I was fortunate enough to be able to talk with Ralph Ziman, director of Jerusalema, known in the UK as Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema. We discussed the film, and the real world people, events and political and social situations that inspired it.
BC: Are you living in LA?
RZ: Yes, I am in LA for the moment. I am developing another film which is back in South Africa, but I moved over here for commercials and music videos. I go back to South Africa probably twice a year, and spend a lot of time back there. I’d moved here basically because that’s where the work was.
BC: That’s the age-old story.
RZ: It is the age-old story.
BC: Let’s go back a little bit. You’ve said that you had a career directing commericals and music videos. Was the goal always to work in feature films?
RZ: I think so. I’d started in South Africa as a cameramen in the early 80s, and I’d moved to the UK in the mid-80s. I’d started doing music videos because actually at the time it was the only part of the film industry which wasn’t regulated by a very strict union. That’s kind of where I got a start. I certainly enjoyed it in the early years, but I think making films or features or documentaries was always my goal long-term.
BC: Do you feel now that you’re on a nice trajectory and that you’re pretty much getting where you want to be?
RZ: It’s always difficult every time you start a new project. I guess until you really get right to the top it’s always difficult, it’s always a slog, it’s always hard getting stuff made, getting stuff set up. It probably never changes. I’m not sure I’m exactly where I want to be, but I’m certinaly enjoying the work I’m doing. I’m doing stuff that really interests me and that I really like. That far, from an artistic point of view, I feel happy about it.
BC: Going back even farther, before you worked on music videos you shot footage for news. Is that correct?
RZ: I’d joined the SABC [South African Broadcasting Corporation] almost immediately when I left school. I’d done that for a couple years until it was the 80s, and my military service came up, and I decided I wasn’t really sticking around for that. I’d started off doing news and reality events.
BC: Do you think that has had an influence on your aesthetic at all?
RZ: I think it does. I think you realize when you make documentaries that you don’t really need a lot to make something really good. Sometimes just having you, a camera and a cameraman is actually just enough. You don’t necessarily need all the bells and whistles. That was certainly the way we went about making Jerusalema was to take everything as reality, take it as you find it. I think that all the years of doing music videos gives you a lot of confidence. You’re used to the medium. You feel you can go out there with yourself and a camera, and make something happen.
BC: There is a real sort of immediacy to Jerusalema; that’s the first thing that strikes an audience. In terms of your decisions about it was going to look and feel, what was motivating your choices?
RZ: Coming from Johannesburg, having grown up in Johannesburg, people always said it was a boring place, it’s not a visual place. To me it was always an incredibly visual place. You have Hillbrow which is the highest spot in Johannesburg. It’s on this high plateau, 6,000 feet up, and you have these thunderstorms that roll through. Just looking around at what had happened to Hillbrow, this urban decay, it just felt incredibly cinematic. Myself and Nicholas Hofmeyer had started going out probably six months or a year before we started making the film, shooting the time lapses, shooting the connective tissue, the urban textural footage that you see in Jerusalema. We got a really good feel of the city, locations and places we both liked. It was such an amazing inner city. There’s a shot in the film where you see two taxis drive into each other. Believe it or not, you put the camera down and you switch it on, and that stuff was going on. We’d drive around and find where the police were raiding buildings in Hillbrow. It’s something that I’ve actually done for years. There’s some footage early on of ’94, the time of the transition. We’d all gone out – myself, Nic Hofmeyer and a guy called Solly Mbele who’s passed away now – and we shot that on 35mm cameras. It’s something we’ve always done: try to document and get these bits of Johannesburg life. I think also the immediacy comes from when we actually shot the film, we shot it in a very documentary style. We had an incredibly small crew. Nic is a documenatry cameraman; we’ve worked together for 20 years. It was not about not trying to control it too much. If it was raining, it would be raining. If there was dirt on the ground, we wouldn’t pick it up. If there were people walking in the background, we wouldn’t stop them. It really was shooting everything the way we found it. We didn’t have a lot of lights. We had a very small budget on the film overall. You just do it as you see it, pretty much.
BC: So some of the footage probably comes from before you were even aware of the film’s main character, Lucky?
RZ: Yeah, it does come from before then. The ’94 footage was obviously from a long time before the events that inspired the film had taken place.
BC: What was it that told you that this was a story you wanted to tell? Why this guy? Why tell this story?
