any more publicity or anything like that. So I started trolling the internet and trying to find out and I realized that no one really gave a crap about the subject. So what I did was I started doing a lot more research in Hillbrow, visited a lot of clinics and then spoke to a lot of people about the situation. Through that, the story came about and I had to actually write a story about this and try to make a movie about this. Of course, it’s not necessarily a blockbuster type of film. It’s obviously very, very niche, but I just found it a very unique thing, especially if you think of all the AIDS drugs that actually come into South Africa. It’s just a billion dollar almost industry by itself and the fact that it’s being abused is frightening. That was the beginnings of it.
Why did you decide to make an animated film?
Xandau: The company we used was based in Hillbrow. We looked at actually shooting as a live action film as well, and of course there are many obstacles. First of all, it’s extremely dangerous. You’re shooting pretty much almost in a war zone, so you’ve got to have so many people to actually look after your film crew and things like that, which is logistically a nightmare. Secondly, you’re dealing with subject matter that is quite heavy and can seem quite depressing or sucky to an audience member. I’ve found that if you do it in animation the film becomes more palatable for an audience and it doesn’t become like a blood fest or it doesn’t become sensational. You have a better chance of actually getting a message across to the audience with animation.
Animation seems to be growing in South Africa. Why do you think that is?
Xandau: I think the first and my simplest answer is that it’s cheap. It’s extremely cheap. We’re now at something like 16 rand to the dollar. It’s extremely cheap but yet, or course, our film industry is really like any film industry and it’s really professional. You get the same worth in any European country. You get the same in South Africa. But, of course, it’s a lot cheaper. So I think, on one hand, from an international market yes, that’s why we are being sought after. But again, on the other hand, when it comes to content I think what makes it ideal is obviously of course just the story. African stories haven’t saturated the international market yet and I think that’s obviously one of the reasons as well why we wrote the story in the first place. It wasn’t something you hear about in, specifically, a first world country.
Are the main characters based on specific people or your observations in South Africa?
Xandau: The three main characters are based on real people and just a conglomeration of lots of research and interviews with people, but of course they’re just fictionalized as well. So it’s based in reality, but we just changed everything to personalize it more to specifically to revolve around this issue.
You’ve said your goal is to reach an international young adult audience. What do you hope they will take away from the film?
Xandau: If I’m brutally honest, it might sound very idealistic and it’s just unfortunately the way that I work. You’ve got all these huge resources and money being pumped into Africa to try and help people, but sometimes these systems trying to help people actually end up actually fueling the problem, and that’s what we’re dealing with. Corruption is a major problem obviously in Africa, and specifically in South Africa, and I think what I’m at least trying to highlight is that these systems that we are trying to perpetuate just aren’t working and you’ve got to rethink these things. That’s obviously the main thing I’m trying to put out there with just the story, but of course it’s not what I’m trying to sell to an audience. What I’m trying to sell to an audience is a snapshot of South Africa – something that’s entertaining, something that they haven’t’ heard before. That’s the sort of deeper message that I’m trying to get out there.
How did you decide to use South African art as the inspiration for the film’s illustrations?
Harding: It’s basically a very prevalent kind of self-taught style of illustration that’s on shop signs, on murals, on billboards. All the artists that do that kind of stuff are self-taught. It’s like school children art. There’s an incorrect use of perspective. There’s an incorrect use of scale. It’s a very African thing. So we didn’t just want to make a film that was about South Africa. We wanted to make a film that kind of looked like it was from South Africa. So we tapped into this kind of aesthetic and then we passed it onto the illustrator, who kind of elaborated on it and brought it into the world we wanted to create for “Hillbrow.”
Using 2D animation enables us to sort of capture stuff that will set this film apart from a live action gang movie or a live action ghetto movie. We wanted to sort of get in these places and portray a world, in a way, using this kind of aesthetic….Things look okay, but they’re a little bit skewed and we wanted to take that and expand upon it to create this world of “Hillbrow.”
What was the most challenging part of telling this story?
Harding: I think it’s about perceived good and kind of Western kind of ‘Oh, we’re pumping money into a place. Oh, look at these poor people. We’re going to help them.’ Ultimately, the bad guy – the teacher who’s dealing the drugs – is kind of supporting his child and he’s doing something to survive. The lines between good and bad – the perceived good, the foreign aid that’s going to South Africa with the HIV medicine – has become a little warped and it’s being used in the wrong way. So what’s perceived to be good and what’s perceived to be bad, there isn’t very much of a line between the two things. Rochelle is this kind of small, middle class schoolgirl involved in this and she ends up in a quite bad way and ends up getting into sort of prostitution and things. It captures the strata of society that’s in South Africa and the way that everything’s kind of recalibrating since apartheid and since reconciliation. Everything is getting sorted out, but it’s going to take time. Things like this, the whole HIV thing and then the abuse of the HIV medication, it’s just another layer of complication as things gets truly democratized. This is a young democracy – 20 years – and things are still getting sorted. But this is capturing that, really, in many ways.
And setting the film in modern times allows you to explore the current situation through animation.
Harding: And it gives an insight. “Long Walk to Freedom” is a good film but it was about the past. This is in South Africa now. This is something that’s happening now. I think people – the society of the country, the society of this new democracy – people don’t know about it. They think ‘Oh everything’s kind of okay now.’…. They kind of are, but there’s still kind of the hiccups or glitches that are going on with the foreign aid….Just throwing money at something and throwing resources doesn’t always help. It’s the deeper challenges that go on, and this is one of the situations. People with HIV, with this medicine, think, ‘Ok, I’ve got the medication that will make me feel better, or I can make some money from selling it.’ Or somebody will think, ‘I can steal it and make some money.’ It’s a complex thing, and the newly emerging democracy in South Africa is still sorting itself out. This is one of the layers of complication that’s occurring in the country. I find it fascinating. I’m European. I’m a Brit, so I’ve got an outsider viewpoint on all this and I’m like ‘Woah, that’s a really strange thing that’s happening. I think it’s fascinating. We’ve gotten a greater reaction to the story because people go ‘What’s this place? It’s really that bad?’ This neighborhood that once was this kind of CBD commercial business center has become this kind of weird ghetto with hijacked departments and drug deals. So Hillbrow’s a square kilometer of bad stuff, and then the HIV medicine is becoming this warped kind of hallucinogenic. I think people want to know and it’s just about modern society. It’s a uniquely South African story, but it’s also about the way that modern life and modern society sometimes flips things around. There is redemption in the story. It’s not all bleak. It’s not the kind of bleak ‘Oh God, I’m so depressed at the end of watching this film.’ There are redemptive qualities at the end of it all. It didn’t paint a complete picture of blackness. There is hope there, but there’s a struggle going on.