What happens when you’re a black prison warder, guarding black political prisoners and working side by side with fellow warders, all of whom are white men upholding the apartheid regime? Throw in the fact that an estranged family member comes under your watch, and you’ll find yourself in a decidedly complex situation.
Certainly, the story being told in screenwriter and director Zwelethu Radebe’s The Hangman is an intricate and multi-layered one. By using the classic narrative of a father and son relationship, The Hangman opens up a story of identity, belonging, and how one has to adapt and change oneself in order to survive in the world. Moreover, it’s a film about choice, and as Zwelethu words it, “the philosophy of truth”.
Set to screen in September 2016 to an international festival market, the 24-minute Tribal Media House film is one of few locally written and produced films to emerge out of South Africa in the past while.
We spoke to Zwelethu about his journey of putting the film together, filming on location at Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, and the need for both local and international audiences to see past the widely perceived physical struggle of apartheid and engage with the emotional wars waged on an intimate, but ultimately universal level.
Before we get into it, let’s take a look at the origins of The Hangman. How did the story come to you?
This story has been part of my life for a while now. I had the idea initially while still a student searching for an idea for my graduation film. I wanted to tell a story that looked at the consequences of our choices and how they not only affect us but those around us. The idea haunted me for about a year before I actually wrote the screenplay.
How long has the film been in the works and what would you say some of the greatest challenges have been?
I’ve been working on the film together with Tribal Media House for some time now. Our biggest challenge has been patience. We wanted to go through thorough development with the script before bringing it to life on screen. What we have learnt along the way is that in the film industry, dreams aren’t birthed overnight. It’s a process, you have to be determined and have perseverance.
You’ve said that The Hangman is a film that explores the philosophy of truth. Can you expand on that?
Absolutely, seeking truth is at the heart of all the characters in the narrative. In the film the characters are all faced with a different version of a single event that alters their lives and shifts their behaviour in ways that they hadn’t imagined. It’s when these characters are faced with the truth, that they understand who they really are. The film speaks about how when we know the truth, we’re truly set free.
The story itself is obviously very politically and emotionally laden. In viewing the film, what are you hoping local audiences will glean from it?
I want people to be able to relate to the story regardless of the era of the film. The heart of the film isn’t centered on apartheid, but rather on raw human emotion and the tragedy of how a family fell apart because of the political system that they were victims to .
You’re screening internationally too. What’s the importance of international audiences seeing a film like this?
I believe it’s a relatable story that will hopefully challenge mindsets and inspire change. We can all take away something from any of the characters in The Hangman. It’s important that global audiences understand the human struggle black South African families faced during apartheid. I want to give audiences a glimpse into the conflicts that took place beyond the ‘physical armed stuggle’ that is portrayed in media when we think about apartheid.
The Hangman is a 24-minute film. Was this largely a financial decision or does the length rely on the narrative?
The idea was always conceptualised and written for a short film based on preference and not a financial decision. You don’t need a long duration of time to tell a good story. As the film stands now in the edit room we are slightly over the 24-min duration which doesn’t worry me at this stage, I just want to tell the best story.
Let’s discuss the technical side of things. With such an intimate narrative, how did you go about conceptualising shots and frames?
The most beneficial and beautiful creative process that brought the film to life, was referencing the photography from the 70s and 80s the era in which the film takes place. I referenced great photographers such as Ernest Cole, Santu Mofokeng, Peter Magubane and Paul Weinberg. This approach developed the visual style of the film.
Filming on-site at Constitution Hill must have been a challenging task. How did you find the location influenced the filmmaking process?
Con Hill really gave the film the right spiritual ammunition. By filming in a place that was formally governed by the old regime, it enabled us to tap into the heart of the story. The location was a gold mine for the performances, the understanding of the atrocities being depicting in the narrative existed within the location we were filming in. This gave the entire film authenticity.
On a more personal note, what does this story mean to you as a filmmaker and a South African?
It means that I can use the platform to inspire other filmmakers to tell stories and more importantly, African stories. As a young black South African filmmaker I hope to encourage other black South Africans to tell authentic African stories.
Where can we see the film once it’s out?
Locally the film will premiere in the last quarter of 2017, after the film has had it’s international festival run. However we have hopes to screen the film sooner at the 38th Durban International Film Festival and other prestigious continental film festivals thereafter.
Lastly, where would you like to see The Hangman go? What’s the dream for this film?
I never limit myself and always have big dreams and visions for my work. I see the film going all the way to the Academy Awards.
A Tribal Films Production // Starring: Thato DH Dhladla III, Lerato Mvelase and Khulu Skenjana // Executive Producers: Tebogo Keebine and Kearan Pennells // Producer: Dumisani Mvumvu // Writer and Director: Zwelethu Radebe // DOP: Ofentse Mwase // Production Manager: Neo Noesha Letsogo // Production Coordinator: Nelisiwe Mwase // Production Assistant: Bridget McCoy // Story Board Artist: Kevin Narain // Continuity: Kelly ‘Kelsie’ Leeuw // Social Media: Jade Kebbie // Production Design: Lebogang Magogodi // Costume Design: Rozanne Whyte // Make Up/Hair/Prosthetic: Khumoetsile K-push Hlatshwayo // On set Sound: Kearan Pennels // On set Photographer: Kgomotso Neto Tleane // Post Production Editing: Deepend Post Production – Comfort & Fame Studios // Editor: William Kalmer // Colorist: Nic Apostoli // Music Supervision: Glenn Sebeelo // Music Composer: Grant Booth // Behind The Scenes: Motion in Time – Nkosinathi Simelane.