RZ: There were so many aspects of it that I found fascinating. The idea that suburban Johannesburg was still reasonably safe and well ordered, but once you went into the inner city that there were gangs, there were sydicates that were hijacking and taking over buildings. The police weren’t prepared to do anything about it. (I was) just looking to make a crime film, to look into crime in South Africa. This seemed like an amazing, brazen thing that was going on. When I met (Zulu pastor) Stephen Kumalo, originally he talked about land redistribution, and how as a black South African he and his ancestors had everything stolen by white people, and he was taking it back. Did that make him a criminal? Did that make him a terrible person? Was this “justice” as he put it? I found stuff like that was very fascinating. I felt things like that sort of made it a uniquely interesting South African story with these different kinds of layers.
BC: It’s a large-scale story of South Africa as well. It’s very much about change happening nationally as well as on that micro level. Were you worried about this being seen as a definitive statement on your part; that people were going to look to this and say that this is what Ralph says about apartheid or this is what Ralph says about the transition?
RZ: I think it’s always very difficult in South Africa because…when you make a film there it’s seen more as a statement than perhaps if you made a crime film in the East End of London or in South Central Los Angeles. We did on one level just want to make it as a film that was, you know, we weren’t making a statement. We wanted to explore those things, we wanted to look at them, but we wanted to make a film that was entertaining, that would find an audience hopefully in the word but definitely in South Africa first and foremost, and really to try and get away from…every South African film (having) to be incredibly socially aware.
BC: So one temptation must be to tell stories away from South Africa now?
RZ: Interestingly enough my next film is another South African crime drama, very much a true story. As close as is possible, we’re absolutely sticking to the facts. It’s what interests me, you know.
BC: So since you are saying that you are absolutely sticking close to the facts, does that mean that Jerusalema has played a little fast and loose with the facts? It does feel like a story about more than its own events.
RZ: Yes, Jerusalema was based on a real guy who was hijacking buildings, but we did expand it into a bigger story, and we did fictionalize it to make it commerical and also because I’d met the real guy, but I never got the real story out of him. It was always changed, it was always moving and shaping. He was always spinning it his way. What we were looking to do was to take the interesting facts about it, and about Johannesburg and blend it.
BC: How ell does your film fit in a context? Is it like other South African films? Is it different?
RZ: I think it was different.When Jerusalema came out it was the first South African film to find a township audience, a black audience. It really was almost like a cultural icon over there. It played for six months practically non-stop at cinemas, and we released on DVD while we were still in cinemas to thwart the pirates. In a funny way, the ultimate compliment is when you’re dirving down the street in Johannesburg, and there’s a guy selling you pirated versions of your own movie, telling you now great it is and why you should buy it. It really did connect. I think a lot of people felt it was finally a film that was made for them. It was not a film about apartheid. It was not a film that was aimed necessarily at an international audience or an arthouse audience. (W)e’d made kind of a mainstream South African film.
BC: It still plays even outside South Africa, where most of what we know about that country is through the media. I felt like I probably have a slightly revised understanding of South Africa after watching your film, but it was still comprehensible to me.
RZ: I would hope so because I think we did try and look at things which were just a little bit different from the inside as from the outside. From the outside, South Africa is always being given a rosy view by the world media. I understand why they do it, and I’m glad they do it. But I think from the inside, while we were making it, you sensed there was a lot of disatisfaction with (Thabo) Mbeki’s government, with the ANC, with the fact that 15 years after the end of apartheid, poor people were poorer and worse off than ever before economically, and rich people were richer than they’d ever been. This thing had come full circle. There was a lot of disatisfaction which we later saw play out with Mbeki being ousted and Jacob Zuma coming into power. I think the film tapped into that, and it tapped into before those events actually happened. I think the audience really connected with that. A lot of people outside South Africa said (they) had no idea that that’s what inner city Johannesburg looked like, or that was the level of disatifaction, or perhaps that’s why this crime had happened: because there were these incredible social injustices. I think if it does take you into that, and it does give you a slightly different, slightly more aware, slightly more insider view of South Africa, I’d be really pleased. It is something that I sort of had in mind. Not as a primary thing, but definitely as a secondary idea I wanted to put across.
BC: For the majority of our readers who are in the US and the UK – and I’m looking to promote the UK release predominantly here, it’s about to come out – how do we prime them for Jerusalema? What do we tell them to get ready for this?
RZ: For Jerusalema, it’s a modern-day, urban, gritty window into inner city Johannesburg, into post-apartheid life in South Africa. Perhaps it’s a film that will take you to places that you wouldn’t normally go to. I think that was even true in South Africa because a lot of people who live in suburban Joburg never go to Hillbrow; theyd gone there 20 years ago. It’s a window into a different world, perhaps.
Many thanks to Ralph for his time.