Born and raised in Johannesburg, Ben Stillerman is a fledgling filmmaker now
completing his studies at the University of Southern California (USC). For his
Masters project, Stillerman decided to turn to a central feature of his childhood
to create an intensely personal documentary that examines the intersections of
business with family, community and country.
As Ben Stillerman grew up, many of the events in his young life revolved around
the family business run by his father, Clive. The business in question was Benoni
Discount Stores, a general store that has served the community in the East
Rand town since the 1940s, with Clive representing the second generation of
Stillermans to own and run it.
For the younger Stillerman, who went on to study literature and philosophy at
the University of Cape Town before beginning his film studies, his relationship
with his father, as well as his father’s outlook on the community and country in
which he lived, all seemed to be integrally connected with the shop. For this
reason, when the time came to come up with a concept for his Master of Fine
Arts project, he decided to head home and shoot a documentary based around
the running of the store and the complex character of the man who runs it.
Looking back on the birth of this concept, Stillerman says: “I wanted to do
something really personal, something that only I could do – something that was
clearly South African but that also had some kind of universal appeal. I have
always been interested in the relationship between something as commonplace
as business and the larger issues we all wonder about. I feel that there is a lot
of interesting philosophy in something as commonplace as the day-to-day
running of a shop.
“The specifics of the concept came from the fact that the shop has been a
constant in my life since I was born. Also, my Dad is a very interesting character;
he thinks of himself as a shopkeeper, nothing more and yet there are a lot of
universal lessons to be learned from his life and his way of running his
A multilayered story
The film, which was in production during the month of June and will soon begin
post-production back in the US with the aim of being ready for release in mid-
2015, is called Taking Stock. Its premise is simple but its implications, if
communicated effectively in the final product, will be multilayered. Stillerman’s
intention is to build the story around the central character of his father, while
the main event narrative will consist of the movement of a month’s worth of
stock in and out of the store. Through these, keeping in mind Stillerman’s belief
that wisdom and profundity can be found in the commonplace, he aims to
interrogate the complex relationships that he believes exist between business
and family, business and community, business and country.
“On the family level,’ Stillerman says, “what I’m trying to do is get to the heart
of what it means to run a business and have a family and what kind of values
you are able to transfer from one to the other – what works and what doesn’t
work in that transference. When I was growing up I saw the overlaps
everywhere from my Dad’s mood when he came home at the end of the day, to
what kind of holidays we were able to go on, to what we gave and received as
birthday presents (because they all came from the store). This level is naturally
the most immediate for me and probably the most difficult one emotionally.
“The community level relates to issues around my father’s religion, being Jewish,
as well as larger issues like Benoni itself and how it has changed over time.
Looking at the country, that’s an ever-present reflection in the film. The business
has been in existence since 1947 and my father has held it for about the last 32
years. He’s seen apartheid rise and fall, he’s sold blankets and essentials to the
poor community in the area, and he’s also sold supplies to panicking white
Afrikaners who thought the apocalypse was coming in the early 1990s.’
The events and changes of the years have created a number of inner conflicts
within Clive and it is these that his son has sought to bring out and dissect in
the film. “He’s a 59-year-old man so he has built up a world of contradictions
within himself, like anyone would at that age. He regrets some of his decisions
and he’s very proud of some others. The most important thing for me, as a son
looking at his father, is to give him a forum to talk, to discuss some of these
conflicts and hopefully to reach some conclusions and to offer him some sort of
catharsis,’ Stillerman says.
Aside from Stillerman, the crew consisted of Czech sound designer Jan
Bezouska, American cinematographer Dave Dorsey and producer Arun
Narayanan, and local production assistant, driver, assistant cameraman and
general problem shooter Moses Banda.
The crew’s “A’ camera was a Canon C-300 with L-series lenses, while the “B’
camera was a 5D Mk III. Two-camera set-ups were used for the interviews and
a GoPro was deployed in two different ways, being both placed in a “security
camera’ position in the shop and also used in car scenes to film interviews with
Clive while he was driving.
After Stillerman has submitted the film for his Masters assessment, he will look
for distribution through the usual channels – film festivals such as Tribeca,
Sundance, Toronto, Durban and Encounters. He will also explore video-on-
demand platforms. “Our main concern now is making the best film we can and
then once we’ve made something good, I hope we’ll find a home for it, be that
PBS, SABC 2 or Encounters.’