Four Corners: Stories of hope in the Cape Flats
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Fri, 03 Jan 2014 15:34
HONEST AND AUTHENTIC: Ian Gabriel directs a community chess scene in the Cape Flats for Four Corners

Four Corners, South Africa’s submission to the 2014 Oscars in the best foreign language category is a multi-thread narative with four different family stories converging together around the coming-of-age tale of a young 13-year-old Cape Flats boy named Ricardo.

Ian Gabriel (Forgiveness) directed the movie, which is generating a lot of award buzz in the lead-up to the 86th Academy Awards in March.

“The four stories are drawn together in the climax around a single significant event for the boy, and all four versions, plus the boy’s account are themed around stories of family. The themes deal with absent fathers, the death of a family member, the search for lost relatives, the abduction of children and the desire for revenge for harm inflicted on a family member,” says Gabriel.

“So each story thread in the film is very much around those themes. My intention in making this film was to balance the gangland story with thoughts about the struggle for families to survive in tough circumstances, made tougher by the influence of the gangs,” he comments.

The director and his team spent a lot of time researching the script. “And that was not just ‘intellectual research’, it was very much on the ground research with Hofmeyr Scholtz, the principal writer, visiting prisons, travelling with cops, meeting chess players and so forth.

“However, what was vital was that the research never had to stop. When we looked for locations and for cast, and improvised with cast, we were still ‘researching’ in that we drew the community into all aspects of the filmmaking process,” he continues.

Gabriel decided to find all the locations himself, partly because he had a strong vision of what the film and the lives of the different characters should look like, but also because he didn’t want to end up with a ‘broken telephone’ between him and the community.

He says: “I knew we were going to be dependent entirely on the community – our plan was to shoot in the real areas of the Cape Flats, some of which were well-known ‘turf war’ areas. We could only safely go there if the community knew and understood what we were doing and gave their blessing to our project.

“And I think we earned that blessing because the filmmaking was very honest and authentic, nothing fake was set up. We tried to look at the light as well as the dark and tried to balance those two elements in the film. We wanted a story of hope.”

Community members also often told Gabriel that the Cape Flats is a ‘forgotten community’. “There was a sense that the Cape Flats stories were not being told, or would only be reported in the papers when something bad happens, which we hear quite often in news headlines. We weren’t going to pretend that those tough stories don’t happen, but we were going to balance them with honest reflections of real everyday life on the Cape Flats.”

Gabriel used a lot of non-actors in the movie and comments that the focus is really on the dynamic interplay that occurs when you put established actors, new actors, non-actors and ‘real people’ together, working on the same scenes.
“They all approach the reality of the scene in different ways. That means that you can get the best out of the actors because they’re out of their normal ‘actor to actor’ comfort zone. So they stretch themselves further,” he says.

“On the other hand, the non-actors and ‘real people’ players see the actions they are doing and the words they’re saying (usually improvising around the written text) become authentic because of the reaction and response of the trained actors.

“Sergio Leone once advised Clint Eastwood when he was a young actor: ‘Don’t just do something, stand there’. Learning to ‘not act’, to just stand there, to be in the moment, to forget about the ‘next line’ is the most fundamental and essential acting task there is,” continues Gabriel.

“We were able to achieve that across the board in Four Corners because the environment and characters were very real. Plus we had 60 speaking parts, so there was no possibility of only casting known actors for an entirely Cape Flats- based film. We made a virtue of necessity.”

Gabriel says they held castings where actors were mixed with non-actors and switched roles all the time and created controlled improvisations around real events so the two groups would learn from each other.

He comments: “The way Farakhan (Brendon Daniels) walks when he leaves the prison and hasn’t yet found his way as a father, is something I watched him adopt and make his own from watching the walk of some of the ex-prisoners and ex-gangsters we cast in the film. He absorbed the non-actors’ mannerisms and they developed faith in their ability to act by working closely with the actors and learning to listen rather than to ‘act’.”

Four Corners carries a strong message of hope. “The message of hope is firstly delivered in the focus on the importance of family and secondly in the positive influence that community activity (in this case chess) can have over the seduction of gangs,” says Gabriel.

He believes that hope can be realised in the Cape Flats. “The more people who make stories in the Flats, the more people who bring investment and training and opportunities to the Flats, the better the Flats will become. We created training and employment opportunities and told some stories that come out of real Cape Flats experiences. That brings real hope to frustrated lives. More must be done.”

The team shot six days a week for five weeks, completing five minutes of finished film a day. “That was a hectic schedule but that was all the money we had. So I had a choice to shoot in five weeks or not to shoot at all. I am happy we made as it was an ambitious schedule with what is really an epic shoot,” Gabriel mentions. “But the big challenge was to tell the truth, not to create an outside fantasy impression of what was going on.”

Four Corners was shot in Mannenberg, Elsies River, Tafelsig, Eastridge, Ottery Reformatory, Pumlani, Khayelitsha, Vatverniet and Macasar with the Alexa using Anamorphic lenses to achieve a long-lens, shallow-depth of field look.

“That was based on our desire to let the characters drive the look and feel of the film rather than the surroundings. We wanted to stay inside the characters’ lives. Sometimes when we did go wide it’s quite a shock to see the beauty of the landscape against the tough story we’re telling. But that also gives us reason to hope for the future,” the director reveals.

Commenting on the exceptional positive reactions the movie has received so far, Gabriel says: “It’s beautifully shot, has very strong believable performances, and isn’t afraid to tell a true story the way it really is. It is a moral tale without being over-moralising or sanctimonious. The actors all believed in the value of what they were doing.”

Four Corner’s first edit was done by Ronelle Loots with additional edits by Emily Busac and then some further finesse by Karien Murray. The VFX work was done at Searle Street Post in Cape Town. Markus Wormstorm debuts as the composer of the score and Barry Donnelly mixed the track.

The movie was written by Gabriel, Terence Hammond and Hofmeyr Scholtz and produced by Cindy Gabriel and Genevieve Hofmeyr.

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