a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

[TIFF Interview] Competition “Accession”

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Interview with Director Michael J. Rix (“Accession”)


Michael J. Rix’s “Accession” is an unrelenting and brutal look at a South African man infected with HIV. His tragedy brings up a plethora of issues that plague life in the townships of South Africa – AIDS, child rape, poverty, the legacy of apartheid. Michael chatted about the big issues and the details of making his completely original and compelling film.

— Tell me about the actor, Pethro Themba Mbole. Is he a professional actor?

Michael J. Rix: He’s not. He’s an amateur at best. He acts in his community, in small stage productions that they put on… but nothing aside from that. Yeah, he’s kind of starting from scratch.

— Did he grow up, or does he live in a township?

Rix: Yeah, he lives in a community pretty much like what you see on camera there. So, we were drawing from that essentially. Just trying to get that into his performance, just his environment. I think he pulled it off.

— Oh I think he did too. Definitely! Growing up in a township, he probably grew up poor. Maybe he still lives fairly poor. Did he bring much of his own personal history into this role?

Rix: He doesn’t know anyone who has been through this, personally. We spoke about it quite a bit. And he obviously hasn’t been through this personally himself. But it is, in those communities, rife. So, they all know about it and can relate to it and kind of know the character just through hearing about it… what that character would entail. So, I kind of put it in his hands. And I kind of trusted that he was drawing on his own experience to get the right tone across.

— And so, in that sense, was a lot of it improvised or scripted or a mix of both?

Rix: It was a mix of both, yeah. I kind of gave him free reign, but we were working to a script. But he was able to improvise as necessary and it came out later if it was usable or not.

— There are many scenes where he appears to be in conversation, but the conversant is cut out. Were those scripted?

Rix: They were loosely scripted, shall we say, but also a big mix. It started with a scripted version and then I gave him free reign to go ahead and just converse. And then we got moments, just fractures of his conversation and his life.

— The character doesn’t have any redeeming qualities – and maybe that’s quite true to the character – but in regards to something you bring to a movie theater, that you want people to identify with something or someone and get a feeling or emotion…

Rix: Yes, he’s definitely the anti-hero, the antithesis. But I wanted it to feel real. That’s essentially how I approached it, so I didn’t want it to feel we’re watching something that’s being scripted and I’m waiting for the narrative to go into act 3 at this point. I think I needed it to feel like a slice of that life. I’ve heard that criticism before and I kind of agree with it, in a way. That’s a whole ‘nother movie. I don’t think it’s same experience. I guess when I go to the movies, that’s what I’m looking for… something to latch on to. But it didn’t seem right for this. I didn’t want any sort of cinematic tricks to be in the audience’s mind as they watch it. They just need to experience it as it is. Does that work?

— It works, but on the other hand, it’s distancing, it’s negative… it’s creepy.

Rix: I did kind of approach it as a horror movie. Creepy is a good word. It’s essentially a human horror. It’s like horrifically awful. You just sort of journey with that character on his downhill slide. It is what it is, I guess.

— Let’s go to your inspirations – the reason why you made this film?

Rix: Obviously it is an issue that affects a certain portion of our society in quite a staggering way. If you actually look at the statistics it’s frightening and it’s never been dealt with on film as far as I know. So I thought it needed to be out there. So that was obviously the original spark. And then in terms of the way it all came together, which was a combination of factors – it started out as a bigger idea, but I couldn’t get it financed. The finances shrunk down into a small compact low-budget… you know with me on camera and eventually doing the editing and the whole thing.

— So you did everything on this one!

Rix: I couldn’t find anyone else.

— People like these exist. Incidents of child rape and killing exist. Were there some specific incidents or newspaper stories that you drew from?

Rix: There are stories, once every couple of months, they make the papers, but not in any dramatic way anymore. It’s just page 3 stuff now. We know it goes on. But that’s just completely wrong in my mind. It should be… I guess the way I approached the film is to make people… ill. Because that’s how you should feel about that subject matter. We didn’t actually research a specific person and get to speak to that person who is one of these criminals. But we researched within the community in terms of people who had met this guy who had been a rapist or something to that effect. I guess it grew out of the community needs. The irony is it will probably never screen to this community.

