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French director Jérôme Salle on his SA movie

Following a crime spree investigation amidst the lingering ghosts of post-Apartheid South Africa, hard-hitting thriller City of Violence, which stars Forest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom, hits screens this week. We chat to the film's French director, Jérôme Salle
What drew you to a South African film?
When I read the book [ Zulu by Caryl Férey] I thought it was a great story, but when I was approached about working on the film version, I wasn’t keen to do it because it was a South African story. I knew the country like many other foreigners do, the great stories about Nelson Mandela and the rugby world cup. But the studio who offered me the book sent me to SA for a few weeks to travel around, meet people and make up my mind. It’s an amazing country and I saw it would be an amazing place to shoot because it’s beautiful, but more importantly the people I met made it very thrilling for me.
I knew there was a strong story to tell. I realised that being a foreigner was not a handicap, in fact it could make things easier because I was kind of neutral because I’m not a part of the country’s past and of the ghosts that are still around. That helped me to feel comfortable talking and working with people of all races and backgrounds. I really wanted to try to understand the country and to make the movie as South African as possible, so I worked with South African actors [aside from the two leads] and with a mainly South African crew. I think this was important for the movie, while it’s not just about South Africa, it’s a South African story and I wanted to honour that.
What challenges did you face as a French director working on a South African movie with international stars?
I had many challenges. Firstly I’m French, this was my first English-speaking movie so it’s a challenge when you don’t work in your native tongue. Secondly, my challenge was to keep it as South African as possible, but that was actually fun. I really tried to make a South African movie and on the set we had about five or six foreigners and about 70 South Africans.
Why was it important to have big names like Forest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom in the leading roles?
Having stars is important for any movie in order to get the funding you need. But more importantly they’re just good. I know South Africans think that if you’re talking about SA you should hire South African leads, but Forest and Orlando are just great actors. You also have great actors in SA of course and I think it’s a fantastic experience for South African actors to work with these people. Aside from these two leads, I really wanted to keep it South African. In fact, there are some non-professional actors in the movie – like Randall Majiet who plays a gangster, Cat, in the movie, I found him in the street casting, he was in a rehab centre and is a former gang member. I’ve tried to mix things up, you have a mixed culture here. The movie’s like SA, it’s a mixed movie.
As the title suggests, it’s a very violent movie, which at times can be quite difficult to watch. Why did you film it in this way as opposed to just using the suggestion of violence?
I wanted to make it as real as possible, I didn’t want to make it look like a blockbuster movie. I knew from the beginning that it would be violent. The story’s violent so I couldn’t avoid that. I’m not totally comfortable with the way violence is stylised in most Hollywood movies because I don’t agree with showing violence as “good looking”. I think romanticising violence is a trap. So if I show violence I show it the way it is, which is gritty and most people don’t want to look at that.
The movie is actually a bit more violent than I expected, but because I worked with South African people – the stunt coordinator was South African, the actors who played the gang members were South African – they are used to this world. So the ideas they had on set makes it look real. It looks real because we had real people around us, which is what I was looking for. I think it’s more honest to show violence in a real way.
What do you want viewers to take away from the movie?
It’s about forgiveness so I want them to keep in mind that forgiving is necessary, but it’s very difficult. You can’t be sure that you’ve succeeded, that’s what happens to one of the lead characters Ali (played by Forest Whitaker), he’s convinced that he’s been able to forgive, but this is challenged.
I think deep in your heart there’s always a small fire burning and if something happens in your life, it explodes like a bomb. You have to keep that in mind to be able to move on which also plays on the underlying theme of Apartheid. The country still has a long way to go, which is normal, but what you’ve accomplished already is great. This theme is universal though, how necessary and important it is to forgive, but how difficult it is.
City of Violence hits SA screens on 10 October. For more with Jérôme Salle, see the October issue of DESTINY.
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When is this coming out on DVD in the US? I have come to the conclusion I will never see this movie. :(

Thank you Rene for posting the interview. :hug:


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Here's an interview with Orlando and a review from Independent Online SA.

Orlando Bloom talks SA-based film

Playing an alcoholic mess of a South African cop in City of Violence is worlds away from the kind of roles English actor Orlando Bloom has become famous for, writes Theresa Smith.

ORLANDO Bloom phones from Los Angeles and expresses disappointment at not being able to travel to Cape Town again. (Actually, it’s the PR poppie who probably dialled, but it sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it?)

“I had such an amazing time there,” Bloom says about the City of Violence shoot in Cape Town in the second half of 2012.

