'Five Fingers for Marseilles' is revolutionary: Warren Masemola

The directors and stars of this local Western reveal what they think the film has to say about the state of South Africa today

01 April 2018 - 00:01
By tymon smith AND Tymon Smith
Actor Warren Masemola plays Thuto in the film 'Five Fingers for Marseilles'.
Image: Supplied Actor Warren Masemola plays Thuto in the film 'Five Fingers for Marseilles'.

Two young filmmakers from Cape Town, on a road trip through the back roads of the Free State and the Eastern Cape, drive through small towns bearing European names like Barcelona and Marseilles.

It is 2009, the beginning of the Jacob Zuma years, and producer/writer Sean Drummond and director Michael Matthews find themselves, like the rest of South Africa, in an age of uncertainty. They are also in places that provoke consideration of what these settler towns represent.

As Drummond recalls, "The experience got us thinking about this idea of people paying homage to where they came from as settlers who came and took land and staked their claim on it."

Over a series of discussions, the idea of a Western began to form, not only because the genre lent itself to the small-town setting but also because of the opportunities that working in the genre provided to, as Drummond says, "work in real issues, and layers of exploration of real weighty sociopolitical stuff like conquest and the taking of the land, and these towns as microcosms of South African post-apartheid politics".

WATCH | The trailer for Five Fingers in Marseilles

After returning to Cape Town and starting to lay out the story, Matthews says, "we decided to do a full month on the road specifically to try and find the right town. So we drove almost 9,000km, driving every day for a month, staying off the main highways and going from little town to little town trying to find an amazing and unique spot."

They didn't know exactly what they were looking for until they arrived in the Eastern Cape town of Lady Grey, which has the Maluti mountains behind it and open plains on the other side. "We stayed there for two weeks and started talking story ideas, spending time with the community, taking photos of everything and trying to find unique locations in the area."


After a year in which Drummond wrote a 200-page first draft of the script of the film that is released this week as Five Fingers for Marseilles, the most arduous and unenviable part of the filmmaking process began in earnest - raising the $1-million (R12-million) needed to turn it into reality.

The National Film and Video Foundation came on board with some production financing, but Matthews says he believes the process was made longer and more arduous because the film didn't really fit into a box that people could easily judge or assess based on anything that had come before.

Things were not made any easier by the fimmakers' determination to keep it locally cast and in a local language. "If we had put maybe one or two mid-range black American actors doing South African accents or changed it to 60% English and shifted the tone, that would have made it easier. But we didn't want to do that," says Matthews.

Eventually they found support from New-York based Game Seven, which spent several years helping to secure the finance. The film was eventually shot over five weeks in Lady Grey in the middle of winter in 2016, and completed just in time for its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last September.

With a strong local cast that features the acting talents of Vuyo Dabula, Zethu Dlomo, Hamilton Dlamini, Warren Masemola, Kenneth Nkosi and Jerry Mofokeng, the film tells the story of a group of friends bound in childhood under apartheid by a pact to protect their community. They are called to honour their commitment when a new threat is posed to the Marseilles of post-apartheid South Africa.

It is a commitment that tests their fundamental values and forces them into a deadly confrontation. It is, in the best traditions of the genre, an entertaining story full of memorable characters, plenty of guns and buckets of rain and dust. It's full of big ideas about personal responsibility and the role that has in social cohesion, and the age-old question of people's relationship to land.

If you were in the audience at the film's inaugural Johannesburg screening at the Rapid Lion Film Festival last month, you'd have heard the sound of many hearts beating at a flutter when lead actor Dabula appeared with his shirt off, and you would also have heard hisses of animosity towards Dlamini's villainous Sepoko, cheers for Masemola's evil henchman Thuto and laughs at Nkosi's mayor.

The Western genre is a great container for the South African experience
Actress Zethu Dlomo

It was an interactive experience more worthy of a theatre than a cinema, one that reminded Dlamini of going to the movies when he was young and everybody would communicate with the screen. "They'd say 'Kill this one, don't kill that one!' It was lovely to see our people react like that because our audience is the most difficult in the whole world - if they don't like something they don't pretend, they tell you and they walk out of the cinema."

That's a sentiment echoed by Dlomo, who says: "What's awesome about the film is that even though it's not for young audiences, it crosses generations and encapsulates everything. The Western genre is a great container for the South African experience. It's also so great to see South African audiences getting so excited about something that's theirs - it's South African-produced, -written, -directed, -acted, and that's just amazing."

Dabula says that as an actor he is very critical of himself and not easily excited, but nevertheless feels that his initial belief in the project when he was offered the part seven years ago and "was willing to risk it all", has paid off.

He says: "I'm proud of the work and I think it's one of the few projects that I'm excited about and where I love the character and I feel like I did something that I've always aspired to do and that I imagined as a boy. We did something that's not playground stuff; it's real and meaningful."

With a US release scheduled for September and subsequent releases in Japan and Scandinavia, the film that began with a chance encounter with a road sign on a back road in the Free State is now looking to change perceptions about South Africa's ability to compete on the international movie stage.

Drummond hopes that local audiences will be really inspired by the scale of the production, the characters and the performances.

"For people who choose to take more out of it, I hope they'll ask questions about the country and the journey we've been on since the end of apartheid and about where we're going and what everybody's role is in building the future of the country."

For Masemola, who recently won his second Best Actor award at the South African Film and Television Awards, Five Fingers is an addition to his body of work that he describes as "very potent work, very revolutionary".

"South African audiences and film and television makers have been used to a comfortable format when creating. The projects I've been involved in have pushed the envelope and are made by people who've chosen to go with something different and break boundaries - language-, story- and genre-wise."

Dlamini says: "We've wasted 23 years of valuable time and instead of serving our people and making the country a better place to live, we stole money and messed everything up.

"So the film reminds us that we have potential but we need to stay away from corruption and do what's best for the country."

• Five Fingers for Marseilles is currently on circuit.