— Really?

Rix: Because they don’t have cinemas. They aren’t a cinema-going audience. They don’t have cinema in the culture. In South Africa, unless it’s a big Hollywood blockbuster, it’s unlikely to get a screening anywhere.

— Have you thought of yourself or anybody taking the film to the townships and setting up public screenings?

Rix: That’s a possibility. Absolutely. There are a couple of companies that have started that recently and they’re trying to set up mobile screening sites where they drive into the townships, put our chairs… they have a big inflatable screen and they screen these things. Again, it’s probably not the sort of subject matter that audience would want to see anyway. People would just rather ignore it. It’s tricky in that respect where I felt it needed to be out there, but now… how to get it out there is the stumbling block.

— And you were saying that it probably won’t get released in South Africa itself.

Rix: I doubt it. Well, you never know. We have a very niche market to begin with back home. As I say, 80 percent don’t go to the cinema at all. I mean they live in rural environments and rural communities. And the other 20 percent kind of just lost interest. The big multiplexes are barely full – maybe a Friday or Saturday evening. That’s about it. We just don’t have a cinema-going culture in that country.

— Unfortunately I think cinema-going is dying everywhere. I don’t know if you heard the news, today in Asakusa… Have you been to Japan before?

Rix: This is my first time.

— Asakusa is an older neighborhood. It’s kind of a tourist neighborhood now. But it’s the first neighborhood that got electricity in Japan. Therefore it was the first neighborhood that had movies.

Rix: Cinema!

— And it was rightly famous as this is where the first movie theaters were. The last of the old movie theaters closed yesterday. A couple of “pinku” houses and a couple of houses that showed old movies only.

Rix: Was this lack of attendance?

— Yes, lack of attendance, the changing nature of the neighborhood and what people want to go see. They’ve been tearing down the old stuff… daily. And I think they’re trying to make it a little more family friendly, so having some porno theaters there wasn’t… they said we don’t want those there. But things are changing all over the world, much to the chagrin of guys like us who like old movie theaters.

Rix: Old school, exactly. I mean you just don’t get the same experience from a DVD or a VOD or whatever.

— But you have showed your film at Durban,

Rix: London…

— And what sort of reactions have you gotten?

Rix: It has been fairly controversial, I guess. And I wasn’t actually in London, but I had friends at the screening and they actually overheard a conversation after the screening saying, it seemed very realistic, but they don’t believe that this happens anymore. So, I don’t know if that perception is correct or if it’s changed internationally as to what’s going on back home. But the statistics are actually increasing, which is really worrying. In fact, it seems like the world is turning a blind eye. Durban… some people loved it and stayed for the Q and A and sort of blown away. Others were walking out and screaming at me on the way. It’s one of those films, I guess.


©2012 TIFF

— Correct me if I’m wrong, wasn’t there a minister in South Africa who for several years was in AIDs denial?

Rix: You’re probably thinking of our president. There was a rumor… I think it was actually misinterpreted somewhere down the line, but the press got a hold of it and blew it all out of proportion – about the fact that he made some comment about taking a shower to prevent HIV. Yeah, it was kind of an offhand comment and it was out of context. Yeah, it’s been like that for quite a while. Those are the kinds of issues of privilege in African society. We have this miseducation stumbling block where the message is just not getting through to certain communities.

— Is there any real attempt to educate and…

Rix: Obviously not on the correct scale. They would be getting through, but this has been a problem. I think the first reported incidents of it for the South African community were over a decade ago. This is not being reported. I don’t know how to change the situation either. Except by making a film and someone seeing it and saying I’ve got to do something about that. I can’t get my head around it. Hopefully somebody else can.

— In the USA, the gay community, around the Act Up politics, really did change things. And granted, these people probably had much more privilege. They were a society that had more where-with-all to face the problem. But is there any sort of activist community that seems to be growing in South Africa, at all, that you know of?

Rix: Not that I’ve been made aware of, no. There are sort of government initiatives, but obviously not big enough. There’s no sort of community activists and organizations that are dealing with this sort of thing directly.

— That’s too bad. Have you show Accession to a township audience?

Rix: I have not. In Durban there were members from the nearest township that came to that screening.

