It’s been a troubling time for South African president Jacob Zuma, who’s been mired in a series of embarrassing political scandals as his country stumbles through a protracted economic downturn.
But for helmer John Barker and funnyman Kagiso Lediga, bad politics is fodder for good comedy, as the duo prepare for the world premiere of their mockumentary “Wonder Boy for President,” June 17 in Durban.
“As a filmmaker, I wanted to make a political satire focusing on the current political landscape,” says Barker. “I feel that it is a very rich time for satirists, comedians and filmmakers.”
The movie, about a South African Everyman’s unlikely run at the highest office in the land, was inspired by the real-life disillusionment Barker felt with the current president, who has shown an uncanny ability to survive a string of scandals that have dented the country’s reputation abroad.
Two years after the death of the nation’s greatest liberation hero and first black president, Barker wondered if it was possible for South Africans to elect someone like “a young Nelson Mandela. Can we find someone like Wonder Boy—somebody who has the support of the people, [who is] charismatic, authoritative and an inspirational leader?”
In a country whose satirists have often found themselves in the government’s crosshairs, and where Zuma still enjoys support from many party loyalists, Barker says he struggled to raise funds for “Wonder Boy.” In the end, it took five years – and contributions from countless friends – to make the movie a reality.
Yet “Wonder Boy” arrives at an auspicious time for comedy in South Africa. Along with the TV success of comics like Trevor Noah, who made headlines when he took over U.S. series “The Daily Show” last year, and Loyiso Gola, who earned an International Emmy nomination for “Late Nite News,” big-screen laughers continue to draw big numbers at the box office.
Comedian Leon Schuster, who’s made some of the highest-grossing South African films of all time, remains a steady draw in theaters. And in recent years, local romantic comedies like “Material,” “Tell Me Sweet Something,” and “Happiness Is a Four-Letter Word” have all found B.O. success.
Still, Barker himself acknowledges that “something gets lost in translation” when South African comedy travels overseas.
“Language and culture play a major role in comedy that it is difficult to translate,” he says. “Our comedy films are very colloquial and work well here, but won’t make much sense outside of S.A.”
Barker remains optimistic that “Wonder Boy” will follow in the footsteps of his 2006 laugher, “Bunny Chow,” which preemed in Toronto with Lediga in a leading role. And Lediga is currently working on romantic comedy “Feelings,” that the duo hopes will tap into a growing desire for South African audiences to, as Barker puts it, “laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves too seriously.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had a tough time of it lately,” he adds, “and laughter is needed.”