I have, during fifteen years of earning my living as an actor, been to some odd auditions. I have been asked to crawl around on a carpet and shout “bang” at imaginary helicopters. I have had to rip the clothes off beautiful women I had never met before. I once had to say “please remove your blouse, Mrs Dale, I would like to see them before I do your monkey,” to a hairy co-producer in French. None of these, however, can compete with the time I auditioned for Julius, the principal character in The Storm.
The Storm, my agent informed over the phone, was a tale of obsessive love and betrayal. Would I like to meet with the director, a Dutch gentleman by the name of Leeandert Pot. The film would contain scenes of an erotic nature.
Now, I know from experience the degree of difficulty in rendering convincing performance in scenes of an erotic nature. Sitting naked on a foreign lady before an audience can bring out one’s insecurities. If you don’t have a happy, trusting relationship with the twenty watching crew members, the foreign lady and the director, you are in big trouble. The nature of the trouble is both personal and professional. Dutch gentlemen called Leeandert Pot are not necessarily the person to look to in such situations. Better to work with a South African called Neil or Mark.
I had, therefore, ambiguous feelings about this meeting, but both my agent and my wife thought I should go. The money might be good.
“You never know,” they said. So I drove out to Lone Hill studios.
I was met by Debbie Nethersole, a respected South African producer. She introduced me to a director’s assistant with an unpronounceable name. The assistant led me immediately into the film studio. In the middle of the dark hangar was a roofless white room. It was lit from above. The wall facing us contained a door which the assistant opened. Leeandert Pot was on the phone. He was seated at a desk on my left. On my right was a double bed. Above the bed was a mirror.
“Ich wou liewer Kodak gebruiken,” Mr Pot said into the phone. (I would have preferred to use Kodak.) His plump face supported thick glasses and a bush of vigorously synthetic blonde hair. I looked at the bed. What the hell did that mean? Mr Pot put down the phone and shook my hand. He surveyed me in business like way.
“Ze Storm is a zuper-natural little bit of erotic film,” he said surprisingly. “Ja. Und ze hero, Julius, is a man obsessed by zis project to enhance zis city. To transform it into zumzing magnificent, okay? But he escapes to the wild coast of Africa.”
I was baffled already. Escapes from what? Mr Pot left no space to enquire.
“Julius is a man in zolitude. He lives on his own zere and he has got zis recollection of his lover, Francis, that keeps coming back. And actually he killed Francis!”
He paused dramatically, regarding me. I kept my peace.
“And zen, at a point in time,” Mr Pot’s eyes bored into me, “he is looking out at the raging ocean and zere is Francis, all of a zudden. Only in his mind! Not really, only in his mind! But we zee Francis standing zere and zat is the moment of... of... fingers trembling, hands touching, lips parting and ze desire!!! And he grabs Francis and zey go down and zey start making furious, furious love!!!!”
Mr Pot looked at me expectantly. It was time to put my oar in. I was happy to meet with him, I pointed out, and would gladly read the screenplay, but if he was asking me to perform this scene he described, with a woman I had never met, before I knew more about...
Mr Pot’s eyes brimmed with sincerity.
“Zis particular scene is very warm and intimate and emotional,” he reassured me. “It’s not zo much about... about... you know... going full,” he put his arms straight out in front of him and bounced energetically in his chair, “boom! boom! boom!”
“Okay, you vill try zis wiz Francis.”
It was said with great confidence. There was a sickening pause. How could I halt this man?
“Who is Francis?” I asked.
“Francis is Kem Sharpenbagher the Dutch film star I would like you to rehearse zis scene with.”
He called out.
His assistant opened the door and ushered in a young man, who smiled warmly at me. I was having difficulty keeping up. Francis was male? I was dimly aware that what Mr Pot was saying sounded like garbage. The scene was taking on the proportions of nightmare.
“Ve havevovitch und kite moverator to audition mit hom,” he said to the assistant.
She nodded and flashed a smile at me.
“James Whyle, Kem Sharpenbargher,” she said.
Kem sat down, moving his chair closer to mine. His demeanor was both warm and coy.
“Okay,” said Mr Pot, “Its the ripping off ze clothes and ve cut and ve go into a wision of...” He leant forward benignly.
“ Just do ze little bit of intimacy for me zere.”
I had to haul myself out of this. Madness lay ahead. I picked up my brief case and moved towards the door.
“No, no, do it.,” cried Mr Pot, alarmed, “We don’t worry with zat zings. You get onto ze bed and you look into ze eyes.”
“Look,” I said, “I will read the screenplay, but...
“You start ripping ze clothes off in zis audition! Wot is wrong wiz you?”
“Excuse me,” I said, “You are not listening to me.”
“The kissing and the kissing and the kissing and you go!”
I was suddenly very angry.
“You’re not listening!”
And then, in a weirdly conversant gesture, Mr Pot reached up into his mouth and took out his teeth. It was disturbing the way dreams are when they speak to one in jokes. The whole point about Mr Pot was his foreignness. And yet there was something familiar about him. Something... impish. Something, come to think of it, down right naughty and joyful. The way those teeth were slicked out. Practised. It started coming back to me. There was a TV ad and before that... but the name...
I was slowly waking up.
“Hang on,” I said. “This is... you are... what’s-his-name....”
Whoever it was, laughed. He seemed slightly embarrassed. I gave him a tug on the toupee and a poke in the mid-rif.
“You bastard,” I said, “you’re the rugbyman. You are... You are.... You are....”
