×
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

  • Aladdin

    China Box Office: 'Aladdin' Opens on Top With $19 Million Weekend

    Disney’s “Aladdin” opened on top of the Chinese box office with a less than magical $18.7 million debut weekend. According to data from Artisan Gateway, the film beat previous chart winner “Detective Pikachu” which earned $7.5 million in its third weekend. That score advances the cumulative China total for “Pikachu” to $83.3 million. The Guy [...]

  • 'Nina Wu' Review: Stylish, Glitchy, Provocative

    Cannes Film Review: 'Nina Wu'

    “They don’t just want to take my body, they want to take my soul!” So runs the overripe line of dialogue that actress Nina Wu (Wu Kexi) has to repeat again and again in “Nina Wu,” the fascinating, glitchy, stylish, and troublesome new film from Taiwanese director Midi Z (“The Road to Mandalay”). Nina practices [...]

  • 'All About Yves" Review: Feeble French

    Cannes Film Review: 'All About Yves'

    Benoit Forgeard’s dorky “All About Yves,” bizarrely chosen as the closing film of 2019’s Directors’ Fortnight selection in Cannes, is literally about an intelligent refrigerator that ascends to Eurovision fame as a rapper. Imagine Spike Jonze’s “Her” played for the cheapest of laughs, shorn of atmosphere, and absent all melancholic insight into our relationship with [...]

  • 'The Bare Necessity' Review: Offbeat, Charming

    Cannes Film Review: 'The Bare Necessity'

    A perfectly charmant way to, as the song has it, forget about your worries and your strife for 100 airy minutes, writer-director Erwan le Duc’s “The Bare Necessity” is a breezy little sweetheart of a debut, that threatens to give the rather ominous description “quirky French romantic comedy” a good name. In its dappled countryside [...]

  • Adam

    Cannes Film Review: 'Adam'

    With her debut feature “Adam,” Maryam Touzani allows her audience to sit back and relax comfortably into a beautifully made, character-driven little gem that knows when and how to touch all the right buttons. Taking the stories of two women, both frozen in existential stasis, and bringing them together in a predictable yet deeply satisfying [...]

  • 'To Live to Sing' Review: A

    Cannes Film Review: 'To Live to Sing'

    After his taut, impressive debut “Old Stone” which tracked with nightmarish relentlessness the high cost of compassion in modern urban China, Canadian-Chinese director Johnny Ma loosens his grip a little to deliver a softer, if not necessarily less pessimistic examination of the failing fortunes of a regional Sichuan Opera troupe. “To Live to Sing” is [...]

  • Hugh Jackman Sings Happy Birthday to

    Hugh Jackman Leads Massive One-Man Show Crowd in 'Happy Birthday' for Ian McKellen

    Hugh Jackman may have had to skip Ian McKellen’s birthday party to perform his one-man show, “The Man, The Music, The Show,” but that didn’t mean he couldn’t celebrate his “X-Men” co-star’s 80th. Jackman took a moment at the Manchester Arena Saturday to lead the sold-out audience — some 50,000 strong — in a rendition [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content