If you are now or have ever struggled with the difficulty of getting a film together, take heart: Whatever challenges you face probably aren’t as big as those South African filmmakers Sean Drummond and Michael Matthews had to overcome in order to finish Five Fingers For Marseilles. Drummond (writer/producer) and Matthews (producer/director) shot their film entirely in Sesotho, a Bantu language spoken on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, using a cast of mostly locals. As if shooting in a language they don’t speak wasn’t hard enough, the project also took almost eight years to complete. Considering the film is a Western with two chapters, one set during Apartheid starring adolescents, and the other post-Apartheid with those same adolescents as adults, that presented its own challenges — actors having a way of outgrowing their roles and whatnot.
“We knew we wanted to do a Western, so we did a scout,” Matthews, who grew up in Durban, on South Africa’s East Coast, says. “We put aside a month and basically hit the road every single day driving through the whole country. Did about 5000 miles looking for the perfect town, and we found this town Lady Gray, which is the one in the film. We spent a couple of weeks there, met the community leaders and the mayor and kind of took photos of everything and started discussing ideas for what it could be and then wrote based on the space.”
Lady Grey became “Railway,” the setting of the film. The “Marseilles” of the title refers not to France, but to Railway’s neighbor/patron/exploiter, an Apartheid-era rail town in the Eastern Cape, where the cities have their own unique history and naming conventions. As the voiceover at the beginning of the film intones:
“First came the trains, and with them came the settlers, bringing their towns with them: Paris, Roma, Barcelona… and Marseilles… And they called it their land.
And for us who’d been there before they put us on top of the hill, out of sight, and they called it Railway, because most of us were working on the train lines. When Marseilles was happy, Railway was fine. But when the towns started to die – Paris, Roma, Barcelona – Marseilles began to worry, and when Marseilles started to die they took it out on those closest at hand…”
“When we were first traveling, we were amazed by the fact that there are these European named towns, and obviously once upon a time they planted a flag and said, this is our homage to Marseilles or Barcelona or whatever it is,” says Drummond, who grew up in Cape Town. “And there were townships attached, like shanty towns attached to each, where the local people were put to work and basically enslaved by the apartheid system. And now what you find is all those old towns are sort of crumbled into dust and the townships have become towns in their own right.”
“So there’s a new frontier and there’s a sort of natural affinity with the Western genre because of that. Only it’s sort of turned on its head because it’s looking at the new frontier from the perspective of the colonized [rather than the colonizers].”
It’s nice to have a familiar genre to introduce audiences to a truly foreign setting like that of Five Fingers For Marseilles, and Drummond and Matthews lean heavily on gunslinger movies of the Eastwood ilk, in which a badass anti-hero cleans up a dirty town. While that town happens to be in South Africa (and the gunslinger played by Vuyo Dabula, South Africa’s number one soap star, according to Drummond), it’s a different South Africa than the one we’re used to seeing. It’s snow-dusted hill country, where the locals dress in flannels and heavy layers, with a landscape that looks more like the high plains of True Grit than the high grass of the Serengeti. It’s the Western refracted through a different lens, full of shanties, woolen hats, and saloons that serve Umqombothi instead of whiskey.
Capturing that local feel was important, but also a challenge for Drummond and Matthews, who were outsiders themselves, albeit on a different level than the film’s potential audience — I spoke with them at Fantastic Fest in Austin, a few weeks after the film, which is still seeking distribution, had premiered at TIFF in Toronto. A few times I had to keep from saying “the West” in contrast to South Africa. But South Africa is just as “west” as Europe. It doesn’t fit into those usual clichés, and neither is it a monolith.
“Being white filmmakers making a film like this, you have to be so humble and sensitive to what you’re doing,” Drummond says. “We were definitely not going in there to enforce our point of view or anything, because that’s such a risk. You don’t want to be appropriative or exploitative or any of those sort of things. From the very beginning, we found really strong relationships in the town. We worked with an amazing casting director, Moonyeenn Lee, and she’s one of the greatest, or the great casting director in South Africa.”
“They grew into [their roles] a bit, to be honest,” Matthews says. “We had them about five years before we shot, I would say 80% of our cast were about the same that we originally wanted to use. And it was quite nice because they kind of grew up a bit, they got a little bit more serious and a bit older.”
“And we would go back every year,” Drummond says. “We’re like, ‘We’re making the movie this year!’ and everybody would be like, ‘Yay!’ And two years later they were like, ‘Okay…’ And by the time we said we’re coming to make it, they were like ‘We don’t believe you anymore.'”
If they got lucky with the cast, they couldn’t leave the language to chance. Local screenwriter Mamokuena Makhema came onboard as a cultural advisor and translator, to try to turn the English script into Sesotho (seh-SOO-too), not an easy task for myriad reasons.
“Because Sesotho’s a super poetic language, it’s very allegorical and it’s very idiomatic,” Drummond says. “We tried to do was preserve the integrity of the dialogue without making this literal word for word translation. And she did an amazing job. And then we handed it over to the actors and they then reinterpreted a lot of it themselves. We had to decide a lot of the time whether to change the original English line to be better suited to what the Sotho line was. For example, ‘It’s a fight he wants’ is the English line and it’s in the trailer, but the Sotho is, basically ‘It’s time for us to go shoot the mountain.’ I mean, I love that.”
“You have different levels of Sesotho in the film, so you’ve got the ghost’s character, Sepoko, who’s speaking this rich, almost Shakespearean version of Sesotho, like old mountain Sotho. And you’ve got something a lot more colloquial that they’re speaking most of the time which is a mix of Sesotho and English and Afrikaans thrown in there as well. Which is something that 99% of people watching the movie probably won’t get, but for actual Sesotho speakers who’ve seen the film in South Africa, they go, wow, that’s really rich.”
The resulting film is a singular mix of familiar Western themes, universal emotions, and idiomatic mysticism that doesn’t always translate. But for as much genre films lack the cachet, prestige, and awards potential of their arthouse cousins, there are few better ways introduce an audience to a whole new world. And experiencing a new world is most of what we want out of movies.