Buitenkant: “An intimate look at homelessness and the human experience”

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“I live in a part of Cape Town where there’s a sharp contrast between the lives of middle-class professionals who get to live in apartment blocks and a very nuanced homeless community who live on the streets directly outside,” shares filmmaker William Nicholson.

His empathy for the homeless stemming from seeing these two very different realities exist alongside each other led Nicholson to set about the making of his latest project. After much research into the subject of homelessness and interviews with people living on the streets; a moving tale named Buitenkant (The Outside) took form.

“I spent a lot of time interviewing homeless women in particular and reading about homelessness. I still don’t know nearly enough about homelessness, and so it was important to me to make this more about what I believe about general human behaviour rather than hoping to make some kind of accurate exposé on homelessness,” says Nicholson.

In the film actress, Rehane Abrahams plays an everyday homeless person. We witness her journey as she battles with the hardships of not having a place to call home while tapping into the physiological, emotional and territorial behaviours faced by many people living on the streets.

In a stroke of luck, she discovers a set of keys to an apartment – a discovery which grants her an opportunity to escape her harsh reality, even if it’s just for a moment.

At first, she does what might be expected of someone in her position and ransacks the place, looking for food, clothes and other items to steal. However, as time goes by her stroke of luck brings with it its own set of challenges and turmoil.

“From here her emotions become highly complex and volatile: she goes from finding ways to ‘mark her territory’, to angrily avenging her poor fortune by vandalising the homeowner’s wardrobe, to eventually calming down and rectifying some of the damage – some kind of gesture towards the sacredness of having a clean, safe space to call home.”

“The film is ultimately a question about the intersection between identity and circumstances,” explains Nicholson, “Do we get to choose who we are, or are we purely shaped by our surroundings… or is it some strange blend of the two?”

Nicholson shares that the film’s script was initially rejected by several funders, but that did not discourage him from pursuing his project, even if it meant funding the film from his own pocket and with the help of a few supportive friends. “I don’t blame them because on paper it could seem like a very trivial story,” he says. “However, through carefully crafting the story with our amazing actress and crew, we managed to walk the fine line of turning a fairly mundane series of events into something that many people find almost unbearably tense, and in the end, deeply moving and relatable.”

Nicholson and his team set out to complete the project in just one day, using the Sony FS-7. “The Sony FS-7 camera is a pretty versatile affordable camera that works for a doccie-type look and feel. We put some primes on there but nothing fancy – just DSLR ones.”

For financial reasons, the apartment used to shoot the film is actually Nicholson’s own apartment; with some props and images borrowed from his female friends to turn it into a more feminine setting and family home. Nicholson’s apartment is also in fact located on Buitenkant Street; which he decided to take as inspiration for the title of the film.

Nicholson and his team worked swiftly to complete most of the shots on the first day, with only a few additional shots taken the following day. “Pierre De Villiers (the cinematographer) and I designed the film to be something we could shoot with a roaming handheld camera and only natural light. So we had only two people – Pierre and his assistant Fuad Casker – handling the whole camera, lighting and grips department! We played to the strengths of this, going for a look and feel that is raw, immediate and immersive.”

The 11-minute film has often been mistaken for a documentary, which Nicholson credits to the stripped down, immersive approach to the story and character. “It was very scary! We committed creatively to having virtually no dialogue, no music, as well as an almost-real-time approach to editing.”

After watching Buitenkant, the film’s editor, Mieke Vlaming has remarked on how weird it is that even after going through this journey with the character, we still do not know who she is.

“That caught me off guard and made me really worried at first, but then I realised this feature is exactly what gives the film its power: the lead character is in some sense a manifestation of the faceless, nameless ‘everyman’ – the person we all see every day roaming the street for a meal or spare change, but whose name we can’t be bothered to ask or remember,” comments Nicholson.

Chris Bornman was responsible for the sound, while grading and online was done by the Priest Post team (Francesca Verveckken, Amelia Cohen and Jessica Cash).

Buitenkant had its premiere at the 2016 Shnit Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize for Best Made in South Africa Short Film.

After that, the film has gone through its journey around the festival circuit, which included this year’s events at the Jinzhen Short Film Festival in Hancheng, China and at the Ile Courts Film Festival in Mauritius.

However, the film’s most recent highlight is being selected as the Vimeo Staff Pick and receiving over 100 thousand views in just 48 hours after being on Vimeo’s list. In addition, the film has achieved impressive reviews from other filmmakers and industry players including award-winning directors, Dan Mace and John Tengrove, as well as a nod from Vimeo Staff Pick alumni, Ari Kruger for a well-deserved win.

“It’s been a massive confidence booster. I didn’t consider the film to have much mainstream appeal, so it was a big surprise to see that what I consider a very niche film, receive such a popular response both locally and abroad, as well as encouraging support from local filmmakers I admire,” says Nicholson.

“I suspect it’s because the film is an exercise in empathy building. On one level, building empathy for the less fortunate in what is the obscenely unequal society of South Africa. On another level it’s about basic interpersonal empathy: we can’t judge someone until we’ve walked in their shoes. Stylistically, I think people like the film because it refuses to rely on any conventional devices to steer the audience’s emotion – the audience needs to meet the film halfway and bring their own interpretation to what they see,” he concluded.

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