×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sara Blecher’s ‘Mayfair’ Brings Feminine Gaze to Gangster Tale

Helmer uses ‘larger canvas’ to paint portrait of country in moral decline

DURBAN — When we’re first introduced to computer whiz Zaid (Ronak Patani) in the opening scene of Sara Blecher’s “Mayfair,” he’s playing Robin Hood in an east African refugee camp—distributing sacks of food that have been left to rot in an aid group’s warehouse. That charitable impulse gets him canned, the first sign that an ambiguous morality pervades the world of Blecher’s latest feature.

As the action picks up in Johannesburg, Zaid has returned to the teeming immigrant neighborhood of Mayfair, where he lives in the shadow of his father, Aziz (Rajesh Gopie)—a thriving import-exporter with a murky side racket as a money launderer and loan shark. When a murderous rival gang threatens the family’s business, Zaid is forced back into the life he’d hoped to leave behind, struggling to figure out right and wrong in a world where the two aren’t as clear cut as they seem.

Though at first glance a genre film – what Blecher herself conceived as a South African spin on “The Godfather” – “Mayfair” is as much a portrait of a country in moral decline as it is a classic gangster tale. Through Zaid’s quest to prove he’s not his father’s son, the director found a way of “looking at the country on a larger canvas” and examining “the moral ambiguity that this country has become.”

It’s a drama pulled from real life. Blecher said she was approached several years ago by two young Muslim men, who shared with her the story of a pious friend who was struggling with his father’s life as a local kingpin in Mayfair. They began working with a local scriptwriter to help translate that story to the big screen.

The film that emerged draws on the rich history of Mayfair, an Indian neighborhood during the apartheid era that later became an enclave for Somali immigrants arriving in Johannesburg. Though many found a welcome home in the community, because of a shared Muslim culture with their Indian neighbors, frictions also emerged—a division that plays out between the warring gangs at the heart of the movie.

Blecher, who previously explored the world of teenage Zulu surfers in “Otelo Burning,” said she spent a lot of time working to forge a path into the local community. “It was a completely fascinating story to engage with,” she said. “That’s the pleasure of the journey for me.”

As a founding member of industry body Sisters Working in Film and Television (SWIFT), she’s mindful of her role as a female filmmaker, and the responsibility that carried in a film whose central plotline centers on the dynamic between a father and son.

“There are strong central female characters, but I think what’s interesting about those female characters is that they all have agency,” said Blecher. “Very often when you have a story that’s about male characters, the females become appendages to them. They’re not their own fully-rounded characters with their own agency, so that they’re making decisions for themselves.”

She reflected on how being a female director “had a huge impact on how violence is portrayed within this genre.” In one pivotal scene, what begins as “a classic shootout…becomes about the emotional journey of Zaid,” she said. “I think that’s the female gaze.”

The movie’s world premiere in Durban comes at a time of introspection in the South African industry, which is still grappling with the fallout from a string of allegations of sexual misconduct against filmmaker Khalo Matabane. No formal charges have been made so far, and Matabane denies all allegations.

Much of the conversation during this week’s film festival and Durban FilmMart has addressed issues of sexual harassment and gender inequality in the film industry. Blecher said she was working on a short film with a largely female cast and crew when the accusations first came out.

“You were watching the effect of those allegations permeate through the industry,” she recalled. “Suddenly, all the men were much more aware of what they were doing, and how they were hurting and damaging women. I think that’s a real shift that happens when…big allegations come out. They’re terrible for all the people involved, but for the broader industry, they raise awareness.”

She added, “The best way to have change, it just starts there.”

More Film

  • Bertrand Tavernier Hosts Night of Cinema

    Bertrand Tavernier Hosts Night of Cinema Inspired Orchestra in Paris

    Flanked by UniFrance president Serge Toubiana and the National Orchestra of France, filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier stood before a rapt crowd at Paris’ Maison de la Radio this past Saturday to introduce an evening dedicated to French film scores called “May the Music Begin!” That moniker – a reference to the original French title of his [...]

  • Orange Studio Sells Out 'Serial (Bad)

    Orange Studio Sells Out 'Serial (Bad) Weddings 2,' 'City Hunter' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Paris-based Orange Studio has nearly sold out its two French comedy highlights, Philippe de Chauveron’s “Serial (Bad) Weddings 2” and Philippe Lacheau’s “City Hunter.” “Serial (Bad) Weddings 2,” which opened the UniFrance Rendez-Vous in Paris last week, is the sequel of the smash hit film which grossed over $148 million worldwide. The movie has been [...]

  • Danmarks Sønner, en film af Ulaa

    Trailer for Rotterdam Competition Opener 'Sons of Denmark' Released (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the trailer for the opening film of Rotterdam Film Festival’s Tiger Competition, “Sons of Denmark.” The film is a political thriller set in Denmark in 2025, a year after a bomb attack in Copenhagen, when ethnic tensions are running high. An ultra-nationalist politician, Martin Nordahl, and his National [...]

  • Operation Red Sea review

    Chinese Entertainment Industry Braces for a 'Cold Winter' in 2019

    Winter is here for the Chinese entertainment industry, a half-dozen top-tier industry professionals concurred in Beijing at the launch last week of Tencent Entertainment’s annual data-filled white paper. China’s box office hit new heights in 2018, raking in about $9 billion, but it was also a year of drastic regulatory changes and a government tax [...]

  • Indie Sales Acquires Martin Lund's Nordic

    Indie Sales Acquires Nordic Coming-Of-Age 'Psychobitch' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Paris-based company Indie Sales has acquired Martin Lund’s Norwegian coming-of-age drama “Psychobitch” which is headlined by Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne (“Utoya: July 22”). “Psychobitch” marks the first feature film of Martin Lund, who made his debut with “Twigson Ties the Knot,” a local box office hit, and followed up with “The Almost Man,” which won [...]

  • Studiocanal has sold Jean Paul Gaultier's

    Jean Paul Gaultier's 'Freak And Chic' Documentary Sells For Studiocanal (EXCLUSIVE)

    Underscoring the strength and scope of French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier’s legacy around the world, the documentary “Jean Paul Gaultier Freak And Chic,” which chronicles the making of Gaultier’s ongoing popular show in Paris, has been luring distributors in key markets. Sold by Studiocanal and produced by Capa, the documentary has already been picked [...]

  • Korea Box Office: 'MAL·MO·E' and 'Inside

    Korea Box Office: 'MAL·MO·E' and 'Inside Me' Remain on Top

    There was no change at the top of the Korean box office, as local titles “MAL·MO·E: The Secret Mission” and “Inside Me (a.k.a. The Dude in Me)” dominated a second weekend. Lotte’s “MAL·MO·E” earned $4.79 million from 618,000 admissions between Friday and Sunday for a total of $16.7 million from 2.23 million admissions after two [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content