After watching an advanced DVD copy of the film (twice, just to make sure the humour didn't grow on me, like Farrely Brothers comedies often do), I can only conclude that this film is, in the final analysis, pretty kak. And it hurts to say that because I really wanted to like it. I wanted a tik fuelled Big Lebowski with an Afrikaans accent taking potshots at the Joburg mink and manure set. What I got was another hollow, made for TV, one week at the cinema South African film. With a few isolated scenes and vignettes that teased out a smile, thanks mainly to Hakeem Kae-Kazim and Louw Venter. The rest was painful, acutely self aware celluloid drivel. But where does that leave us? It doesn't serve the local film industry, or my journalism career, to punt a movie just because it's local. But it's also hard to diss someone who has spent most of his money and three years of his life creating an independent South African comedy.
Enter Ross Garland, the man who produced the critically acclaimed Carmen e Khayelitsha and executive produced the slightly suspect Olive Schreiner setwork, Story of an African Farm . Before that he worked in theatre as a producer and actor before becoming a fully-fledged Barrister. He took a short detour into law and finally banking before returning to sunny South Africa to pursue the dream; a career in movie making. With experience in theatre, law and high finance, this guy is purpose built to produce films. But what made him decide to also write the script and play the lead in Big Fellas ?
"I always had the idea in the back of my mind that I wanted to write something." He explains. "And what appealed to my sense of satire and comedy was to do something around the film industry and BEE. The story was loosely inspired by Withnail and I , these two, kind of, losers who want to make it in films - and then it evolved into a story about two white losers who are looking for a BEE partner, as I was experiencing things working in the film industry."
At the suggestion that Big Fellas might be considered a vanity project, Garland is sanguine and disarming. "People have said that. But nobody else was trying to make fresh, edgy comedy. Yes it's flawed. Every film I have been involved in is flawed. The market and critics will make of it what they will. But you've got to step out into the void… I can spend days talking to you about regrets and what might have been. But that's the nature of the beast. This film is a beginning and we're already working on the next one."
Increased production: This ties in nicely with an article Sean O'Toole wrote in a previous issue of Empire in which he boldly declared: "the South African film industry is constipated."
Then according to both Garland and O'Toole Big Fellas is just another bok drolletjie painfully squeezed into the toilet bowl of South African contemporary culture. Don't turn off the lights. One day we'll get the good shit. But the intention from Garland as a filmmaker is refreshing.
"It's a starting point." He admits. "Leon Schuster is the one who has really cracked this market. And he did it over the course of many films. He built a brand off that. And I think sometimes we have been a bit impatient. I definitely feel that we have to increase our volume of films here in a big way. It's still too much of an isolated event when a South African film comes out. We need to flood the market place. And we haven't done that. At the moment there's so much private money in the States, that there's a problem worldwide. There's too much Hollywood content around. In terms of the supply coming in, we're getting flooded and we haven't increased our supply against that."
Personally, I'd like to set our creative sights a little higher than your standard Schuster flick. But here Garland is speaking from his strength, as a businessman involved in filmmaking, a producer. And to producers, Schuster is gold. A dependably bankable South African film franchise.
"I have been searching for a viable model for making films here." Garland continues. "And I don't think it's really settled. It's a mixture of budget decisions and how you finance it, how you distribute it and what sort of film you make. It's a variety of factors. But I think we're coming into an area of viability. So I'm pretty excited to test that. I think the model is starting to look rational. When I came into the industry 5 years ago I couldn't see a rational model for making films as a real business proposition."
It's obvious Garland excels at the production level. When I ask him about some of the film's sketchy production values and made for TV feel, his answers are not reactionary but prudent.
"I don't think there are many independent films today that can justify shooting on film. You can get a lot more value shooting on HD."
He balks at the suggestion that Big Fellas was shot on a shoestring budget?
"I wouldn't say shoestring… No, no no! Cash on the screen, I think it compares to a lot of other local films that are showing returns. What I looked at was internationally what an average independent film budget was, and we fit our budget to that. I think we have been making films on budgets that are completely out of whack with international norms, and make no sense for what you can get out of cinema, TV and DVD here. And that's why we've lost a lot of money. And guys in much more developed film industries are making films for a lot less money. So I think sometimes the benchmark of what the right budget is, is being set way too high."
And yet, despite all his nous and understanding of our market and potential, there is an affliction besetting producers on South African comedy films of late. Producers like Garland on Big Fellas and Ronnie Apteker on Footskating 101 are getting seduced by the glamour of the creative process and give themselves vanity privileges over the scriptwriting and acting - when they should be focussing on their strengths. Running the back end business of financing, making and marketing films.
And so you find that Big Fellas, is a film about BEE without very many black people in it. The film comes across as informed by an isolationist Capetonian perspective of Black Economic Empowerment. There are no Black Diamonds, no government arse creepers, no bourgeois soccer club owners, corrupt police chiefs or dead mining magnates. Just lots of missed opportunities. And if you discount these problems: forget the fact that Garland cast himself as the lead and scriptwriter, overlook that it was director Philip Roberts' directorial debut, that a lot of the actors performed within their abilities, that there weren't enough black people, that it was poorly executed - you could pin the final failing of this film squarely on the script.
As South Africa's only Oscar award winning director, Gavin Hood puts it: "Everything starts with the script. Many young writers write a script and want to get it made without honing that script to a point where people read it and go 'Wow I want to make this!'"
Garland parries my final boot heel remark with a standard PR gesture.
"It's an interesting thought because I have tested the film, and it tested really well in the middle of the market, which is where you really want to be. I have always said I didn't want to make the film for connoisseurs, academics or film industry people. But the feedback from really average people going to the cinema is that they have been enjoying it."
In short, it's not meant for you critics, it's for the mainstream. And still, I'll be surprised if it's still showing by Christmas.