Regarded by many as being in the same league as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, LES BLAIR gets to grips with the new face of South Africa in Jump The Gun. Words: Gio MacDonald
Les Blair comes over as an ordinary sort of bloke with a nice sense of humour. He speaks in relaxed. thoughtful tones and has a bit of a sparkle about his eyes. Best known for his 1993 film Bad Behaviour. a gentle North London comedy with Stephen Rea and Sinead Cusack. he‘s been writing and directing for TV since the 70s. So he’s a bit surprised when people ask him silly questions about why a Salford lad would want to set his new film in South Africa.
‘Because it‘s a fascinating place at a fascinating time in history.‘ is his answer. ‘The whole event in South Africa is gob-smacking. No one in their right mind would have expected that for another 20 or 30 years. if ever. It‘s a fantastic place to go and make a film at the moment. especially with the brief I gave myself. which was to make a film about the street- level people we never get to hear about. especially the white underclass that is suddenly finding itself in the job market.‘
The result was Jump The Gun — a funny and keenly observed portrayal of the multi-racial underclass which has evolved. The story follows electrician Clint. who comes to Johannesburg for some rest and relaxation. but discovers that his home town has become rather ‘African'. The positive message of Jump The Gun is that ‘even someone as reactionary as Clint can find a way through. and that we’ve all got journeys of reconciliation to make.’
22 rususr 29 Aug—11 Sep 1997
In black and white: Michele Burgers and Baby Cele in Jump The Gun
'The whole event in South Africa is gob-smacking. No one in their right mind would have expected that for another 20 or 30 years, if ever.’ Les Blair
Blair likens the release and election of Nelson Mandela to the coming down of the Berlin Wall. When he took his film to the festival there. in what was formerly East Berlin. they ‘identified totally with the bewilderment and struggle of the characters. and wanted to stay and talk for hours after.‘
Like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. both of whom he knows well. Blair has a strongly improvisational approach. He works like a dramaturg. writing around acting workshops — but his workshops happen in the real world. For Jump The Gun. he cast six South African actors from 300. and then took them into Johannesburg‘s bars. gun shops and shanties to improvise while he observed. Once the characters and story are in place. though. the actual filming ‘is a very controlled process. and in the end it's my eye and my decision . . otherwise you end up with a came] of a film. as they say‘.
Having also used the traditional approach to scripting. Blair finds that each lends to the other. helping either character or story. He does find today's obsessive stress on narrative very tedious. though (‘boring as fuck. actually"). The cinema which excited him is humanistic — the Italian neo-realists. Milos Forman‘s early films and. though it's unfashionable and rather tin-PC. .S'utun/ay Night And Sunday Morning.
While they are very different. Blair. [.oach and Leigh are all ‘products of the strong spine of British filmmaking. which is the realist tradition‘. His films aren‘t placards. however — the politics are implicit in his characters. ‘Politics is how you hehave and relate to people . . it’s a lot of little moments rather than one big moment.‘
Blair‘s next trip is to (ilasgow. to make an improvisation-based piece for the BBC with Phil Daniels and Helen McCrory. ‘Another foreign city.‘ he laughs. And one that he finds equally recognisable.
Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 29 Aug. Glasgow Film Theatre from Fri 5 Sep. See review.
The column that stays in its seat until the credits have rolled.
WHEN BILL FORSYTH resigned from the selection panel of the Scottish Film Production Fund back in January over accusations of 'cronyism’, there seemed to be a growing gulf between Scotland’s official film bodies and the filmmakers themselves. In April, the formation of Scottish Screen gathered under one roof most of the country's film resources. Now, with the advent of Scottish Stand, the practitioners have an organisation through which to raise their collective voice.
Scottish Stand will have a vital consultative role to play as lottery money flows into the country. Scotland's indigenous producers need backing for script development and training to create a slate of productions rather than just money for one-off, high-profile projects — a problem the Scottish Producer Support Programme has begun to address.
’For the first time in about ten years, there has been a feeling of really focused energy coming from a broadly based group of filmmakers who wish to influence the growth of an industry in Scotland,’ says veteran producer Paddy Higson. ’Scottish Stand has provided this focus, and gives us all hopes for the
: future. It is especially good to see
the next generation taking their place in this initiative.’
AS FAR AS SHORT FILMS are concerned, the score is currently Scotland (3) Rest Of The World (0). Beauty Of The Common Tool, produced under 1996’s Prime Cuts scheme, has won the top prize at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival in the US, with Gerda Stevenson's The Sacrifice (from the Gaelic language Geur Ghearr scheme) receiving an 'honourable mention' from the same jury. Add in Peter Mullan’s Fridge, which came out top at Palm Springs last year and it's an incredible hatctrick. The award means that Beauty Of The Common Tool is now eligible for an Oscar nomination.
Fridge: previous Palm Springs winner