Lemogang Tsipa on ‘Back of the Moon’

Set in 1958, Sophiatown, “back of the moon” is anything but a family film. Following the probing story of “Badman”, a notorious gangster with an affinity for books, who, on the eve of his home being demolished by apartheid police decides to fight them to death. A brief love encounter follows, as Eve a beautiful singer is thrown into the mix.

On a crisp spring morning I make my way to the Cape Town CBD where I am meeting with former classmate, Lemogang Tsipa who plays “Ghost”. A character sure to leave a sinister impression. The mood around the country is dark as xenophobia and femicide reaches a boiling point. After exchanging pleasantries our conversation follows.

After a world-premiere at Suncoast Casino, I’m sure international audiences are waiting to see this movie. Do you think they’ll enjoy a film set in such a difficult era, where gangsters and police brutality were rife?

We do a lot of crime-related content in South Africa. I felt, especially through the eyes of the lead that the international audience will experience a humanized African gangster who’s a complete paradox. It’s (Badman) a guy that reads a lot, which is really uncommon in this genre. It’s going to really give insight into characters that have often been stereotyped.

Which sort of movie-goers will enjoy Back Of The Moon?

It’s a very specific film. It’s definitely not a family movie that everybody can watch. If you’re into stuff like Tarantino and Kubrick – it’s got shades of both; then I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy this movie.

Back of the Moon can be described as sometimes violent and tender in both style and content, how does your character “Ghost” navigate through this on-screen world, can you tell us a bit about him?

There’s a level of one-dimension to his character but he is a complete person. His agenda serves his ego and whatever his plans are through the night, which is one thing: trying to create some form of chaos. In the context of him being a gangster, he is obviously a person who thrives on anarchy and disruption, he tries to feed into that and uses it to destabilize the gang, getting them on his side to serve his agenda. I liked him, as he’s something different from the work I’ve put out before. I think people will be able to see me in a different light. It’s a very interesting break to play someone as dark as Ghost whose ambitions are only to destroy.

Lemogang Tsipa as Ghost

This on-screen world highlights a hub of black intellectualism, crime and an apartheid state. How do you feel South African’s audiences will react given the current political climate in the country?

I’m interested to know what their reaction is, I wish I could preempt it, as there’s a lot of interesting facets. I think one of the challenging points is going to be the lead roles character. We as black people were still bound by segregation back then. “Badman” is a guy from Congo, living in South Africa, so there are those elements. Hopefully it’s going to highlight the fact that we are a close-knit community, a community that should not be fighting among ourselves. Hopefully the audience also realizes that historically we, with Pan-African countries, have been working together for the liberation and inclusion of all societies.

Through art, messages can often be misinterpreted. What sort of responsibility do filmmakers have when delivering films with an authentic South African voice?

I think part of the mandate is to work almost like societies mirror. Even though Back of the Moon is an historic piece, the instability of “that” country and “that” government back then have many parallels, which can be drawn to today’s society. In that way, it’s a timeless representation as a lot of the problems have not been resolved since then. As filmmakers, it’s our job to make people question and engage in conversations that hopefully lead to resolving issues in a positive light.

Your previous film, Beyond The River saw you play the hero superbly. What was the transition like to now take on a more villainous role?

With Beyond The River I had to pick up a new skill. I also needed to look like a well-versed athlete. As an actor, I felt I always needed to show people all my abilities and how far I’m willing to push myself. I think this was one of the roles I could really sink my teeth into and really get to play and push boundaries. I think those are the elements people might enjoy when watching him (Ghost), even down to the way I move, those are all choices that existed in my head. Fortunately under the guidance of Angus, he was able to allow me to play and be free.

Which do you enjoy most, playing a hero or villain?

I like both. Heroes are not as fun to play but they get you in the public’s appeal as a dope person. If you look at Will Smith, Denzel or Dwayne Johnson, they always play the hero and because of that they’re celebrated as these icons. The villain is also fun to play, as there are less rules. The hero has a sort of limit, so you have to be likable. I prefer villains in terms of your ability to stretch the character but when it comes to public appeal. The hero is the one. It’s a 50/50.

How did you get into the state of mind of Ghost, did you reference other roles or was sort of a freestyle/improv?

It was a weird mix of things, it started out very playfully but then I wanted to created a sense of energy around him that was illusive. I was thinking of trying to emulate a snake. In his movements, you can see the way that he walks is always slow and calculated. I feel snakes are like that; they strike at an opportune moment. That was the sort of personification I was trying to place.

The film has a fairly young cast, which is always great to see. Tell us about the energy on set?

Initially there are a lot of nerves when approaching a period piece because only a few people on set lived through those times. For us as youngsters it was quite disconcerting, as you have to truthfully display a specific era. We had a guy there who was helping us with the language, the Tsotsi taal of the time, which we had to get right. It left little room for improv in that sense because the language is very specific. The energy overall was amazing and positive. It’s one of those projects that everybody believed in from day one. That energy translates on screen. We were all invested and wanted to make an amazing piece of art which hopefully we achieved.

Lastly, sounds like you’re genuinely pleased to be a part of this production. What made Back of the Moon such an impressive production for you?

It is true to South African stories, it’s a beautiful work of art and extremely well shot and lit. It’s well cast, not just because I’m in it (laughs). Even though it can be violent and dark, I think there’s a definite beauty to it. I think South Africa is like that also, it’s sometimes dark but beautiful.

About the Author

Having memberships at all video rental stores as a child led Kurt to a lifelong love of movies. Kurt’s work as a film critic and creative arts journalist has been published in both print and online publications. Among them, the legendary One Small Seed magazine, Geek Node and The Vent. Following a short break from the writing world, he currently free-lances as a filmmaker between Cape Town and Johannesburg.