2018 is turning out to be an exciting year for South African film. ‘Five Fingers for Marseilles’, a western that tells the story of a group of young men (the ‘Five Fingers’) who stand up to brutal police oppression in Marseilles, a town in the rugged badlands of the Eastern Cape opens at cinemas nationwide on 6 April. The film has already lit up the global festival circuit and has earned excellent reviews.
It tells the story of Tau, who kills two policemen, and is sentenced to 20 years in prison. When he gets out, the embittered ‘Lion of Marseilles’ discovers his comrades are now in prominent positions in the town. But there’s also a vicious new threat afoot, and so Tau must reform the Five Fingers and take on old allies and new enemies.
TIFF world premiere
The film made its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and went on to screen at Fantastic Fest, BFI London Film Festival, and the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Since then, it has been receiving rave reviews.
After it screened at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, in late September, a festival review spoke of the world of the film as “a gorgeous, complex world,” calling ‘Five Fingers for Marseilles’ one of the most striking debuts of recent years, and naming it part of “a wave that will completely redefine the international perception of what African cinema can be.”
‘Five Fingers for Marseilles’ is the feature directorial debut of Michael Matthews, and the feature screenwriting debut of Sean Drummond. The film is produced by Asger Hussain and Yaron Schwartzman of Game 7 Films and Sean Drummond/Michael Matthews of Be Phat Motel Film Company. Dylan Voogt of Stage 5 Films is co-producer, and Paulo Areal and Dumi Gumbi serve as executive producers.
“I’ve long loved the idea of bringing the western into a South African space, but not in a way that risked ‘gimmick’ or stuck to the routine or the expected,” says Drummond. “In the world of Five Fingers for Marseilles, I found a story I was burning to tell, a chance to explore a seldom seen part of the country, to capture a vivid way of life, explore little known histories and a chance to write complex, compelling characters, with depth and weight, for the best actors in the country, and a film that would create heroes, anti-heroes and villains that might even become iconic.”
Casting began five years before production, with multiple generations of South African talent joining the project, from veteran stars Jerry Mofokeng, Kenneth Nkosi, Hamilton Dhlamini and Mduduzi Mabaso to relative newcomers Lizwi Vilakazi and Warren Masemola. Vuyo Dabula, star of television’s ‘Generations’, steps into a career-defining lead role, carrying the film with flair, opposite Zethu Dlomo, fresh from her starring role in US drama series Black Sails. Dean Fourie, Kenneth Fok, Brendon Daniels, Anthony Oseyemi, Garth Breytenbach, Tseko Monaheng, and Mosili Makuta round out a stellar supporting cast.
A Sesotho cowboy tale
Written in English, the film was always intended to play in a local language, and Basotho screenwriter Mamokuena Makhema came on board as a translator and cultural advisor, consulting on language, culture and nuance, and ensuring the dialogue in Sesotho captured the poetry and depth of the original script.
Actors were given the freedom to look at their own lines and translations, too, and the film was written with the intention of allowing silence, allowing for removing dialogue and letting scenes play with emotional beats as per the script, but not necessarily the words themselves.
The film will have its African premiere at Rapid Lion, the upcoming South African International Film Festival, and it will open at cinemas nationwide on 6 April. ‘Five Fingers for Marseilles’ is distributed in South Africa by Indigenous Film Distribution.