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
“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
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
“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
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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