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Ralph Ziman

“We wanted to make the film as realistic as possible. We wanted to shoot in real locations with as little dressing as possible. We didn’t want to stop traffic or stop people walking across the background. We did as much as possible by available light or by filling in with practical light sources.”

If you’re a regular reader of our site, you know that our monthly IONCINEPHILE profile is usually reserved to the “brand” new filmmakers, and while this month’s profiled filmmaker has only three films under his belt, Ralph Ziman is what you’d call a “veteran” at least in the music video world. In the mid 80’s and 90’s, Ziman directed vids for names like Michael Jackson, Ozzy Osborne, Toni Braxton, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Iron Maiden, Fine Young Cannibals and my personal favorite from the bunch, Faith No More’s “Epic”.

Having directed 1996’s Hearts and Minds and 2001’s The Zookeeper, Ziman’s third film first received its world premiere at 2008’s Berlin International Film Festival and was then selected as the South African film entry for Best Foreign Language Film before Anchor Bay Entertainment grabbed theatrical rights for the U.S. and are releasing the picture on the eve of World Cup 2010 which is hosted in, you guessed it – South Africa. Below, you’ll get a sense of the filmmaker’s literal passion for film and the difficulty of putting together a project such as Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema. Here’s Ralph Ziman’s Top 10 films of All Time List as of June 2010.

Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema Ralph Ziman Interview

Eric Lavallee: During your childhood…what films were important to you?
Ralph Ziman: When I was a kid growing up in South Africa there was no television. Although SA was a technologically advanced country, the apartheid government felt that it would lead to a moral decline. South Africa was isolated by distance and culture from the rest of the world.

Television only came to South Africa when I was fourteen years old. In those days it was only one hour a day of absolute drivel on a single channel. As a kid, in the early seventies, trips to the cinema where as rare as lunar landing. We lived in suburban Johannesburg and the only cinemas were in town. It was more something my parents would do. However, there was a silver lining to the situation. Once a month my father would rent a 16mm movie and a projector from a store in town and bring it home for the weekend. The projector came in a hard shell with extra bulbs and an empty reel.

The film itself was packed in a hard flat shipping case, tide up with straps. It smelled of celluloid. Included would be a feature film, usually several reels long. Then there was a short. “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”, “The Man from UNCLE”, “Mission Impossible” or “Kojak”, and last but not least there was a cartoon. Something like “Tom and Jerry”, “The Pink Panther”, or perhaps, “Road Runner.

From the age of five or six I had mastered the art of threading and operating a projector. I could rewind the viewed reel in minutes and lace the next reel in seconds. For the big occasion, we would hang a bed sheet in the living room. We’d invite our friends and neighbors over. During reel changes kids would bounce excitedly on the sofas or run to the kitchen for food and drinks although my mother would never allow anything to be consumed in the living room. I loved the whirr of the projector, the flickering light, the smell of film and the magic of the projected image.

Us kids would wake up early on Saturday morning along with friends who had slept the night and we’d watch the film a second time, still in our pajamas. On Saturday night we’d invite a different group of friends and another screening. Sunday morning we’d watch the print for a third time and if it was a rainy day we’d beg my dad to let us view it a final time before he took it back on Monday. Hard to say what thrilled me most. The academy leaders, the splices, the scratches, the jumping images, the anamorphic pictures. It’s not hard for me to understand where my love of film came from.

Lavallee: During your formative years what films and filmmakers inspired you?
Ziman: As a kid we watched Spaghetti Westerns like, “Good the Bad and the Ugly”, “ A Fist Full Of Dollars” and so on. There were war films like “Guns Of Navarone”, “Kelly’s Heroes” and “The Dirty Dozen”. James Bond was a firm favorite. We also saw films like “Five Easy Pieces” “The Last Detail” “China Town” and later on “Taxi Driver”. In the seventies and eighties South Africa had very heavy censor ship, and anything that was deemed subversive was either cut or banned. As such I had a limited exposure in terms of the number and variety of films I got to see.

Lavallee: Extensive research was done for the project – could you describe the moment where you went from this could be the basis for my next script to the moment you decide you need to put this on paper.
Ziman: Since 1994 and the election of our first democratic government South Africa has undergone a crime wave of monumental proportions. This lawless ‘tsunami ‘ has made Johannesburg into the crime capital of the world. Bank robberies, car jacking, cash in transit heists, murder, rape and mugging. I’d been looking for a crime story in my home town for quite some time. In 2003 the story found me. A friend in South Africa who manages property had a tale to tell.

At 4:30pm on a Friday afternoon a gang of men arrived at a building managed. The building in question, was typical of what had befallen that area of Joburg. A majestic colonial building, built in the wave of gold fever during the 1930’s.

By the 1990’s the center of Johannesburg had gone the way of other blighted inner cities. The crime rate had risen and nervous businesses had fled to the suburbs. Prices of real estate had tanked and many of the buildings had gone vacant. Landlords would often close the buildings from street level up, leaving only shops on the ground floor. The lobby of the building was packed floor to ceiling with coils of razor wire and the doors welded shut with steel plates.

