At no point in my sixteen year old mind while in high school English class did I ever Imagine I would be writing a piece on a historical story where names such as Can Themba and John Kani would come across my path. Sitting in class nearly 12 years ago I remember reading the short story titled The Suit being completely consumed and enchanted by it. Once we completed the story we discussed it, our English teacher feeling satisfied released us. I however feeling quite unsatisfied was held prisoner by the depths of such a story, my knowledge of legendary writer and journalist Can Themba at the time was quite limited but the limits of his imagination had far broken through limitations of the Apartheid regime where The Suit had been birthed traveling through time reaching me, passing me and now, same as having satisfied my teacher it has come to me in the form of a short film.
It brings me such pleasure to be writing and sharing this piece in particular. Director Jarryd Coetsee who sees this film not as another adaptation to film but rather as a vital part of history has taken this classic South African story that has made its way through much a varied art form; from literature to theatre and now the big screen.
I am proud to bring you the exclusive. Read about the Director, cast members and the team that brings you The Suit.
THE SUIT is a short film from South Africa, directed by Jarryd Coetsee, based on the short story by Can Themba. It is produced by Luke Sharland of Mandala Films in association with the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa.
The Suit has been adapted into a play, most notably by Barney Simon and Mothobi Mutloatse at the Market Theatre in the early 1990s, and most recently by leading British playwright Peter Brook whose staging in the West End and on Broadway was very successful, but it has never been adapted into a film… until now.
Based on the acclaimed short story by banned South African investigative journalist and author Can Themba, The Suit is set in 1950’s Sophiatown, Johannesburg, against the backdrop of the apartheid regime’s forced removals under the Group Areas Act. The Suit tells the story of Philemon who discovers his wife, Matilda, in bed with a lover. The lover flees, leaving behind his suit. Philemon devises a cruel punishment, by forcing Matilda to treat the suit as a guest who must eat with them, go on walks and accompany them to church. The story is a powerful metaphor for the impact of oppression on personal relationships. It also explores how unforgiveness, intolerance and revenge are paradoxically self-destructive.
Q&A with Jarryd Coetsee.
Nthabiseng Mosieane: Where did the idea come from?
Jarryd Coetsee: Growing up under the fading shadow of apartheid, I remember witnessing a number of unsettling incidents which made me question authority and the nature of the state, but my engagement was primarily intellectual. The apartheid state was a monolithic entity into which I was born, a state seemingly impersonal and detached. Though I’ve always been quite inquisitive, as a child one does not necessarily question one’s context, there’s a tacit acceptance of the way things are. The more I read about apartheid and the more my parents and their friends explained it to me, though, the more I learned that it relied on profound injustices to sustain itself and that it was morally indefensible. However, I lacked an understanding of its tremendous personal consequences for millions of my countrymen. I first read The Suit, a short story written by Can Themba, when I was sixteen, and it opened up my heart to the pain and suffering which the state was perpetrating against my fellow South Africans.
NM: In as much as this story has achieved Immense success in literature and theatre, it however carries a painful reminder of its origin and there seems to be traces of oppression in the modern world we live in.
JC: Although oppression in many countries isn’t as overt as the legal structures of apartheid, oppression persists in insidious ways, even in so-called developed countries. While I was living in Europe in 2015, the migrant crisis gradually intensified. Though it was prompted by different reasons, I was disturbed by its similarities to the consequences of the apartheid regime’s forced removals, which began in the 1950s. The fruit of forced migration descends from the root of oppression, which is cyclical in nature. The forced removals in South Africa are understood by many people as a consequence of the racist ideology of apartheid.
But one really has to look earlier on in the same century for a more profound understanding. If the Afrikaners had not been subjected to the horrors of the concentration camps, the scorched earth policy and other injustices perpetrated by the British army during the Second Anglo-Boer War, particularly the employment of South Africans against each other, and if the Afrikaners had not been systematically dispossessed, displaced and disenfranchised by the war, then perhaps they would not have been blinded by the concomitant trauma and feelings of powerlessness that prevented them from seeing that their black compatriots were in the same deplorable position. Perhaps they would not have reacted in such an extreme way as apartheid. The fear of oppression bred oppression. It’s difficult to contextualise comprehensively, though, because, as I mentioned, oppression is cyclical and its causes stretch far back in human history. For example, the scientific racism of the late nineteenth century, like the beliefs propounded by social Darwinists, concepts like the ‘White Man’s Burden’, or religious misinterpretations of the ‘Curse of Ham/Canaan’ and predestination can be argued to have laid the grounds for future oppression in South Africa. That’s why the onset of the democratic dispensation in South Africa in 1994 is miraculous; because it was an attempt to break the cyclical nature of oppression in our country by acknowledging past wrongs, by forgiveness, negotiation, compromise and reconciliation.
But the democratic one is an ongoing project. We must guard against the recurrence of oppression. Remember, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the Afrikaners were viewed by the entire world as heroes, freedom fighters engaged in a liberation struggle against oppressive colonial tyrants. But that positive view of Afrikaners flipped half a century later as Afrikaner leaders embarked on the disastrous path of apartheid. At the turn of the following century, the masses of the internal democratic revolution, comprising disparate elements, in which the ANC ultimately rose to take centre stage, were also viewed by the world as heroes, freedom fighters engaged in a liberation struggle against oppressive colonial tyrants. Who knows how that view might change in the coming decades if the values enshrined in our constitution are not upheld?
Though I had spent several years developing the screenplay, it was only on my return to South Africa that I decided to make The Suit. I wanted to make The Suit because it presented an opportunity to explore thematically how oppression impacts on personal relationships and how unforgiveness, intolerance and revenge are paradoxically self-destructive.
Director Jarryd with cast members at the dinner scene.
NM: Why did you want to adapt it into a film?
JC: The story had quite a transformative effect on me and I thus wanted to share it more widely with others. I believe that if we are encouraged to develop a deeper sense of empathy, we will be less likely to support the clinical policy decisions taken at a political level that may have devastating personal consequences for many people, or the institutions which perpetuate systematic oppression. Take, for example, the killing of Trayvon Martin and questions of institutional racism in the USA that remain unresolved. Look at how migrants are being treated in Europe. It seems obvious, but the fact that oppression re-emerges in different forms throughout the ages means that the light has not fully permeated yet. Once we know better, we ultimately do better, so the secret is to make ourselves understand the ‘quiddity’ of oppression.
Jarryd with Actor Atandwa Kani.
NM: let’s get into your cast members; why did you choose Atandwa Kani to play Philemon?
JC: I was aware of Atandwa’s theatre work, for which he has been widely acclaimed, as well as his stint in Long Walk To Freedom and Life Is Wild. He has a very tall, commanding presence and comes across as characteristically masculine, confident and determined. I thought that these elements could be channelled into making him as domineering as Philemon. In person, I found Atandwa to be smart and intuitive, with great insight into the human condition. He is acutely focused and held character often off-camera. Philemon is an unusual man in the way that he reacts to his wife’s infidelity. Instead of responding in an explosively violent way, he resorts to a cold, calculating and cruel punishment, a punishment which, I suppose, could only be born in such a brutally oppressive society. Atandwa has a meticulous, controlled approach to his work, and it’s this meticulousness and self-control which parallels the character of Philemon. Philemon is a lawyer, but at the time in which The Suit is set, there was only one black law firm, Mandela & Tambo, housed in the humble three-storey Chancellor House building opposite the Magistrate’s Court in Fox Street, Ferreirasdorp, which is the oldest part of Johannesburg, so I decided that Philemon probably works for a white law firm which inevitably means that his opportunities to climb the ladder would have been severely curtailed. Couple this inequity with the concomitant frustrations of draconian laws, the general improbability of upward social mobility, and the overriding prejudice that a man’s home is his castle, it’s not a far leap to imagine why Philemon chooses to punish Matilda in such a callous way. Atandwa was able to encapsulate these issues so movingly. He is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding young actors in South Africa at the moment.
NM: You also worked with the legendary South African actor John Kani. How did that come about?
JC: I’ve admired John since I was a child. John is a consummate professional and remarkably gifted actor; a captivating, genial, charismatic, staggeringly instinctive and intelligent man who is rich with anecdotes and humour. He has such an innate passion for life. A few moments in his presence are life-changing. While writing the screenplay, I imagined him as Mr. Maphikela. He has such expressive eyes and always makes such pleasantly surprising choices. Obviously, I was aware of his long and distinguished career and was thus concerned about approaching him to play Mr. Maphikela because I initially felt that such a great man has no need for it. But I pursued John relentlessly because I knew he is simply the best man for the job. And like most great actors, I think that John realises that no part is too big or too small, that each part offers a unique set of challenges and opportunities. I am just so grateful that he liked my treatment and saw it fit to interpret Mr. Maphikela. He is so riveting in the role.
Father and Son, John and Atandwa Kani.
NM: I am curious about Phuthi Nakene, a fairly new actress. Why cast her as Matilda?
JC: I have known Phuthi for a number of years. She started out in the industry behind the camera, but even in those early days, she was clearly a first-rate natural actress. The ability to interpret a character truthfully seems to flow so easily through her. Phuthi eventually completed a MFA in Acting in Los Angeles where she developed a solid technique. She’s such an incisive, pensive and driven person with a delightfully wry sense of humour. She brings a compelling vulnerability and complexity to Matilda. Her extensive research and open, enquiring approach has enabled her to deliver quite a nuanced performance. I think that great things lie ahead for Phuthi. Other filmmakers are sitting up and taking notice, too. She’s just come off the set of Akin Omotoso’s latest film.
NM: The role of Matilda is an endearing role, her indiscretion’s lead to an unfortunate end. How have you seen Matilda through the making of the short film?
JC: The Suit is essentially about how oppression has devastating consequences for personal relationships. In South Africa, we have inherited a colonial legacy in which the black woman is the most oppressed subject in our social hierarchy. I thought of Matilda as a vivacious, creative woman who aspires to be a singer in the colourful cultural and artistic hub of Sophiatown. However, the racial and gender restrictions of the time have suppressed her dreams, and she’s thus unfulfilled. Her situation is complicated by her marriage to Philemon whom she loves but he’s probably not her ideal match because of his conservative, conventional nature. When Philemon discovers her in bed with her lover and introduces his cruel punishment which could only have been contrived in such an oppressive society, Matilda faces an ever-dwindling number of choices that lead to an inevitable conclusion: she literally and figuratively becomes the non-person which is the logical end of oppression. Yet in her final tragic decision, she achieves the only freedom at her disposal.
NM: How did the film come about?
JC: So, after spending several years developing the screenplay intermittently while studying and working, I found myself back in South Africa after some time in London and Los Angeles and decided to make The Suit. Our first port of call was, of course, the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa. I’ve actually had a very long relationship with the NFVF. The agency helped me many years ago to study film-making at AFDA in Cape Town and to complete an honours degree at the University of Cape Town and I have kept abreast of the work of the NFVF. My experience with the organization has been overwhelmingly positive and I am so grateful for its reliability. For The Suit, my primary liaison at the NFVF has been Xolelwa Mayatula, the Production and Development Co-ordinator. She has been a great source of inspiration and support, and has been very enthusiastic and professional throughout our working relationship. Their mandate is to develop the film and video industries in South Africa, and part of that responsibility is to develop emerging film-makers. In my case, I can certainly attest to their success, because without the NFVF’s help, I would simply not have had the opportunities that have arisen in my life to be a film-maker.
NM: Where was the film shot?
JC: We were blessed when the Anglican Archbishop of Southern Africa and the Bishop of Johannesburg granted us permission to shoot in buildings on the property of the St Joseph’s Diocesan Centre in the heart of Sophiatown. Those buildings are some of the few buildings which survived the demolition following the apartheid regime’s forced removals. We also shot in another original building, the Christ the King Church in Ray Street where Can Themba actually lived at number 111 which was known as ‘the House of Truth’ where he presided over somewhat of a salon in which he and his mates would discuss philosophical, literary, political and other intellectual topics over a pint. The latter church is still visited by some residents who were forcibly removed. The fact that we were able to shoot in these buildings enhance the authenticity of the setting which would be extremely difficult to replicate. Our production designer Devin Risely and his assistants also did sterling work in dressing the sets with props and décor that further boost the sense of authenticity.
There are similar moments throughout the film, e.g. On the way to church, Matilda and Philemon walk past a slogan hand-painted on a wall which reads in Tsotsitaal: Ons Dak Nie Oons Phola Hier (we won’t leave, we’re staying here), a shebeen queen is shown fetching bottles of alcohol for patrons from below a trap-door as a reminder of the Prohibition, black passengers are forced by a white bus conductor to sit upstairs on a bus as a reminder of the pernicious laws of racial segregation.
These moments are obviously thematically relevant, and our goal was not to be didactic, but rather incidental. The Friends of James Hall Transport Museum provided a period bus which actually did the Sophiatown run. The bus hadn’t driven in years, but the Friends repaired it the week before the shoot and it was quite a spectacle for the public to see it driving around the streets of Rosettenville for our shoot. We shot our exterior street scenes at the Eeufeesoord Retirement Village in Sophiatown, and our production team, most notably our production manager Perrin Faerch, our line producer Kelly Ryan and assistant producer Kira Wolf whose resourcefulness, determination and diligence were vital as the driving engine of the project, were able to obtain period cars, which go a long way to enhancing the film’s credibility.
NM: Your Producer and Cinematographer played major roles in visually walking with you in each part of the process, I am particularly interested that your cinematographer is a female.
JC: Luke Sharland, who produced The Suit is unusually young for a producer in South Africa, but he’s more competent, enterprising, enthusiastic and imaginative than many older producers with whom I’ve worked. He’s also intensely loyal and honest, and those key qualities have contributed most significantly towards the success of our partnership. It’s also such a pleasure to work with him because he’s so optimistic. He’s an incredibly hard worker and a smart worker and treats people well. He returned to South Africa in December and bulldozed pre-production through the holiday season to ensure that we started shooting early in the new year.
I had spent a considerable amount of time developing the shot list and mapping out the status shifts from scene to scene. When our cinematographer Briony Sam Macleod came on board, she enhanced the shot list tenfold with her keen eye for detail and inspiring creative choices. Female cinematographers are rare in the film industry, and Briony certainly gives the men a run for their money. She’s very knowledgeable about the craft and her punctilious method and confidence in her abilities put me so at ease because I could rely on her to do an excellent job. Briony also insisted on walking through the shot list at the locations which ensured that we were both firmly on the same page and enabled us to iron out the snags. We decided to shoot with the Alexa to achieve a high visual quality. And we chose to shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio. It was common in the Fifties, and we employed it for aesthetic purposes by striving for symmetry and balance in the mise-en-scène, or the reverse when the narrative called for it. The narrower framing also intensifies the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere of the story.
NM: I noticed that your costumes also seem convincingly real.
JC: Yes, I’m so pleased that you noticed! In period films, one strives for a surface verisimilitude. The costumes were either originals or handmade, and supplied by Pierre Vienings who is, in my opinion, our country’s foremost costume designer. Pierre also did the costume design for Tsotsi, Drum, Winnie and Master Harold… And The Boys. A mutual friend put us in touch, though I was already aware of his laudable work, especially Drum which is set more or less at the same time as The Suit. Pierre was incredibly busy with his work on feature films and there was a moment where I thought we’d lose him, but he pulled through for us in a big way. With so many years of experience, he’s so proficient and well-informed that I could turn to him at any point for clarity and as sure as hell the problem would be swiftly solved. The degree of detail in his costumes is astonishing. He’s such an inspired and inspiring artist with a wonderfully dark sense of humour, and probably one of the easiest and most pleasurable people to work with.
NM: What was your approach towards editing the film?
JC: Our editor, Bernard Bruwer, has been instrumental in structuring the film around the idea of the gaze – specifically the male gaze – as a means of oppression. It is Philemon’s gaze that imbues the lover’s suit with the symbolic weight of Matilda’s infidelity, and we reinforce this by choosing shots where the suit is looming in frame, an extension of Philemon’s gaze that lingers even when he is absent. We also emphasise the shifting dynamic of power in their relationship by focusing on Philemon’s expression of judgement, intercut increasingly with Matilda’s averted eyes as Philemon restricts her agency as punishment. Through the repeated use of Philemon’s objectifying gaze, Matilda gradually becomes an object – in the last image of her, she turns away from the audience and becomes conflated with the suit, now a non-person, devoiced. In this way, we aim to mirror the way structural oppression gradually strips away the humanity of the oppressed. In doing so, empathy of the oppressed group is denied, and the act of oppression is justified and perpetuated. We chose to bookend the film with the images of Matilda cleaning and donning the suit as symbolic of the cyclical tendency of oppression, but chose to suggest, through the brief glimpses of compassion Philemon shows for his wife, that the systemic development of oppression can be avoided through empathy and forgiveness.
NM: Do you sincerely believe that film has the power to change people for the better?
JC: I do, indeed. It isn’t solely a means of entertaining people or appealing to an escapist fancy. Film has powerful transformative potential because it couples concepts with emotions. This is precisely why oppressive regimes clamp down on artists which they perceive as a threat. Even Can Themba found himself in the position of persona non grata and his works banned after the apartheid regime declared him a “statutory communist” under the Suppression of Communism Act. A classic case of the pen being mightier than the sword. The regime regularly harangued the public on the ‘Rooi Gevaar’ or ‘Red Peril’. Communism was the regime’s big bad bogeyman, a very convenient scapegoat which allowed the state to tar all of its enemies with the same brush.I can remember clearly when I was at school reading in a prescribed textbook about the mighty Zulu emperor Shaka kaSenzangakhona, who is a source of great inspiration to me. My textbook described him as a bloodthirsty savage who wreaked havoc in the early nineteenth century across south-eastern Africa as his armies laid waste to the country and scattered neighbouring tribes, clearing the land for European settlement. My parents had bought me a collection of well-known American encyclopaedias which had quite a different take on Shaka as a military genius who effected a far-reaching social and military revolution in nineteenth century south-eastern Africa which brought his empire into direct conflict with encroaching European migrants. It was at that point in primary school that I became more conscious of how propagandistic literature can be used to indoctrinate readers. As a type of text, film clearly has the potential to influence people similarly, but we can also use it to effect positive change.
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