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15 Apr 2016  |   A Recipe for Happiness

A Recipe for Happiness

Happiness is a Four Letter Word has been smashing South African box office records. We spoke to Junaid Ahmed, co-producer of the film and a leading Durban filmmaker.

You’ve been producing high-end South African films for many years now. Do you feel vindicated to have been one of the driving forces behind such a commercially successful film?

I have to answer this in terms of the films that I and my producing partner Helena Spring are producing. In 2011, the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) advertised a tender requesting South African film production companies to apply for development and production funding for a slate of feature films. In responding to this tender, I incorporated two issues that concerned me as a filmmaker working in this country. One was that, after nearly two decades into our democracy, we still had very little to show in terms of key black film professionals working in the film industry, and the other was that our movies were performing dismally at the box office.

And so my proposal to the NFVF – which was subsequently awarded the slate funding – was that I’d produce films that addressed transformation in the industry (each project would have a black producer, writer and director) and the films would be made in the popular genres (crime romance, action adventure, romantic comedies, sci-fi etc.) in order to address the commercial viability of South African films at the box office.

After almost three years of script development and other development work on the nine projects, we began producing the films, with the first of these – Hard to Get – released in cinemas in 2014, after having opened the Durban International Film Festival. Both Hard to Get and our latest offering, Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, which is enjoying great commercial success, are beginning to have an impact in terms of transforming the local industry and stimulating audience development, which is extremely gratifying for me.

In the relatively short history of post-apartheid cinema, Happiness is one of the first non-Afrikaans, non-Schuster films to dominate the local box office. Do you think that local audiences are finally ready for locally produced content?

I think South Africans were always ready for locally produced content. There are many reasons traditionally given as to why local films are not supported by audiences, including the fact that there are hardly any movie theatres in the townships, wide-spread poverty, the rising cost of living and unaffordable ticket prices.

But the making of Hard To Get and Happiness is a Four Letter Word – as well as the success of other non-Afrikaans, non-Schuster films such as Tell Me Sweet Something – proves that audiences will support films that resonate with them. I think that, as South African filmmakers, we don’t pay enough attention to what audiences want to see. This is one of the reasons why Happiness found an audience and is continuing to generate an impressive box office, which, after 25 days on circuit, is close to R9 million, including an unheard-of opening weekend of R2.3 million! Audiences are saying, “We will support local films if they are well made and if they strike a chord with us”. This does not mean that, as an industry, we need to move away from making strong arthouse movies or films infused with overt socio-political messages. The trick is to find the as old-as-the-hills balance between education and entertainment.

You are one of the leading filmmakers in Durban. What are your perceptions of the Durban film industry? Do you think that it is capable of competing with Durban and Cape Town? Do you think the local industry is sufficiently skilled to service visiting crews from elsewhere in the country and abroad?

The Durban Film industry is steadily becoming stronger. This is in large measure due to the role and function of organisations such as the Durban Film Office and the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission. I am the recipient of development funding from both organisations – and this has been a life-saver for these projects. It is generally sheer hell to secure development funding and these two organisations have made this journey in the filmmaking process a far smoother one.

Since the establishment of these two entities, together with the support of local and provincial government, there has been a slow but steady movement in the development of aspirant/emerging filmmakers in Durban. Some previous Durban-based filmmakers who have resettled in Gauteng and other parts of South Africa are considering returning home, given the more conducive atmosphere of the film landscape in the city and province.

But challenges remain. The lack of equipment rental houses, post-production facilities and skilled crews are some of the major challenges that continue to retard the growth of the local industry. My next project is based in Durban and I am currently being confronted with these challenges.  These have a major impact on already limited budgets, which helps to explain the reluctance of most producers to shoot their features here. There needs to be a concerted effort between the city, provincial leadership and the private sector to explore ways of creating an environment that enables the development and strengthening of these keys areas in the filmmaking process.  I need not explain the enormous economic benefits of film production to a city and community – there have been numerous research papers that attest to this, including studies done by the Durban Film Office.

Finally, please can you tell us a little about up-coming projects in the NFVF slate.

Future productions include a comedy set in Chatsworth called Keeping Up with the Kandasamys. The project has received Durban Film Office development funding, is slated to go into production around June this year and will feature some of Durban’s finest acting talent. Towards the end of the year, we go into production on a thriller called Indemnity – which will be shot in Cape Town and which we have been working on with Cape-based Gambit Films over the last two years. Hard to Get writers Zee Ntuli and Thuso Sibisi are working on a musical set in KZN that we hope to film early next year, followed by the comedy Klapped written by former Durbanites Krijay Govender and Leeanda Reddy. And lastly, the sci-fi title Precious Metal will be filmed in Cape Town in the second half of 2017.