Friday, October 8, 2010

A Small Movie with a Big Message

The South African film A Small Town Called Descent is currently being screened at the Tri Continents Film Festival in Johannesburg. Directed by first-time filmmaker Jahmil X. T. Quebeka, the film is a hard examination of some the ugly realities of contemporary SA.

Descent is not the easiest film to watch: production and sound quality are variable, the plot takes too many twists and turns, and there is an over-reliance on stock footage, which sometimes detracts from the narrative and the characters before you.

That said, there is something quite brutal and honest about Quebeka’s confrontation of the xenophobic violence of May 2008, and the effect that these events had on the collective psyche of the nation.

Moreover, his work documents how the gush of violence exposed a deeper uncertainty about the institutions of our democracy and the perception of our own moral certainty after the end of apartheid. The fallibility of our policing services and the difficulty of their task in an environment of official lawlessness and corruption was another striking aspect of the film.

I caught up with one of its stars, Paul Buckby, who will be familiar to fans of television series Generations, and Egoli. He is also currently on our TV screens as detective Eddie Holmes on Isidingo on SABC3.

David Ansara: In the film you play a member of the Scorpions tasked with investigating a xenophobic attack in the titular (and fictional) Karoo town of ‘Descent’. Describe your character and what motivates him.

Paul Buckby: The character I play is a Scorpion called 'Nathan Liebowitz'. The idea of giving him an Israeli identity was to avoid the too-often-seen, stereotypical relationship between the black cop and the Afrikaner cop. This also helps to mystify him somewhat. Nathan alludes to having served in the Israeli Special Forces and in the SA Parabats, so he's not an open book as far as his experience is concerned. He is motivated by seeing justice done and takes his career seriously.

DA: What were the challenges of playing Liebowitz?

PB: Liebowitz is a walking paradox. He appears to be in complete control of his world around him, but inside he wages war with his demons. To show this contrast gently, was a challenge.

DA: Descent is wide-ranging in terms of its subject matter. In fact, it probably tries to tackle too much (xenophonbia, corruption, gender violence, the legacy of Apartheid, crime, racism, etc). But it nevertheless paints an interesting portrait of the eventful period between the end of 2007 and late 2008. What themes in the film resonated most strongly with you, and how have audiences reacted to the issues portrayed in the movie?

PB: South Africa certainly offers the film maker a kaleidoscope of subjects to focus on and I agree with you that maybe director Jahmil X. T. Quebeka tackled too many of them at once, but so much was going on around that time, not least of which, was the sudden recall of Thabo Mbeki. It’s hard to avoid references to Apartheid in this film or corruption for that matter, which has become cannon-fodder for the media. Xenophobia, a term I hadn't really heard of until 2007-8, has now become a part of my daily dialogue.

The variety of subjects shown in Descent has certainly gotten audiences talking. However, the Issue of xenophobia is to me what the film is all about. Even though the Scorpion characters have different backgrounds and political convictions, they discover that their humanity is a constant and it brings them together.

DA: The role was very physical and there are several action sequences. Were you up to the task?

PB: It’s amazing how willing actors are to throw themselves into risky situations, just to get the perfect shot. The fight sequence with 'Demon' (John Dlamini) was very physical and he was great to work with. He has no experience as an actor, but rose to the occasion admirably.
There is a scene where we are grappling with each other near some shacks, when he is choreographed to pick me up and bulldoze me into a shack wall. After a slightly measured first take, I asked him not to hold back his aggression. Well, the second take was somewhat different…

Paul Buckby in action as Nathan Liebowitz

He picked me up with the same ease as I would a sheaf of wheat and rammed me into the shack. I felt something give in my rib cage, which left me winded! I was in agony, but we had to soldier on. The sequence shows me wincing, which I used, without any choice, to full effect. It took me a month to recover from what I thought was a broken rib, but turned out to be less than so. It was worth it!

DA: Ouch. What were some of the other highlights from the shoot for you personally?

PB: The black Golf GTi played a vital role, not only as the 'Scorpionmobile', but as a car I really enjoyed driving around our shooting location, Somerset East. It’s an awesome car to drive. It created a stir with the locals, who must've thought we were the real deal.

I remember an amusing incident one morning: We were standing next to our Gti, adorned in imposing Scorpion insignia and a blue light. We were waiting to get the call to set, fully kitted out in Kevlar vests and wearing our 9mm Brownings, when a coloured gentleman, looking quite distressed, asked if we could assist him to break up a fight between two farmers! I must say, I was tempted to do so! I'm sure we would've diffused the situation, even though our sidearms were empty!

DA: A convincing portrayal indeed! There are many graphic depictions of violence and sexual assault in the film. Did you feel it was necessary to show, for instance, the photograph of the Burning Man, the Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave?

PB: This tragic event is what spawned the idea for the film. When Jahmil saw the photo on the front pages, he was moved to try and investigate this further - if only on a fictional level. The showing of this photo will hopefully serve to remind us of what we don't want to experience ever again.

DA: Has filmmaking become more or less difficult in South Africa, particularly for young or first-time directors? I am referring particularly to funding, logistics, distribution, etc.

PB: I’m planning to produce my first film next year, so maybe I will have to put my answer to that one on hold until I've experienced the challenges for myself. I can say that Anand Singh from VideoVision, the distributor for Descent, said at the recent Durban Film Festival that it’s an exciting time for filmmaking in SA, however, the challenge of securing a distribution deal remains enormous. His advice is to continue making the films you want to make and don't give up.


A Small Town Called Descent is produced by A Moment's Entertainment and is showing at Cinema Nouveau Brooklyn Mall (18h00) and Rosebank (20h00) tomorrow, Saturday 9th October, 2010. It is scheduled for nationwide release in February 2011.


Images courtesy of Paul Buckby


  1. Good Review and great that an interview was secured with one of the films lead actors. Keep it up David!

  2. Thanks a lot David. Paul is a great guy and is very open and incredibly funny. I suggest you try see the film.