Award winning South African director and screenwriter Oliver Schmitz helmed the hard hitting drama Shepherds and Butchers. The film has made the rounds on the festival circuit to rave reviews.
It was the most talked about movie at the Woodstock Film Festival where it won the Maverick Award for Best Feature Narrative and the Hasklell Wexler Award for Best Cinematography.
The film centres on a lawyer who takes on a case of a prison guard in South Africa who is traumatised by the executions he witnessed.
In this Q&A Schmitz gives us insight into the film making process, and what drew him to telling this story.
What drew you to direct a film with such a sombre topic?
I researched a project on death row in the late 1980’s. I wanted to make a movie about Robert McBride back then and went to see him many times on CMax (Death row). It was a place of secrecy, what happened there was under the military. Both criminal and political prisoners were executed there. At that time I focused on what was happening to the prisoners in there. The project never got financed but the place got under my skin. When Anant Singh and Brian Cox approached me about Shepherds and Butchers I was immediately interested. It took a different and quite unique perspective in that it focused on the warders and the trauma that their occupation had on them.
What are your own views on the death penalty? How did influence your take on the story?
I think I have always been anti-death penalty but never in a very active way. Back then I felt specifically that it was wrong to use capital punishment as a political instrument of state power and at that time of trying to do the McBride story, a colleague and I made an anti capital punishment trailer that was (thanks to the help of the producers) shown in the UK before screenings of a hit film called A Fish Called Wanda. Now, after making Shepherds and Butchers, my views are more complex and I feel that the act of Killing, whether an impulsive or premeditated criminal act or state sanctioned punishment, are both wrong. The act of killing is wrong - full stop. Its the same in a war, young men and women are trained to kill, go out and kill and are then expected to return to normal society and be normal. Its not that simple, it does permanent damage to our moral fabric.
What was the hardest aspect of the death penalty to portray on screen?
We decided not to hold back in any way in showing the full process of hanging. Many films follow a tradition of looking away at the crucial moment of execution. I was making a film about the effect of this trauma on a young warder, I needed to tell and show what he saw. We examined the process leading to the gallows and what happens there in almost microscopic detail. The hard part is to shock, and audiences have been shocked, but not to be gratuitous. At no point do we revel in the violence, but it is very physical and immediate, more so than in any other film on the subject that I know of.
Was it serious all the time on set or did you find a way to lighten the mood for the cast? Or was it necessary to keep everyone grounded to the subject matter?
One has to lighten the mood and let normality remain and have a release. Off course it affected all of us, especially the first time we went for rehearsals into the set and the first time we released the trapdoor mechanism. Due to rehearsals, discussions with a real warder from that time on death row and the fact that the script had such a powerful impact on all, grounding was not so hard.
The film team was quite a multi-national setup, with South African, Americans and Brits involved. Are there any benefits of producing a film with such an array of nationalities?
Well, its normal in many countries for many nationalities to work together, the benefit is often creative and financial so, why not in South Africa? We were all colleagues and there was not a two class system. Steve Coogan and Andrea Riseborough challenged the South African actors with their talents and vice versa. It was very fruitful and Garion Dowds who plays the warder is a real discovery and was greatly admired by his international colleagues. I think this hybrid is a danger when it impacts negatively on the story telling but I do not feel in any way that that was the case here.
Although the story was set during Apartheid, very little of the film focused on the regime of that time, which was quite refreshing as everyone knew how bad the government of that time was so there was no need to emphasise it in the story. Was this a deliberate choice or just something that happened as the story developed?
We do not need to tell all the basic stuff on Apartheid to tell this story, it makes it clumsy and didactic. At the end of the day it has a lot to say about Apartheid but through the environment and the characters and this is the way it should be with story telling. Its also not a documentary rendition of CMax but ex-death row prisoners found it chillingly accurate, I think, because it articulates the physical violence that permutated the institution.
The machine that hung the prisoners felt so terrifyingly real, was the prison a set or was it filmed in a real place?
It was meticulously built by us by our wonderful production designer Mike Berg. It shook us as well, the first time we released it. It was all a set. We could not get access to the real institution and even if it would have been possible, I think it would have been too much for all concerned.
Garion Dowds was fantastic in his performance as the doomed prison guard, how did he get involved, and how did he handle such a depressing role?
Well, the role, from an actors point of view is great because it is the center of the film and very demanding. Moonyeenn Lee, the Emmy nominated casting director found him and suggested him to me. He was very shy and did not have that much experience, so I embarked on a series of castings with him. I saw his talent and convinced the producers that a youngster, the same age as the warder, was crucial and that the innocence that Garion carries with him was important for the role as a contrast to the heinous crime the character committed. It makes you want to know what went wrong with this young man because it is obvious that he was just an innocent kid at some stage of his life. What did the system do to him?
The film releases in cinemas on Friday, 28 October.