A gang of men arriving at the building, appeared to be armed with nothing more than conveyancing papers. They deploy with military precision. Their leader, a young, good looking man in his 30’s, wears a suit. He could easily pass for a lawyer or a banker. He shows the shop owners the fraudulent papers which state that he has bought the building. While he instructs the shop keepers to pay the rent into his account via direct debit, his men cut their way through the razor wire. Behind them are four busloads of tenants in search of new accommodation. Incase anything goes wrong, there are several armed thugs with AK47’s.

Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema Ralph Ziman Interview

Under South African law there is no theft of fixed assets. A landlord, on finding several thousand people living in his building and paying rent to someone else, would have to pursue the matter through the High Court. It is purely a civil action. This could take a year or more and cost a small fortune. Even more depressing for the landlord is the fact that even if he wins an eviction order, no one will enforce it?

Then there is the intimidation; phone calls to the landlord’s house, men arriving unannounced at his home or office, thugs calling his wife and children. The landlord is still responsible for rates, taxes and utilities. He may also have a loan to service which if defaulted upon runs the risk of foreclosure. This enables the syndicate to buy the building on auction for a song.

In Hillbrow, a high rise suburb just north of downtown, the same syndicate has taken over dozens of dilapidated buildings by organizing the residents into committees and promising rent reductions. They collect the rent in the name of a nonprofit housing trust. Many landlords simply walk away.

I obtained the fake conveyencing papers and called the phone number that was given on them. The man who answered was incredibly sophisticated. We arranged to meet in a café downtown. He sent his body guard to meet me while he hung back, presumably to see I wasn’t a cop or a hit man. He talked passionately about providing housing to the people, about land redistribution and his desire to see the inner city rejuvenated.

Over the next three months I met him several times. I also spent evenings out on patrol with units of the South African Police Service. This gave me a unique insight into life and death in the inner cities. This was the crime story that I had to tell, I was hooked. A truly South African crime. Unique, brazen, violent and lucrative.

Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema Ralph Ziman Interview

Lavallee: What kind of characteristics/features were you looking for your main characters Lucky?
Ziman: Empathy. Anyone can be badass, but can they make you like and care about them.

Lavallee: What ideas did you have for the style of the film? What inspirations did you draw upon for the look/style, aesthetics of the film?
Ziman: We wanted to make the film as realistic as possible. We wanted to shoot in real locations with as little dressing as possible. We didn’t want to stop traffic or stop people walking across the background. We did as much as possible by available light or by filling in with practical light sources. The art department was told not to ever clean anything or to pick up any trash. Nic Hofmeyr, the DOP, is from a documentary background. He’s used to getting amazing images with very little and that very much was incorporated into the style. We shot multi camera on hand held super 16mm. We had a super 35mm camera to shoot the bigger shots. Skylines, time lapses and so on.
The film dictated it’s own look and feel. I think that contemporary films are expected to be authentic in terms of lactation, accents, actors and language.

Lavallee: The U.S version has been cut down – I was wondering what items did you take out and for what reason?
Ziman: I don’t have a problem with different versions of a film catering to different markets. It’s like a song that has a single version, an album version, a live version, even an acoustic version. Different interpretations; the same movie.
Ultimately the distributor has to sell the film and they understand the market into which they are selling it. Changing the name, the poster or the title are all good.

Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Nic Hofmeyer, the cinematographer?
Ziman: Nic and myself had been friends and colleagues for over two decades. We’d met in London in the 80’s directing music videos. I had gone on to write and direct features, Nic went into cinematography and documentaries.
We have a shorthand and a way of working where we understand each other with a look or a nod. Nic knows what’s important and what’s worth fighting for. We had a common vision on the film and we both share a fascination with Johannesburg.

On the set, Nic was my eyes, leaving me free to talk to actors and watch the details. Given the budgetary constraints we did not have video take off, so there was no way I could actually see what was being shot. Nic would often ask if I wanted to look through the viewfinder before the camera turned. I did not. I trusted him and was never disappointed.

Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Alan Lazar, the composer?
Ziman: Alan and I have a very collaborative process. He has a unique ability to intuitively give you what you want and at the same time let you think it was all your idea. We worked closely on selecting the source music. African Gospel, Kwaito, Hip Hop and traditional songs. He also did a really amazing job with the score. I loved what he did and was constantly surprised by the way he used vocals, traditional African instruments and even recorded the noises of dancers in gum boots to add texture and authenticity. He then blended it seamlessly with a traditional orchestra.
I think music is incredibly critical to creating a mood and atmosphere. It’s easy to not notice the music when it’s working perfectly .

Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with David Helfand the Editor?
Ziman: Much like good music good editing becomes invisible. When it works you are not aware of it at all. The better it is the more invisible it becomes. This gives the viewer the impression that everything you see is as he shot and scripted it. This is an illusion.
David is a highly critical, highly analytical and very opinioned, but always has a smile on his face and a sunny disposition. We disagreed frequently, but for me it was great to have a person who would fight their corner and make their case. Someone to push back against me.

He can always pull the subtext and the humor out of a scene. He sees things that were not scripted, he takes your greatest defeats and turns them into triumphs. Given that we had six hundred scenes and a hundred hours of footage he really had his work cut out for him.

Anchor Bay Films releases GANGSTER’S PARADISE: JERUSALEMA in NY, LA and Houston on June 11th.

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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