The English actor travelled to the Mother City weeks before filming started. Prep meant learning the dialect, talking to people and immersing himself in the culture and way of life.

“I wanted to understand. The dialect was important, to try to finesse the dialect and make it as good as I could. I found that a useful way into the character,” said Bloom.

While South African media outlets love pointing out a link to the country through the man he thought was his father (Harry Bloom), the 37-year-old didn’t really have much of a relationship with the country before shooting this film.

The Capetonians he had met in Australia had given him a bit of an insight into what he terms “the naturism of the South African man”.

“ ‘I feel like South African men are men,’ one of the guys said to me. ‘That guy who doesn’t cry in front of his horse’,” Bloom said in a credible Australian accent – which was amusing because he had been speaking in neutral London English tones.

“I got the sense that ‘men are men’ in South Africa” – this time Bloom is speaking a familiar Souf Effriken eksent and I’m struggling not to giggle. It’s almost like a stereotype of the macho man – lots of machismo.

Turns out Bloom also spent some time with South African policemen. “From what I gleaned it is a thankless task,” he says drily.

The story he created in his head about the Brian character he plays in City of Violence was that his father would have been Afrikaans and the mother English.

“When I spent time in Cape Town, I thought about why this character behaved liked he did. He has an ex-wife and a dysfunctional relationship with his son.

“I spoke to (director) Jerome (Salle). To be a cop in South Africa... I would be drinking, I’d be self-medicating just to get through the day. Brian, at his core, is an honourable man who wants to do the right thing, be a good foot soldier. But he’s a mess. Conflicted. Angry. With a dysfunctional relationship with his father.

“Every now and then in the film you will see Brian take a nip out of a bottle of Klipdrift, conveniently hidden in jacket pocket. The Klippies was something that would help him through the day. All of that leads to this disconnected, dysfunctional person trying to function in a proper environment. At his core he is just a person, but outwardly he is completely useless. That’s something that a lot of people can relate to.”

Yes, Bloom got to drive the battered little yellow Ford himself: “I tried to buy it, but it was going to be a ridiculous process.”

He remembers seeing the same car while growing up in the UK: “I loved that car, it felt like it was my car, it was such a perfect car.”

Watching the film when it closed the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year made him think about how shocking audiences would find the violence quotient, but he is very curious about how people are going to respond to it:

“I think that the violence is very graphic, but it’s not glamorised in any way. It’s very true to life, the idea that life is cheap and I think that is a major issue in South Africa. It’s brutal and that brutality was very apparent in the film. It’s a very gut-wrenching feeling, that violence. A Hollywood studio movie would make the violence feel sexy or glamorous. It’s an honest film and that’s quite noble.

“It’s one of the things I responded to in the script and the story and from what Jerome said he wanted to do with the film. It was a very bold choice to make it like this.”

Bloom deems this role a phenomenal opportunity compared with lighter (though blockbuster fare) roles he is so well known for.

“This was a great opportunity to do something different and I really embraced that and felt fortunate to have the opportunity.

“I love to see films that show other cultures and landscapes and people, and I feel like, personally, I love seeing this, this movie shows South Africa in a very clear light.”


DIRECTOR: Jérôme Salle

CAST: Orlando Bloom, Forest Whitaker, Conrad Kemp, Inge Beckmann, Tinarie van Wyk Loots, Regardt van den Bergh, Randall Majiet, Patrick Lyster, Danny Keogh, Chuma Sopotela, Thenjiwe Stemela


THE title should tell you quite a bit about what to expect. But among the nasty, brutal and way too familiar violence, there is a story here about two men trying to forgive and redeem themselves.

Based on Caryl Férey’s novel Zulu, the film mixes the beats of a crime thriller with character exploration to look at this idea of forgiveness, an idea South Africans are familiar with, but never really interrogate in any great measure.

All of this plays out against the backdrop of Cape Town, from the luscious lawns of Kirstenbosch to the mean streets of the Cape Flats gangland, with a detour across some dreamy beachland, for good measure.

Director Jérôme Salle has gone a long way towards establishing a feel for the less than nurturing side of the Mother City by allowing the actors swirling around the two main characters to be themselves. While characters do sometimes get into some high-minded philosophical discussions, we’ll forgive them because goodness knows we all do it when we get too deep into our beer bottles.

The cinematography allows for the huge vistas of cityscapes and gorgeous nature scenes, especially at the end, when we enter desert country.

The two men, Ali Sokhela (Whitaker) and Brian Epkeen (Bloom, pictured), are policemen investigating a murder and uncovering a drug conspiracy plot made all the more weird by its real-world possibilities.

