A mix of documentary, reality and staged reality, the new German / South African film Gangster Project takes the viewer into a sinister space – that of the Cape Flats’ criminal underworld.
Think gangsters and swaggering, gold-chain laden, designer tracksuit-attired bullies come to mind – fearless, threatening and aggressively in your face.
Teboho Edkins’ film Gangster Project presents a different picture – groups of bored young men who huddle claustrophobically in their houses and peak nervously out of their windows, too scared to venture beyond the front door for fear of being gunned down by rival gangs.
During the four years that it took to make the film, Edkins immersed himself in his characters’ world, if not their criminal activities.
Edkins uses himself as a character in the film to unlock the subject matter. “The issue I grappled with was how to make a gangster film if you’re not a gangster yourself. You can’t just go and film gangsters, you have to earn their trust and the right to tell their story.
“I grew up a lot during the making of the film and even went a bit mad, shaving my head and letting the gangsters teach me how to take drugs.’
Edkins was inspired to make the film by the notion of being a white man of privileged and cosmopolitan background infiltrating a marginalised and impoverished black community in Bonteheuvel.
“It was quite strange, I was relatively safe in situations that I thought would be dangerous, and hugely at risk when I’d assumed it would be safe,’ notes Edkins.
Gangster Project was conceived while Edkins was studying at le Fresnoy art school in France. “I was making a gangster rap music video and wanted to feature actual gangsters in it. So I went to Cape Town because I knew someone there who was a half-gangster,’ he explains.
Once he decided to embark on an actual documentary project about gangsters, Edkins was introduced to several gangs and more or less auditioned them for his film.
“The first gangster I met was not good looking enough and didn’t fit my preconception about gangsters being glamorous. Then the next gangster I met had too many kids, while the third was too traumatised. Finally I found the right gang – they were good looking and had all been in jail for murder.
“Each of the gangsters I met during the making of the film was flattered by the attention and all of them claimed to be marginalised in some way,’ stated Edkins.
Gangster Project begins on a light note – Edkins and his cameraman Tom Akinleminu drive through the Cape Flats discussing sunscreen. Then things get serious…
A running dialogue through the film is about the choices that the gangsters make which result in them leading such violent and traumatic lives. Some of the gangsters maintain they were born into gangsterism, while others attribute the cause to poverty.
“It wasn’t my aim to do a socio-political piece – I just wanted to focus on the gangsters themselves and the lives they lead,’ comments Edkins. “On a personal level Gangster Project is a coming of age story, trying to understand the dynamics of a privileged white person holding a camera in a poor black person’s face. I’ve been interested to note that “arty’ people find interesting concepts of masculinity and race in the film.’
Although international broadcasters Arte and N24 have shown interest in the 53-minute film Edkins stresses that Gangster Project is very much a festival film, due to its experimental nature.
The film screened at the recent Durban International Film Festival and has appeared at festivals in Marseilles, Rotterdam, France’s Centre Pompidou and many others, including Ukraine where it received a special mention.
Edkins showed his “stars’ a rough cut of the film after which they promptly pirated it.
“The whole of the Cape Flats has seen this film – the pirate DVDs cost R10,’ he notes. “At one stage the police tried to arrest my lead character and use the film as evidence against him, which was then thankfully dismissed by the judge when my character claimed the film to be fictional.
“I do believe that Gangster Project is an important film for South Africa because it shows violence to be horrible, dirty and small. The atmosphere in the ghetto is stifling – the only thing for the gangsters to do is take drugs, which makes them paranoid as a result. They’re often broken people and it’s difficult to empathise with them, but I tried not to judge them in any way.’
Edkins’ response when asked what has happened to his “stars’ pretty much says it all: “Sadly, some of them are now in jail while others have been killed.’
By Joanna Sterkowicz
screen africa magazine – september 2012