Architect and filmmaker, Robert Silke.
The Satyr of Springbok Heights is a bizarre new mockumentary filmed in one of Cape Town’s sexy and iconic buildings, Holyrood, in Queen Victoria Street. This wacky, totally offbeat one-hour long movie has already caused ripples abroad and at its premiere at the art-house Labia cinema in Cape Town. It stars people such as the journalist, Lin Sampson, who plays herself and many other highly eccentric people, including Caroline Abrams, a well-known Cape Town bergie.
In fact, the movie was inspired by an article written by Lin Sampson for the Sunday Times some years ago. It will be shown in September at the Out in Africa Film Festival and then re-opens at the Labia. Herman Lategan spoke to architect Robert Silke, producer, co-writer and director of this crazy and entertaining flick.
Briefly, who is Robert Silke?
I’m an architect – and I’m particularly interested in the private lives of ordinary buildings. I’m into small hotel rooms and bachelor studios in particular, where people seem to play out large portions of their lives (and bodily functions) all in the same space. I was born at Somerset Hospital on Republic Day 1978, and have only ever lived in apartments. My mother (Eris Silke, the artist) wouldn’t cook and couldn’t drive, and so we were most days catching buses and trains to get to restaurants and hotel bars in the city centre after school. Despite the suburban dislocation, it was a remarkably urban (and urbane) upbringing. I now live in a flat in Cape Town.
How did an architect get involved in a mockumentary such as this one? And what exactly was your involvement?
Filmmaking and architecture are both applied arts, consume similarly obscene amounts of resources, and both require the careful and predictive manipulation of an audience’s narrative and aesthetic experience of a fixed form or film. Nevertheless, architecture doesn’t really have the power to conjure strong emotional responses like film does, and I really wanted that.
To those people who don’t know the movie, what’s it about?
The Satyr of Springbok Heights purports to be a documentary about poor whites living on the fringes of the new South Africa, and the exquisite old apartment building that holds them in its thrall. More than anything else, the film is about a beautiful block of bachelor flats that has a gravitational hold over its rather strange and lonesome inmates – to some extent because they can’t afford to live anywhere else. It’s about people who (for varying reasons) have managed to get themselves stuck.
What the hell is a satyr?
A satyr is an ancient Greek mythological mortal; a half-human, half-goat. For followers of Dionysus, the ancient god of debauchery and wine, the satyrs are forest creatures with an immense appetite for substance and sex. Dionysus also happens to be the god of dramatic performance and the theatre is his temple. Greek tragi-comedies featured satyr choruses, out of which modern-day satire was born. And so the film is a comedic satire about a building full of tragic people – all of whom happen to ‘know’ a satyr.
To me, the movie was quite dark. About lonely people on the fringe and their unfulfilled sexual and intimate desires, haunted by the satyr. Even the building looks phallic, actually. Am I right?
Delusion is certainly one of the main themes; delusions of grandeur among the poverty-stricken inmates; and delusions of a lascivious, dark, stalking satyr among people who have lived alone for far too long inside a 30m2 bachelor studio. Professor Fabio Todeschini from UCT (a non-inmate) seemed to speak wistfully of the building’s curvaceous form, as he would of the body of a long-lost ex-girlfriend. Some might say that the apartments are dark, warm, deep and cavernous – yonic even. I think the building certainly is anthropomorphic, curvaceous and fleshy – like some frustratingly vague and elusive detail on an unknown body part – during a sex scene in some other movie.
Why do these outsiders hold an appeal to you?
My favourite Oscar Wilde quote is not his sharpest: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Whilst the film might (on the surface) be seen as poking fun at the inmates of Springbok Heights, most seem to find their experience of the film to be bittersweet. It’s a sad film, and to provoke that kind of sadness, people would have had to have identified themselves with at least one of the tragic characters. I think many people, deep down, fear ending up one day like Hilda Steyn, choking alone at home during an eating binge, wondering if any of the neighbours will hear you. If not Hilda, then Wouter, or Nathan or the Lebanese lesbians.
Are there some dark unresolved psychological forces within yourself that you projected onto some of these characters and the storyline? If so, what are these issues?
Are you haunted by a satyr?
I don’t think that Springbok Heights was actually haunted by a satyr because he only ever existed on VHS surveillance footage and was likely just a shared delusion, born of loneliness and desperation. Yes, I have plenty of my own delusions too.
“In many ways, I sometimes feel a bit socially retarded…”
Is the gay community haunted by one?
I don’t know, but many gays seem to choose satyrs for boyfriends. Strangely, although virtually every character in the film was either gay, lesbian, bi or transgendered (we checked all four boxes), I still don’t think of the film as a gay movie. Go figure.
With which one of the real-life or fictitious characters do you identify the most and why?
Hilda Steyn, Wouter Malan (and even the Lebanese lesbians) are all composite characters made up with good, healthy doses of me in each of them. They’re all fringe outsiders, and as such I can identify strongly with all of them. However, I think that I can identify most with Nathan Golding; the retarded, inexplicably affluent 31-year-old living in the Springbok Heights penthouse. Like Nathan, I often feel oblivious to all of the rules of social interaction and basic human communication – like eye contact, two-way conversation and body language, which I feel I have no control over, or even a grasp of. In many ways, I sometimes feel a bit socially retarded.
How did you go about casting the role of Hilda Steyn?
The original drag artist earmarked for Hilda Steyn’s role checked into rehab two weeks before shooting commenced. She was however nice enough to refer me to Victoria Caballaire, a 6-foot-three Sea Point hairdresser with a terrible limp. Victoria got cold feet on the eve of her sex change operation and has lived in limbo ever since. She seemed to have little interest in the film, but rather bent my ear about a bad pain in her right leg. When I asked her if she could manage a scene on an exercise bike, she suggested that she pedals with her good leg, whilst resting the other up on a chair or something – which turned out to be one of the funniest parts of the film. She also said during our first conversation, “I suppose you’ll be wanting to film my (fat) rolls? – That’s okay because I’m proud of what I’ve got.”
And the people who play themselves, why them? (They were all excellent, by the way.)
The ‘character’ of Sprin