While the two could not be more different, they are united by their work and a grudging, largely unacknowledged but hard-fought-for mutual respect. Sokhela is a man out of place, a Zulu with impeccable manners in a province dominated by Xhosas. A constant visual refrain throughout the film is of Sokhela running, either on a treadmill or in his dreams, in which he is a child in KwaZulu-Natal and running away during a riot. The film is bookended by the imagery, and constantly returning to the idea of forgiveness which dominates how Sokhela looks at himself.

In the beginning of the story, Sokhela is painted as a man who has forgiven what was done to him under a previous dispensation, working with his previous oppressors and/or enemies, but as his investigation progresses and the crimes touch his life personally, he struggles with the idea of not taking revenge, of really living out this idea of forgive and forget.

Whitaker does such a good job of establishing this gentle guy with high moral principles that the eventual ending comes out of left field and doesn’t quite gel with everything that went before.

While the Epkeen character could so easily have come across as a caricature – washed-up cop, alcoholic, with a very messed up relationship with his ex-wife and son – Bloom manages to keep it real. Despite wanting to not care, Epkeen does as he gets caught up in the investigation. But this guy has some serious anger-management issues and it would have been more useful to see him on the job more and less of him haranguing his family.

Luckily, his immediate superior (Sokhela) trusts his instincts and keeps Epkeen on the job, so the investigations continue.

At a film-festival screening, an earlier reviewer praised the characterisation, but felt the film descended too quickly into the visual vocabulary of brutality and casual violence. It does contain a high quotient of in-your-face, ugly violence, but nothing the average Capetonian not living in the city bowl or fancy suburbs won’t have either experienced or read about in The Voice.

Barring some extra fast police lab work, the plot feels surreal enough to be real because the way the characters respond is very familiar and this makes the film work.

By the way, the title got changed from Zulu because the producers wanted to draw the distinction between the pirated DVD surreptitiously available around the country and this, the real deal.

If you liked Jerusalema, you will enjoy this.


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Movie review: City of Violence

City of Violence tells the story of two very different South African policemen who must battle the ghosts of the past as they investigate the murder of a teenage girl
Filmed in Cape Town and Namibia, City of Violence is a film noir that delves into the depths of the enduring scars of Apartheid against the backdrop of a spate of horrific murders. Two policeman, Brian Epkeen (Orlando Bloom) and Ali Sokhela (Forest Whitaker) are called to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. As they uncover the origin of a deadly drug that leads to more deaths, they become embroiled in a cycle of violence with deeply disturbing links to Project Coast, the Apartheid government’s secret biological and chemical weapons programme.
The investigation also unearths the personal demons these men face, specifically Ali who, although convinced he’s been able to forgive the violence he endured during Apartheid, learns that inner demons often linger. Meanwhile Epkeen is still dealing with the after-effects of a bitter divorce and a reckless lifestyle.
While they’re not South African (and their accents sometimes falter) the two leads give classy performances. Whitaker is convincing as the haunted Ali, whilst Bloom immerses himself in the role of the deeply flawed Brian (who’s unlike any character he’s played before). The South African cast give smaller, but impressive performances, especially Denise Newman who plays the shebeen queen and ex gang member-turned-actor Randall Majiet (Cat).
City of Violence is undoubtedly gripping, but its graphic violence can sometimes be hard to stomach. The film presents an honest, but disturbing picture of the nature of forgiveness and will leave filmgoers feeling somewhat uneasy. It nevertheless provides an interesting perspective on universal human challenges.
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Rene, thanks so much for the interview, the reviews and the clip. I was happy to read the positive reviews. It will be a tough one to watch. I know it will never come my way. I'm not sure if I will seek it out. Excessive violence in a film doesn't do it for me.

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Thank you, for the latest news on Zulu. Most of the reviews I've read have ranked it as excellent or very good. I'm sorry to say, it seems that it will be a DVD and not a movie release here. Please let me be wrong.

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These were interesting to read. Thank you, Rene.

I am also not a fan of seeing extreme violence on the big screen. Blackhawk Down is not a film I watch over and over for this same reason. Even Haven was a bit tough to watch. If it weren't for Orlando being in Zulu, I probably wouldn't be seeing it at all. I will wait to see this one on the small screen at home, via rental or On Demand.

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I enjoyed the interview and trailer. I think I'd like to see this as it is a darker portrayal than we are used to but I have no doubt Orlando can pull it off in a very believable way. Hopefully Netflix soon! Thanks for the info.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Hope to see this one someday. Not excited about the violence but willing to give it a go for the acting and the storytelling.

Meaty articles. Thanks for posting.


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