— That said, has there been any reaction and comments from the black community regarding a white filmmaker mediating their problem?

Rix: I haven’t yet [got any reaction]. I guess I’m kind of expecting it in a way. Especially because there’s a black-white issue that still exists and even though apartheid is out – especially in that way, where black filmmakers are expected to tell black stories, white filmmakers are expected to tell white stories. I just want to tell stories that are interesting and powerful and this happens to be one of them. And I tried, as I said, to make it as realistic as possible. So, hopefully there won’t be that many comments that come back saying it isn’t and accurate portrayal. Because this thing is happening… on literally a daily basis. So, am I wrong to do that? To tell a story like that?

— I don’t think so, but I know that it can be an issue.

Rix: I hear you. I think it probably will be an issue. At some point.

— Good luck.

Rix: Unless it wins awards, then everything’s forgiven, I’m sure.

— Probably to an extent. But this film is such a brutal film that I think people will be a little less forgiving in some ways, ’cause maybe the film isn’t that forgiving. I do have a specific question. Three ships? How did that become a euphemism for HIV?

Rix: It’s a colloquial term that they use. I actually got that from the guys themselves. That’s how they refer to HIV. Three Ships is actually a local whisky back home. So, I don’t know where it actually came about, but that’s how they refer to HIV. For some reason it’s named after the cheapest whisky you can get. It actually came out during the shoot, because it wasn’t scripted that way. I think it was referred to as HIV in the script. And then they just threw in the three ships in there. What is that? HIV? Yeah. OK, so I’ll keep it like that.

— Let’s talk about the camera style. I’d like you to explain why you made this choice of this style? Having those establishing shots at the beginning of the different sequences and then following John so closely. In my count, there are 4 places where you broke this specific style.

Rix: At the end?

— I would say where he’s first informed of having HIV you use a telephoto shot for one of those shots.

Rix: Yes, that’s right.

— And then when he’s chatting with his buddy and the guy tells him how to cure AIDs – his misinformation.

Rix: Yes, that was with a long lens.

— And they seem to be very important moments in the film. The style changed enough for me, that I thought, oh, maybe you’re emphasizing something in this oblique sort of way.

Rix: Interesting.

— It could have just been a random choice.

Rix: I like to think it was intentional. The conversation that leads him to the HIV conclusions is actually… I don’t know if you picked it up… I wanted it to be kind of obscure, but in the background you see the little girl and the baby. Both characters are there. To defocus them, I chose the long lens for that one. So you kind of get a vague idea of these beings that will become relevant later, but they’re not, kind of, in your face. And the other one was?

— When he first gets told he may have HIV.

Rix: When the woman tells him, yeah. That one was actually shot from two different setups and I used half and half in the edit.

— I thought it was this incredible smart choice… and then the rape of the baby and the very final scene. They’re set up so the camera is still very close to him but it’s one of the few times you get him in the context of his room (in the baby shot) and in the very end, he’s in the foreground and he walks back into his shanty and you get the whole view and you’re suddenly distanced from the whole thing.

Rix: There’s a specific cut there from a close-up to that extreme wide shot that we end the film with. That’s kind of the moment of his acceptance of the situation and the fact that he’s about to die. So, I wanted that to be jarring. We suddenly break that close-up… well not for the first time… but you’re getting used to that close-up and then suddenly, we’re wide. Yes, for that exact reason, just to jar the audience.

— But going back to the basic mode of how you’re showing him, either very close up or behind his shoulder, what were the aesthetic decisions behind that?

Rix: I essentially just wanted to keep him in close-up as much as possible so you are just forced to be with this character and just take his journey, his downward spiral… with him. So, there’s no relief for the audience. They just have to stick it out. Or walk out, which some of them did.

— On to the bigger theme of this tragedy, this horror story. The question came up was A. is this for John, a personal, human nature problem of this character. I mean, basically, he’s kind of a psychopath. He has no feelings. He doesn’t know how to relate and he’s only concerned about his own skin, saving it any way he can. And he does it all wrong. Or B. because of the place, the townships, the culture, the poverty, lack of education, no future… all this stuff… has this turned him into a monster?

