DURBAN–Sophiatown, 1958. On the outskirts of Johannesburg, as the apartheid police prepare to demolish the community at the heart of black South African cultural and intellectual life, a notorious gang leader is determined to make a last stand. Resisting the forced evictions that will transport the residents of Sophiatown to a desolate township miles away, he’s prepared to fight to the death. But when a sultry torch singer enters his violent world, he suddenly finds something worth living for.
In “Back of the Moon,” Academy Award-nominated director Angus Gibson (“Mandela: Son of Africa, Father of a Nation”) draws on film noir influences to evoke the free-wheeling, violent, cosmopolitan spirit of mid-century Sophiatown—a place that still exerts a powerful hold on the black South African conscience. Starring Richard Lukunku (“Badman”) and Moneoa Moshesh (“Eve”), the film had its world premiere at the Durban Intl. Film Festival.
Gibson is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker who has co-created, produced or directed multiple award-winning TV dramas. He spoke to Variety about the legacy of Sophiatown in contemporary South Africa, the need for South African filmmakers to interrogate the violence they portray onscreen, and his “strange place” as a white filmmaker creating movies and TV series for a young, black audience.
You first began your creative engagement with Sophiatown more than three decades ago, with a stage play and with the documentary you made with internationally renowned artist and filmmaker William Kentridge, “Freedom Square and Back of the Moon.” What drew you to Sophiatown then, and what brought you back now?
I’m of an age that I was brought up in the “perfect” apartheid moment. I grew up in this incredibly white world. I was entirely separated from the black world, so my life was very limited in terms of what I could see of the South African experience. When I got to the end of my adolescence, I got an awareness of what had been denied me. And I quite obsessively started searching for what I had not been told. Sophiatown was the very first [forced] removal [of black residents], so I was drawn to that.
There was a play that some friends of mine were workshopping, and so I joined the workshop and did the research for the play. I just read everything I could, and I found every image that I could. Just part of a broader obsession with the areas that I had been denied. Sophiatown felt like it had a kind of energy, and a complex, cosmopolitan spirit that apartheid had absolutely stamped out. So I suppose it represented for me something that I had a yearning for.
The film that we made about Sophiatown was a protest film. It was a film protesting the removal of a dynamic and great community, and the criticism from the historians of the film was that it had been a rough place, with a lot of violence. And the gangs which we had kind of celebrated in the film were not so benign. They had in fact been a menace. And so, when I did this film, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to show the beautiful and the dark together.” That was my intention for the film.
Before Friday night’s premiere, you told the audience that after writing the script of “Back of the Moon” with Libby Dougherty, you weren’t sure if you wanted to tell such a dark story. What ultimately made you decide to make the movie you made?
I absolutely had reservations—specifically as a white director. There’s so much black violence in this film. It felt sort of inappropriate. But everybody around me was so keen to make the film, and then I thought, “Well, f**k it. I know I will be criticized.” But I work for a South African audience. The world audience is a secondary audience to me. The people that know me and engage with me are young black South Africans. That’s who my audience is. White South Africans pretty much don’t watch my work at all. So I’m in a strange place in terms of that.
Contemporary South African cinema seems to be particularly obsessed with violence; we saw it as well in the film that opened this year’s Durban film festival, Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s “Knuckle City.”
Obviously, you’re living in a very violent society, and as a filmmaker, you’re trying to unpack the reality around you—or in the case of “Back of the Moon,” reflect the reality of a previous era. Do you think there needs to be more interrogation of this onscreen? I don’t feel like a lot of films are interrogating the violence, so much as just presenting the violence.
I’m not a fan of popcorn violence. I think violence should be disturbing. I would choose, if I represent violence, for it to affect the viewer. I can’t watch “John Wick” or whatever. It’s beyond me. I’m bored by it. I think it’s partly in me. Many of the narratives I am drawn to are dark—whether it’s “Wuthering Heights” to “Pulp Fiction.” Not exclusively. There’s much that is light and beautiful that I like as well. And I would like to think that all the films I make will not be like this. But we are a violent society.
Interestingly, in the writing of the film, the rape scene was not in the film. They went off down the passage, and that was it. And one of the producers on the film said, “I think you need to represent that rape.” We shot it, and we were shooting very fast. I shot it quite obliquely. And the actors came to me afterwards, and they said they had a real problem with the fact that it was so oblique. And we had a problem the next day; there was an actor who arrived late, so I said, “Okay, we can revisit that scene.” I reshot it much more explicitly than we had originally shot it. And it was terrifying. It was a shocking scene, which was cut to the bone in the movie. You barely see what was there.
I think that your question is a valid one. I think that we should be interrogating the violence that we represent. But also, this is not a film that I thought, “This is a film that I really want to make.” This was a film that the circumstances landed with me. [Gibson and producer Desiree Markgraaff had recently wrapped production on the acclaimed TV drama “The Road,” which followed a modern-day film crew making a telenovela set in 1950s Sophiatown. The duo decided to make “Back of the Moon” before the Sophiatown set was torn down.]
A film that I had been contemplating for a long time is a film about my experience of Johannesburg, which in the same way is a very ugly space, but for me a gorgeous space as well. I love Johannesburg. But I know that it is a brutal city, and the experience of Johannesburg for many people is a very rough one. And I have been really thinking hard about interrogating that.
You had originally planned to make a genre film about a singer, Eve, who takes bloody revenge on the gang that kidnapped her, but in writing the screenplay with scriptwriter Libby Dougherty, the gang leader, Badman, began to take on a more complex role. Did you have any reservations about portraying Badman in such a sympathetic light, and transforming a man who had terrorized the residents of Sophiatown into someone who ultimately wins Eve’s love?
There was a gang in [Alexandra, a black township in Johannesburg]. There were two gangs, called the Msomis and the Spoilers. And the Spoilers were led by this guy called Badman Sibisu. He was definitely a reference for Badman. I think that he’s a complex, sympathetic figure in the way that Tony Soprano is. I’m very happy with that creation. And the truth is I love Ghost and those [gangsters in the film] as well. But I think your questions are appropriate.
Several years ago here in Durban, there was controversy surrounding the portrayal of violence against black characters in the film “Shepherds and Butchers,” by the director Oliver Schmitz, who is a white South African. How much do you grapple with the depiction of black violence in your work? For you as a white filmmaker, and for white South African filmmakers in general, how problematic is it to draw on black stories for your movies?
I grew up wanting to leave the country. It was clear, I wanted to leave South Africa. And in fact, through strange circumstances, I ended up teaching in a black community. It was completely isolated, it was right on the border of the Kalahari Desert. And then suddenly, I thought, “Actually, there is a world here that I can engage with.” It was like an aesthetic thing as well. I didn’t like the way [white] South Africans looked. I didn’t like the music they listened to. I didn’t like anything. Whereas the black South Africans, there was a whole lot going on that I related to and I liked. My identification in that period was with the black South African world.
When you’re nominated for an Oscar, all the agents from Hollywood come to you and they woo you. They all say, “No, you must stay, because the opportunity for you is really big here.” And it was so clear to me—I had this absolute moment of clarity that I’m not the least bit interested, that I want to come back to South Africa. I remember the morning after the Oscars—I’d been to the Oscars party, and I got up and just drove to the airport and I got out of L.A. I wanted to be in South Africa.
The truth is South Africa is largely a black country. And the audience that I’m interested in is a black audience. I’m sure there will be a time when I’m criticized for what I do. But on the whole, my experience has been an affirming one. On the whole, the audience that I have made films for have a very warm relationship with me.