Local Film Maker On Why South Africa Is Not Winning More Oscars

20181101-HC-Jonty-Acton.jpg

Jonty Acton - a graduate of the London Film School - wrote, produced and directed six short films and his debut feature as writer-director, The 13th Sign, premiered at Leicester Squares Prince Charles Cinema in 2000. It has been released and distributed in the US, Canada and Europe. Jonty also created, wrote, produced and directed the 13-part Wildlife Reality TV series Frontier Vets, which premiered on SABC3 in 2016 and has gone on to achieve international recognition. Now, Jonty is embarking on his next big challenge - making a feature length South African film, called Break In. Heavy Chef’s CEO Fred Roed chatted to Jonty about being a film maker and creative entrepreneur - and asked him to weigh in on some thorny topics in the industry.

Jonty, what inspired you to make a feature length film, despite the obvious difficulties in doing so and the long odds of success?

The feature length format is what inspired me to become a film maker. It is the format that allows for the most intense emotional participation from an audience, and that ultimately is why I make films: to create an emotional experience for the audience with a thematic drive that says something about the world we live in through the characters and their journeys. In terms of success, I guess it depends how success is defined. Success for me is getting a feature film made. It’s an incredibly difficult process and any one who manages to make a feature is a hero in my book. Then further success is getting it seen by as many people as possible, by making a good film. Unfortunately, a lot of good films don't get seen. But if you've made a good film, something the audience can connect with, then you'll probably get to make another one. So there is success in that. Then the final hallmark of success: did it make any money? Films usually make money, but it’s hardly ever seen by the film maker due to the models of distribution and exhibition. But ultimately, I believe film making is a calling, and kind of an irrational pursuit, and true success is persevering and answering that call in whatever way you can.

What’s the story about? - and how did you come up with the idea?

It is about a young white South African boy, Danie, and his journey to manhood. After a break-in at their family home, Danie's mother is killed by an intruder. His policeman father was away and Danie was supposed to act as the man of the house, even though he's only 12 years old. He gets exiled to a farm to live with his grandfather, so as to learn how to become a man.

5 years later his father comes to the farm to tell him that Danie's sister, who is now 16 years old, has run away from the family home in Cape Town and moved in with a gangster on the Cape Flats. His father tasks Danie with the job of finding her and bringing her home, a way for Danie to prove his manhood to his father and thus find re-acceptance into the family.

Danie goes in search of his sister, and in facing up to the gangster, discovers the dark truth about his own family, and has to decide what kind of man he wants to become if he is going to be able to help his sister protect herself.

Break In is a drama thriller about the dangers of insecure masculinity and what being a man really means in modern day South Africa.

The idea comes from my own experience and investigation into the definition of masculinity in the South African context, and how definitions of maleness and bravery can be used as covers for a deep insecurity and need for power that if not checked and questioned can lead to expressions of extreme violence. I have had some experience of this in my own life. On top of this was the "political" dimension of understanding the challenges of going from a very ordered and controlled society under Apartheid, to a more open and free society where old modes of safety no longer exist, and new definitions of gender roles and balances of power have emerged.

It sounds awesome. Why has SA not come up with another Tsotsi since we won the Oscar? And why no more Charlize’s? Seems we are taking some time to follow in Oz’s footsteps of creating an assembly line of great movies, directors and stars?

I think the problem is fundamentally that we don't have enough people going to the cinema to really sustain the industry from the bottom up. The local sales figures for a local feature won't help to recoup 10% of what is costs to make the film. So then filmmakers have to look for international sales and enter into expensive international co-production deals and can compromise on artistic integrity. There are production houses such as Kyk-Net that have come up with their own financing model and are churning out film after film. But there aren't enough of these to produce the artistic variety we need.

And then there is the other problem of screenwriters and national identity. We need more writers who understand the craft of screenwriting. It’s the basic building block of the industry. We have the stories, but we need the people with the capability of turning those stories into compelling screenplays that can compete with whatever is coming from overseas. And we need stories that can bind our cultures together and reach a wider, more united audience.

As for Charlize, she is a bit of a once-off, but if you look at the amazing acting talent in this country, we are not short of talent, we just need to see them more often, and have more people seeing them more often. An example is Antoinette Louw in the proof of concept I made - a phenomenal talent. And Morne Visser is outstanding too.

Above: Stills from Break In, photography by Greg Lumley.

What are your fave South African movies? And who are your fave actors?

Two films that really blew me away recently were Sara Blecher's Dis Ek Anna and Brett Michael Innes' Sink. Really great films. I've always wanted to have Marius Weyers in a film of mine, going all the way back to the days of The Gods Must be Crazy. I think he's a total legend. So watch this space.

What advice do you have for aspiring young directors/ writers in SA?

Find a real career! No, that’s a joke. Well, kind of. My advice is: Persevere. Take every opportunity. Nothing will be given to you. Go out there and make it happen. Build a team of people you trust. Find that big investor who believes in you. And then, persevere some more. It’s gonna happen if you stay true to the dream. Keep working hard, getting better at what you do - but don't expect fame, glory and fortune. Let it surprise you when it happens.

Readers of the article can contact Jonty via email, here.