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].”