Fledgling filmmaker tackles period short as debut

Period films are notoriously challenging and expensive to make, let alone period short films, which is why the newest offering from Mandala Films is quite a coup for fledgling screenwriter/director Jarryd Coetsee.

"Creativity was key to us achieving the seemingly impossible. The secret is not to balk, and to leap headlong into the realm of the imagination." THE SUIT is an adaptation of the acclaimed short story by Can Themba, the daring investigative journalist who rose to prominence in the 1950s alongside fellow "inmates" Henry Nxumalo, Todd Matshikiza, Es'kia Mpahlele, Nat Nakasa, Arthur Maimane and Casey Motsisi of the "Madhouse", as Drum magazine's editorial office was called, exposing social inequalities and unjust authority.

THE SUIT is set in Sophiatown in 1955 shortly before the apartheid regime's forced removals. On the surface, it tells the story of the breakdown in a marriage, though more significantly it explores how oppression has devastating effects on personal relationships.

The film stars Fleur du Cap nominee and Naledi Award-winning actor Atandwa Kani, who played a young Nelson Mandela in LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, and his father, the legendary Dr. John Kani. In the film, Dr. Kani plays Mr. Maphikela, an old friend of Atandwa Kani's character Philemon, who faces a choice between the lesser of two evils when he must break the news that Philemon's wife has been having an affair. The natural rapport was obviously already there, and Dr. Kani chose to project what it would be like to reveal bad news to his son as a boy. The film also sees rising star Phuthi Nakene play Matilda not merely as a woman that had an affair, but as an aspiring singer whose dreams are crushed by the racial and gender restrictions of the time. Nakene recently returned to South Africa from Los Angeles, where she completed a MFA in Acting, and has since been cast in Akin Omotoso's VAYA THE MOVIE.

Coetsee says that THE SUIT has been a long time in the making: "I first read THE SUIT at school where it was required reading, and it had an instantaneous transformative effect on me. Up till that moment, I had a mediated understanding of the forced removals, and other crimes perpetrated by the apartheid state. But THE SUIT opened my eyes to their vast personal consequences and enabled me to access a more emotional understanding of the profound trauma experienced by millions of South Africans. It is a great tribute to the subtle genius of Can Themba to express the truth so purely. I knew immediately that one day I would make a film version of the short story because I hoped to share such a metamorphic experience more widely with others."

THE SUIT was produced by Luke Sharland of Mandala Films on a shoestring budget granted by the National Film and Video Foundation. Sharland had spent some time in Finland shooting a documentary last year and hit the ground running on his return to South Africa to push pre-production on THE SUIT through the holiday season. "Luke has been the sine qua non in enabling me to achieve my creative vision without compromise," said Coetsee, "because of his ingenuity, loyalty, blood, sweat and tears. We agreed from the get-go that if we could not make something happen, we'd be forthright about it, instead of promising the world and failing to deliver. That honesty and mutual respect has been crucial to the success of our partnership."

The film was shot in Sophiatown in buildings that survived the demolition following the forced removals. "When making period films," says Coetsee, "one strives to create a surface verisimilitude, and the original Sophiatown buildings which served as our locations lend a sense of unparalleled authenticity to the setting. Our costumes were furnished by Pierre Vienings who also did the costume design on TSOTSI, WINNIE and MASTER HAROLD... AND THE BOYS. Most of his pieces date from the period or they're handmade.

The level of detail is extraordinary, down to South African Police Service logos on the buttons of police uniforms made by hand in the actual factories that supplied the uniforms to the police service in the Fifties, for example. I'm quite meticulous about artistic detail and Pierre and I were thus firmly on the same page. His contribution was pivotal to establishing the period. He is such a remarkable artist and truly inspiring human being."

The film was shot over the course of a week early in February 2016. "Our schedule was severely limited by budget and actor availability," says Coetsee. "The shoot was intense, difficult but exhilarating. Atandwa even articulated what I had been thinking all along, that it felt like we'd shot a feature. The guiding ethos was not to compromise on the vision which had seen years of gruelling research and development.

To ensure a high visual quality, we shot with the Alexa, and strove for symmetry in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which was commonly used in the Fifties, but also for aesthetic purposes and to enhance the claustrophobic atmosphere of the diegesis. I developed the shot list long in advance of principal photography and was quite adamant to stick to it as much as possible because of its conceptual underpinning."

Coetsee studied film-making in London on a scholarship from the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust and spent some time in Los Angeles before returning to South Africa where he founded Mandala Films. "We're currently developing a slate of feature films which express our aim to celebrate local stories on an international scale." THE SUIT will tour the local and international festival circuit starting at the end of February.

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