Q&A – Director of upcoming ‘Five Fingers for Marseilles’ talks making a South African Western

Anticipated Western Five Fingers for Marseilles is due to release next month, and is set in the rural small-town of Marseilles. The movie centres around a group of friends who once fought for their town against brutal police oppression, and who have the opportunity to band together once again, to protect their community.

Starring actors such as Vuyo Dabula, Zethu Dlomo, Hamilton Dlamini and Kenneth Nkosi, Five Fingers is a dramatic and action-packed film. We talk to director Michael Matthews about the movie and Western genre.

Why did you chose the Western genre?
There’s a strong simplicity to Westerns, which I felt I hadn’t seen in South African cinema. Myself and Sean Drummond, who is the screenwriter and partner with me at our film company, Be Phat Motel, became very drawn to rural South African landscapes as well as our post colonial history that is reflected in these tiny old towns. That sparked the idea of a contemporary Western.

What was the process?
We set off on a month long road trip, driving every day in search of the perfect location that would inspire the story. We did 8 000kms and landed on Lady Grey in the Eastern Cape. We then stayed there a while, meeting the community, the mayor, the local church, the farmers, as well as location scouting for what would become the locations for the film. We watched all the Westerns we could get our hands on, we had the skeleton of the story, and then Sean hibernated while he penned the script with all the inspiration of what we’d seen.

Westerns are traditionally associated with frontiers and new developments. How did that relate to a South African context for you?
South Africa’s shift into a democracy is a new frontier in a way. But more specifically, the change in these tiny post-colonial towns. We found towns called Rome, Barcelona, Paris and Marseilles. A lot of these original towns have kind of died or undergone big change, and the townships attached are now the new thriving towns, where there’s real growth and new opportunity. As well as a lot of growing pains.
At the same time, the film and town we created is fictional and just reflective of this new time.

Westerns often deal with themes of ‘manliness’, survival, violence and revenge. How are these aspects relatable to South African life, from the traditional Wild West of America?
I’d say those themes are all universal. In Five Fingers they come into play through the repercussions of violence and reoccurring effects and cycle of damage done from past acts. Westerns are great at dealing with all four levels of conflict. Man against past/history, man against the elements/land, man against each other, and man against himself (inner conflict). ‘Manliness’ and masculinity is a problem in South Africa and the world. Men definitely seem to cause the most problems and damage, mostly through pride and ego. Men are always trying to prove something that is usually self driven, self serving. That’s probably why Westerns are generally a male-driven genre.

What other themes feature in the movie? Is it political at all?
The clearest political issue dealt with in the film is the legacy of colonial damage and how it still affects us today. We definitely didn’t set out to make a political statement, as much as the film just being reflective of South Africa. Hopefully the film resonates with South Africans and sparks conversations about where we are and where we’re heading. There is a clear cycle of oppression and even ‘good’ men being bent by the damage that originally shaped them. In terms of transformation, the film deals with redemption and hope for real change. Needing to stand once and for all to be counted and fight for the change you want to see.

The movie was explicitly violent. Why did you chose to show that so graphically? Was it just about adhering to the genre, or was there more to the decision?
It definitely comes with the genre, but Five Fingers is ultimately anti-violence in it’s message. Without giving too much away, the film finally becomes about how to preserve the younger generation from the trauma and repercussions that violence brings — to stop that cycle.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the violence and how best to portray it on screen, and what it means et cetera. It became important that the violence wasn’t washed over. The audience needs to feel the motivation, and then the real consequences in a story like this. There’s no slow motion action sequences or embellishments that make it ‘fun’. It’s mostly very quick, brutal and un-glorified. The actual moments of violence in the film are often cut away from, or we cut to a wide shot, so as not to glorify it or make it ‘cool’. The aftermath is often where the audience gets to see and feel the effects and emotions. Real consequences, which are quite unsettling for the audience. The characters have to pay for the violence that is inflicted and used.

Unlike a lot of action and blockbuster films where the hero can kill lots of people and there’s very little tangibility or emotional repercussion to their actions. I think that numbs the audience to violence.

Between 10 and 5