I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember. Instead I got a image from way back. From a time of rebel rugby tours. A man imprisoned in a rugby ball, singing. And a boot swings down and man and ball go flying between the posts, converted. A music video with a rugby theme!
“You are... “Ek is a hoppity, hoppity, hoppity rugby-ball!””
And then Leon Shuster gestured to the one way mirror. The familiar gesture of revelation, pointing to the hidden cameras. My recent suspicions were correct. I yelled out in surprise and admiration. I did it in Afrikaans.
“Jou gwar,” I shouted, and then, at the top of my voice, “jou gwar.”
I am forced at this stage to make a slight linguistic digression. It is made in the interests of truth. That word (I’m sure you know the one I mean) came, unprompted, to my lips. That word and no other. I can show you the tape. It is, as I have said, Afrikaans. It is a low and evil synonym for a miraculous body part and that is as far as I will go without my attorney present. That I chose it relates profoundly to the theme of this article: That Leon Shuster, by the nature of his work and his history, is one of the few honest mirrors that we have.
There are many industry people who join newspaper critics in berating Shuster. He is seen as pandering to the lowest common denominator. Further, he has a long Association with Edgar Bold of Toron. Bold towed the apartheid line during the apartheid years, making films like “Boetie Gaan Border Toe” which glamourized a stupid war. Shuster worked for many years in Afrikaans, state-controlled radio. There are people who say that if movies are to be subsidized in South Africa, one thing we must not do is subsidize films by Leon Shuster.
The bitterness is understandable. In the past, people who wanted to make films that reflected a South African reality were not encouraged. Artists whose best work is censored and repressed are injured by that experience. It is not easy for them to look at Shuster’s success with generosity.
This is a pity, because Shuster, like Jamie Uys before him, offers a valid reflection. There is a scene in The Panic Mechanic where he dons blackface and puts up a barrier on a dirt road in Ventersdorp. Ventersdorp’s white community is not known for its liberalism. Stopping white farmers, Shuster informs them that the arrangement is a toll gate. The money will go to RDP. Only whites have to pay. Black drivers are waved through. Big hairy men of sincere right wing conviction reach for weaponry. Shuster is a brave man. And he brings out the best in the right wing, because, finally, they do not shoot him. Instead, they laugh. And we laugh with them.
In these candid camera satires, Shuster is following in the footsteps of Uys, the master. I first saw Uys’ Funny People on television many years after it was made. It was in the eighties, in the time of emergencies and mayhem, and I was quite prepared to dislike the film. It would fuel one’s rage at the drivel the Afrikaner hegemony was feeding to its lethargic constituency. Instead, my wife and I laughed so much we nearly fell out of our chairs.
One scene in particular caught my fancy. Uys had concealed an actor in a post box. Innocent passers-by were forced to face the possibility of their own madness. The Post Office’s equipment was speaking to them. Their reactions were delightful. English people, initially startled, simply ignored the phenomenon. In a piece of inverted ostrich philosophy, they took the line that if you didn’t look at it, it wasn’t there. Uys had succeeded in making a profound cultural observation. After all, there were quite a few English people who reacted in exactly the same way to Apartheid.
A coloured gentleman on the other hand, responded joyfully. For him the voice was a happy surprise. He engaged in conversation with the post box. He called on other pedestrians to come and enjoy the phenomenon with him. The post box, now that he had company, refused to speak, placing our pedestrian in a position where he appeared insane. He pleaded with it to fulfill its promises, but it remained silent. The pedestrian was left like a member of the ex House of Representatives, watching his government car being repossessed as the old order collapsed. His peers poured scorn on his head.
I have no idea whether thoughts like this ever entered the head of the deceased Jamie Uys. They didn’t enter mine at the time. They emerge from lengthy contemplation. Uys was simply doing what artists are meant to do: holding up a mirror to society. He took pictures of us in weird situations and we revealed ourselves. Because the implications of our behaviour was so concealed by laughter, the images were allowed.
The South African film industry now finds itself in a remarkable position. There is the freedom to make movies that reflect us honestly. However, the writers that should be writing them are in advertising, or magazines, or corporate education. They are in some field where people are actually prepared to invest money. The producers that should be investing in the writers are not in the habit of doing so. In the past, scripts were chosen for their ideological correctness rather than the quality of their story line. It is not in the culture of old-school-producers, most of whom retain their positions, to go the theatre to find writers whose work is creating controversy; writers whose narratives and characters are earning the laughter of recognition. It is not the culture of theatre producers to commission those writers. Until this happens, until South Africa gets into the habit of investing in its writers, nurturing and sustaining them, paying them to exercise their god-given talent for reflection, we will not have a film industry.
One thing we do have, however, is Shuster. And we like him. The Panic Mechanic beat all previous box office records. With its little rand budget it out grossed movies made with American millions. This is a remarkable achievement. And it is a measure of how happy the South African public is to see itself.
Shuster is slowly escaping from the bonds of candid camera and moving into the freedom of story based comedy. He collaborated with, and paid, Greg Latter, one of the few working screenplay writers in the country, to write a story for him. The screenplay is finished and Shuster loves it. But the money men are cautious. Will the public want a Shuster picture without the candid camera element?
There is no way to answer that question without making the movie. If the elements can be pulled together; if producer, writer, director, photographer and actors are all correctly chosen; if they are inspired and joyful in their manner of working, I suspect the South African public, perhaps even the international public, would go and see the movie in droves. If I had six million lying around I’d call Shuster and ask to see the screenplay myself. I know I would dearly love to see more of Mr Leeandert Pot.