Cape Town-born Oliver Hermanus’s Skoonheid recently made international headlines for not only being the first Afrikaans film ever screened at Cannes (and selected for the prestigious ‘Un Certain Regard’ section of the festival) but also for winning the 2011 Queer Palm Award.
The Queer Palm jurists described Skoonheid (Beauty), which they said was “about self-hatred and… homophobia”, as “subtle”, “radical” and “a true cinema film”.
It tells the story of Francois (Deon Lotz), a ‘straight’, Afrikaans, middle-aged family man, who find himself increasingly obsessed with a friend’s beautiful 22-year-old son, Christian (Charlie Keegan).
Hermanus completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in film and, in 2006, Hollywood film director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) offered him a private scholarship to do an MA in practical film at the London Film School.
After making a number of short films, Hermanus directed his first feature film – 2009’s well-received Shirley Adams (which he wrote at the age of 15). He followed that with Skoonheid.
What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
When I was thirteen I started watching movies at the cinema with my parents. I think it was the ritual of going to the movies on a Saturday that ignited my interest in making films.
Do you have any favourite or inspirational films?
This list keeps changing. Most recently I was watching a lot of [Australian filmmaker Michael] Haneke’s films. Hitchcock was a big influence on the way we shot Skoonheid, so it’s been a year of Hitchcock too. But to be perfectly honest, the films I tend to watch over and over are LA Confidential, Wonder Boys, The Talented Mr Ripley and Bring It On. I have no clue why it is that I don’t tire of these films…
Where did the idea for Skoonheid come from?
I was at a writing residency in Paris last Christmas. And I was three months into writing a different film when one morning I woke up and started writing Skoonheid. The main character (Francois) walked into my head completely realised and ready to be acted on. He was an extremely immediate and sudden creation.
Why did you want to make this particular story?
When I make a film it seems that I’m in a process of exorcism. I‘m expressing an idea or opinion in some way, in the hope that I will be freed of it. In the case of Skoonheid, it’s my opinion on the dangers of ‘beauty’. I was driven to create a story that dealt with my belief that beauty is both innocent and dangerous. I wanted to express that idea to an audience.
To what extent is the film based on your personal experiences?
I think that the idea is my personal reaction to a discovery that beauty is something we all cherish and celebrate, but if one finds oneself feeling left out of that ‘beautiful people’ circle then you are bound to harbour some resentment toward it.
Tell us about Francois…
This film is a journey into the head of an older white male in South Africa and the more we researched the character, the more obsessed I became with Francois. He really interests me intensely. He became so clear to me – his fears and political turmoil. I found myself completely engrossed in his struggle to re-identify himself in a post-apartheid society.
He has sex with other men but does not consider himself gay…
If he were to defend himself, Francois would argue that he was simply a man who has sex with men, and not gay, because he does not invest in a gay lifestyle; if you can grasp those contradictions.
So, how does he reconcile his sex life with his homophobia?
I think he avoids, at all costs, any thoughts about who is really is versus who he pretends to be. Francois is a true beauty, because his turmoil is so extreme.
The term MSM (men who have sex with men) is used to include those men who do not consider themselves gay but yet have same-sex sexual experiences…
From the amount of research we did, it seems that this is a very prevalent group of men. I think that it’s a middle ground between accepting oneself and denial. I think the majority of men who fall into this category are simply afraid of being labelled as ‘gay’ because they have such extremely negative self-image connotations attached to that word. Hopefully they’ll get over it!
Do you see Skoonheid as a queer film?
I think it’s more a question of audience than film. There’s an ever-growing and flourishing gay audience, globally. An audience that is interested in being represented and celebrated in films. The films that are made specifically for that audience are often generic and somewhat over-baked. In my opinion, the best films that have great potential for gay or queer audiences are films that don’t try too hard to be exactly what they think a gay audience wants to see. My favourite film in this regard is Happy Together by Wong Kai-wai.
Are you concerned that you’ll be ‘ghettoised’ into the queer filmmaker category?
I think that the business of filmmaking, globally, has rules. One of them being: don’t limit your audience. And that is something that I am definitely learning. I don’t see my work as being exclusively for a gay audience. My previous film was not exclusively for a Cape Coloured audience either, but that does not mean that someone else won’t try to put you in a certain box. I don’t have any concerns about being ‘ghettoised into the queer filmmaker category’ because every film I plan to make will deal with something completely removed from the previous film.
What are your thoughts about winning the Queer Palm award?
This was a fantastic surprise! The jury of the Queer Palm this year was made up of critics whose opinions and tastes I definitely respect, so for them to acknowledge my work this year was a real honour. Also, the award is well overdue at Cannes; Venice has the Queer Lion – which Tom Ford won for A Single Man – and Berlin has the Teddy Bear. It’s a festival tradition that’s important because it reminds the world that queer themes are ever-present in contemporary cinema.
Who was the first person you phoned or contacted back home to tell?
I think it was my mother. She was very proud!
Did you find it difficult to find financing for the film because of the gay theme?
No, the film had a producer attached from the start, so there was no awkward pitching where one has to avoid the ‘audience limiting’ subject matter, as they say.
And casting? Were South African actors scared of the roles and the story?
Some actors were scared and pulled out, but the main cast are professionals and devoted themselves to the characters wholeheartedly, and did an amazing job.
What about Deon Lotz and Charlie Keegan made you decide on them?
Both actors demonstrated an honest and accurate understanding of the characters they came to audition for. And once I saw their tapes, I knew in my gut that they were our Francois and Christian.
Why did you decide to make the film in Afrikaans? Some might argue that this could be another ‘audience limiting’ factor…
As much as subtitles can send some audiences packing, I was not prepared to forgo what I felt was an important element in the authenticity of the characters and setting.
Afrikaans films are doing well in South Africa at the moment but they’re all fluff. Do you think that Skoonheid will find an audience here?
I really want audiences to go and see this film because even though we shy away from films that are too serious, they just might like this one. I think this film will surprise South Africans in just how familiar the character and content is. Of course, filmmaking is one big casino business, you have no idea who will win!
What do you hope the film achieves – what effect would you like to have on its audience?
I hope that the film affects people. That it lingers with them for days and that it demonstrates to them the kind of power films can have over you. Just as they do and did for me when my parents used to take me to the movies.
How did you find the Cannes experience? Was it as seductive and glamorous as it appears to be?
It was a lot of fun and a lot of work. Cannes is a rollercoaster and you just have to keep screaming! It is definitely as seductive and glamorous as it appears, if not more!
There have also been some less-flattering reviews of Skoonheid. How do you deal with those?
It’s a good sign. It means that the film is polarising people. Those who have not liked it have HATED it, and those who have loved it have expressed their appreciation for the film’s intensity, which is exactly what we wanted. I think my greatest expectation right now is the response from South Africa. That will be the film’s real test.
Speaking of which, when will we get to see the film in South Africa?
We hope that it will be released in the first week of August.
What’s next for you – do you have another film lined up?
At the moment I am toying with something Biblical…