Rix: Well, that’s part of the debate, I guess. He’s one of hundreds a year… actually way more than that… The statistics we were working with when we first approached the project was… I think it was 25,000 reported rapes per year in South Africa, almost half of which were children. And 99 percent of these [rapes] were in these communities. It’s horrific. Those sorts of statistics are just mind-blowing. So, he’s literally on of tens of thousands of similar people out there. He might be one who’s just purely psychopathic. There might be others out of the desperation of the situation and they’ve heard this myth going around and they try, as you say, to save their asses. John as a character, has no redeeming features. He has psychopathic urges. But he’s just one. He’s the one that we happened to follow. Although the argument can be made that to go through that you would have to be psychopathic in some form anyway. I mean, all those characters are from the same mold. For me to say that is… I don’t know.

— For me Accession rides that line. Here’ this guy who’s like… danger. Don’t get involved with this guy ’cause he’s going to ruin your life… and the background, the places of his wanderings, which you don’t comment on too much. You just kind of show these shanties, these roads where these people are just kind of hanging out, nothing’s going on, where he’s looking for action most of the time… well he doesn’t actually find much action most of the time. Maybe that’s his problem – action in the sense of something meaningful to do.

Rix: Well that is, unfortunately, part of the reality for these guys. A lot of them are unemployed and they just stay that way. There just willing to work for bread, something to tide them over for a couple of days like a loaf of bread and they’ll be OK. There’s this complete disinterest in career. It’s not like their trying to build themselves up. Pethro, himself, is on the other end of the scale. He is actually trying to create an acting career and he works in a call center part-time to try and raise funds, but in the same sort of community. But in terms of following him around the township, part of that is living with that character and living in that environment. Maybe someone can piece two and two together and try and work out why this guy does what he does. But, I can’t.

— For me, it’s kind of like “Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer.” In both films, there’s an objective look at these horrible people. Their both strong films, not necessarily likable.

Rix: A sort of a love/hare relationship? For me it was important that the audience doesn’t get off the hook. Obviously there’s not a huge audience for the film but the ones that are going to watch it need to react to it. They won’t walk out with a Hollywood fluffy happy ending kind of thing.

— Where do you live?

Rix: In Johannesburg.

— Have you spent much time in townships?

Rix: It’s not part of my upbringing, but just in research for these projects. I’ve done a couple of little short film projects with guys from the townships. So, I got to experience them firsthand, maybe 8 years ago. I’ve spent some time in Nigeria as well in similar sorts of community structures up there, which I’ve spent time in.

— Is this is your first feature?

Rix: I’ve made two other features that really didn’t go out of the country – very tiny homemade features, one of them animated. This is the first one that’s being notices. Well, the animated one traveled the world at least to minor festivals.

— And your other feature, did it deal with similar themes and issues?

Rix: The other one was actually a wacky comedy which was a co-production with a UK-based filmmaker and two American producers. We put a deal together in Cannes and went off and made this zany surreal whack-job of a comedy horror epic, which I wouldn’t have done actually. So this was almost a direct reaction. I wanted to flush it out my system and start from the ground up again.

— You mentioned you made some shorts with some township folks. Were they dealing with issues within the black community.

Rix: To a certain extent. They weren’t as dark at this, but they did touch on issues of poverty and general everyday way of life situations. But this is a very specific tough issue that is aside from the other… I tend toward comedy most of the time, to be honest. This is my first straight drama. It’s either a new direction or a one off. I’m not sure right now.

— You were basically your crew, right?

Rix: I had numerous assistants – five or six. All around assistants, they were around wherever assistance was needed. That was the crew.

— Were there any issues involved with working in the township?

Rix: They were all from the actual community. We sourced them right there. That actually gave us a lot of leeway in may ways. And entirely white middle-class crew going in there and trying to take over would have been a different story. So we got a lot of access to areas that we normally wouldn’t have been invited into. Actually it was a help more than a hindrance. Absolutely.

— Do you have other film festivals lined up?

Rix: It’s going to Kenya next. It should be interesting to see it in Africa. I’m not sure what’s lined up next. Hopefully, Rotterdam early next year. So I guess its just traveling at the moment, seeing what happens.


©2012 TIFF

(Interview by Nicholas Vroman)


Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 16, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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