Originally titled Jerusalema, Ralph Ziman’s cime-drama about a slum lord’s rise was drawn from the real-life disaster that struck the inner city of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, when middle class whites left the downtown core during the eighties, and buildings were locked up by owners, hoping better economic times would allow them to reopen apartments and office buildings in the future.
Ziman’s Al Capone figure, Lucky Kunene, is an amalgam of research and a real-life mastermind criminal who found loopholes in the law which enabled him to essentially buy up padlocked and run-down buildings from disinterested owners. Once he controlled the properties with his gang, he would continue to collect rent, but neglect any major repairs, ensuring a steady cash fund to buy more properties and repeat the lucrative scheme.
Structured like a classic gangster film, Jerusalema begins with Kunene being arrested and telling his life story in jail to a reporter, but any sentiments regarding the clichéd intro are quickly quashed by the fascinating layers of social commentary woven into the sharp script, and the director’s decision to film in Hillbrow.
The film’s first third deals with Kunene’s teen years, his main friends and foes, and his genuine efforts to stay clean and make his mother proud by studying business in university. When money becomes the greatest hurdle, he falls into a life of crime, and within a period of ten years heads a small gang, running a pirate taxi cab business.
After being nearly killed by a rival gang, Kunene comes up with a grand scheme to play social activist for tenants living in filthy apartments, and discovers the methods to reap a fortune while carefully skirting the quirks in South African laws of fixed assets, ownership, and civil suits.
Amid brutal tactics, Kunene also falls for an upper class white woman, and maintains a peculiar dual life until a major gang clash causes his world to crumble, bringing in a flurry of police determined to take him down.
As a drama, Jerusalema is conventional, but the richness of the material, the generally strong performances, and crazy real-life events integrated into the script make Ziman’s film often quite powerful.
The director’s background in music videos ensures Jerusalema has a gorgeous look, but Ziman doesn’t subscribe to Hollywood’s ADD editing style, and he lets his able cast live out scenes, and add their own subtext to the social commentary than runs through the dialogue, the social relationships among the police from a pre-apartheid era, and the gangsters (some of whom were veterans of the anti-apartheid movement living in exile).
As he details in the DVD’s excellent commentary track, because of funding issues and the production’s decision to shoot in dangerous locations, old Super16 and Soviet era 35mm cameras were bought at auctions, and many scenes were filmed using multiple cameras (sometimes up to nine), but the action scenes aren’t psychotic; they’re edited in a modernist style similar to Heat (1995) and just as riveting.
Equally striking is the use of documentary footage the director filmed almost a decade earlier of funerals, marches, and celebrations, as well as more recent doc footage of police raids which, when integrated into the film, give the drama a greater sense of verisimilitude.
Many scenes were filmed from a distance, and the onlookers in shots are quite real. The locations – old mining towns, a drive-in cinema, nightclubs, nasty slums - were indicative of once-beautiful apartment buildings and nightclubs fallen into hard times, and the production had their own elite team of security guards as well as arrangements with established gangs to film in certain areas, buildings, and even borrow a vintage car.
Ziman’s commentary and discussions with the composer and co-star Jafta Mamabolo (who played the young Lucky Kunene in the film’s first third) add further social and cultural details likely unknown to most westerners (including the mixed language of Tsotsitaal, spoken by most of the cast). Also rather surprising is how some of the film’s most superficial scenes – Kunene entering a police station and encountering the lead cop building a case against him, and the gang’s ease of copying the bank truck robbery from Heat – are based on fact.
Not unlike classic gangster films such as Little Caesar (1931) and Public Enemy (1930), there’s also humour and elements of humanity among the characters, making them much more than familiar architypes.
Where the film stumbles is in the peculiar relationship between Kunene and Leah (Shelley Meskin), an upper class white girl, a relationship which may have been designed to deepen the divide between Kunene and some of his lead gang members, but is generally unnecessary. Kunene’s quickly enjoys the fruits of his ill labours, so there’s no need for an ersatz struggle where the gangster has the opportunity to clean up his life, but can’t let go of his wily ways.
The DVD’s deleted scenes gallery contains material that could’ve been / should’ve been retained at the expense of the ‘white woman romance.’
An extended car jacking shows how it’s part of a greater scheme to take the VIN number from a legitimately purchased wreck and apply it to a stolen vehicle for resale; and an extended interview between a reporter (seen at the film’s beginning) with the lead cop determined to arrest Kunene reveals latent racism and quirks in the South African legal system.
Also included is an extended version of Kunene’s reclamation of a chained up and barbed wire-wrapped building from a slum lord. As he described in the commentary track, Ziman actually edited a longer version where the full methodology of the scheme is shown: the gangs present building merchants with fake paperwork and tell them they are the new owners and rent is payable to them; locks are quickly broken; from buses, gang members unload poor from other areas to occupy the units; and the landlord is blackmailed into selling the building for a song because no rent is being paid to him / her, and the issue of ownership remains a civil matter.
The last deleted scene is between Kunene’s best friend ad right-hand man Zakes (Ronnie Nyakale) and his bad boy, older brother Nazareth (Jeffrey Zekele), with the latter trying to turn the former against their leader. It’s a small scene, but it presents the long-standing anger and division from when Nazareth went into exile, while Zakes was left alone to deal with his family, and ultimately fend for himself.
It’s a pity Jerusalema isn’t available on Blu-ray – it’s a really beautifully shot, edited, and mixed production – but it’s an original docu-drama spin on the crime film that ought not to be overlooked, particularly after Tsotsi (2005), a related South African production, made an impact internationally and won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
A podcast with composer Alan Ari Lazar is also available at Big Head Amusements + Libsyn.com.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan