On the 29th of August 2016 we attended the premier of Noem My Skollie, a brilliant new movie set against the backdrop of the Cape Flats in 1970's. It follows the story of AB, a young man who must navigate his way around gangs and prison. The movie was written by and is based on the real-life experiences of John W. Fredericks. John met producer David Brown almost fifteen years ago, and David sat down with me to tell me how this amazing story came to life so beautifully.
"It's been a very interesting path for this film in particular. Right at the beginning the National Film and Video Foundation had a look at this script when we submitted it twelve years ago I think, and they didn't feel the script was ready. A lot of that is also to do with the kind of atmosphere that is around, has been around - how do we make a great South African film? What are we doing wrong?
People kind of think they've got the answer, and they think that, let's take for example if white Afrikaans people are going to the movies, then everybody wants to make a white Afrikaans film. If coloured people are not going to the movies, because we're so segmented in this country, then why are you making a coloured film? If a coloured film came out, let's say Four Corners, and only took not even half a million rand at the box office, why are you making another coloured movie about gangsters?
“...you have to say hold on guys, there's no such thing as we only need one coloured movie or because one has failed we can't make another one...” - David Max Brown
So you kind of get into that environment and you have to say hold on guys, there's no such thing as we only need one coloured movie or because one has failed we can't make another one. The British has made probably a hundred or two hundred or maybe more movies about the Second World War and they're still making them. So there's plenty of films we've got to make for different audiences in this country. That's what I'm trying to do with this film.
Even with what I'm trying to say with the publicity, sometimes you'll read the summary of the film in English, sometimes you'll read it in Afrikaans, and people will say now what kind of Afrikaans movie is this? Because the thing is we haven't made it just for white Afrikaans people, yes we made it for them, I want them to come too, I want white Enghlish speaking people like myself to come, and of course we want the Afrikaans coloured audience to come. You know, there are more people who wake up in the morning, having their breakfast, who is speaking Afrikaans in this country who are coloured, than are white.
So Afrikaans is not a language of the whites in this country, it's a language of millions of people in this country who are not white. We are making a film that happens to be in Afrikaans, because that's the language of the person who lived that life, but it's for everyone in this country. We really feel that we've made a South African movie, and I'm hoping it will actually be quite an iconic South African movie that will last for years and years and years.
The Skollie part of the title comes from the fact that the writer was labelled as a skollie (thug or thief), having been in jail in the 60's. He came out of jail, and then in the seventies, well because in jail he saved himself from being raped and abused by raising his status through telling stories. So you know at night, the lights go out, and he entertained the gangsters with his story telling. And he raised his status like that. They didn't harm him, from then on it was like he was walking on holy ground. So when he came out of jail he just had this idea that hang on, I've got this creative gift, I've got to do something different, I don't want to be back in jail.
And actually he went on a course that was offered by an Afrikaans culture organisation, the ATKV. And he did a creative writing course. Isn't that incredible? At the hight of Apartheid, here's this ex-convict coloured man being accepted and enrolled into the ATKV. We've never really had time to go into that, John only told me that quite recently. I just think that's incredible, whoever in the ATKV then helped that to happen has a lot of good things to answer for.
Anyhow, that started him on that course, and all that time he was working as a security guard. So for about twenty years, from about the age of thirty till he was fifty he was just kind of wanting to do something different but never managed to. So one day he just walked off. Walked out of work, came home and told his wife who worked at the check out at OK Bazaar that he'd given up his job.
So she was like, what are you going to do? And he said well I want to be a writer. Not really knowing how he was going to do it. And so you know, about five years after that I met him when he was in his mid fifties, about the age I am now, and he told me a story and we embarked on this crazy journey to turn it into a movie. It's taken that long.
As producer I've done a lot of documentaries and but this was my first feature film. Normally when you are told, if you're going to make you're first feature film and you've only got a six million rand budget, then you know, try to keep it to two locations, five people - keep it simple! But this film grabbed me. And because it was such a heartfelt story, because John wanted it told so badly, because he felt like he'd come out of jail and been called a skollie.
However much he did to change that, you know, he wrote plays, helped other people write their film scripts, he was like the go-to guy in the Cape Flats if you were a film company wanting to go into the gangster areas John would take you. And for all those years he had been out of that crime world but still referred to as a skollie. People would say oh there's that skollie John Fredericks. So that's why it was such a pleasure to call the film Noem my Skollie. To actually have that in the title.
We filmed at the Ottery Reform school, it used to be a reform school for boys. A part of the school isn't used anymore, so we converted it to what looks like a very convincing prison cell. But we needed loads of other prison cells as well, and we needed an alley way and we needed a place that looked like this and that. We needed a place where we could shoot weapons and wouldn't get shot at. We ended up at the Cape Town Film Studios.
We were the first local film production ever to film at the Cape Town Film Studios. Providence brought us there just after a big international film production was finishing and nothing else was coming in for three weeks, so we slipped in for that empty space. I think it was an opportunity for them actually to say look, we can't normally support local films, because we've got all these international films but for those couple of weeks that we happen to not have, let's support these guys, so they did.
Without that actually coming in, it would've been so difficult because a lot of the film we shot in Ocean View which is a coloured township. It still looks exactly like it did fifty years ago. Nothing's changed, even inside the houses. But you know, those townships, if you start shooting weapons it can get very dangerous so we had this place, the Cape Town Film Studios had built Robben Island for Long Walk to Freedom, the exact replica of the Robben Island prison.
It's now just going to rack and ruin, because nobody's using it for anything. So we were able to use it till our heart's content. Then outside they've got like about two hundred houses that they've built that looks exactly like Orlando. And we were able to use part of that for our alley ways, for our backyards and things like that so it was just incredible. Cape Town Film Studios really, really came to our rescue there. You know, we've made a low-budget film, maybe R7 million at the end of the day, but to me it looks like a $20 million film.