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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.”

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