Following local film Barakat’s selection as South Africa’s entry for Best International Feature at next year’s Academy Awards, we spoke to director Amy Jephta about the making and impact of her film. A heartfelt comedy drama, Barakat joins the Davids family one year after the death of the patriarch of the household, as Aisha, mother to four sons who’ve grown estranged from each other, gathers the family to announce a new romance.
What was the genesis for Barakat?
Ephraim Gordon and I were always interested in making a family film that captured the spirit of our particular community in a very nuanced and detailed way. We threw around many ideas: wedding film, 21st movie, family holidays…and finally landed on a ‘Labarang’ movie, because we just hadn’t seen a film like that before.
You’ve captured the idiosyncratic and yet familiar dynamics recognizable in any family, these characters and quips could easily have run away with a film that is just as much about loss as it is about comical squabbling, what was it like fine-tuning the script to its delicate balance?
Barakat started as a comedy and ended up being about grief. At first sight, we appeared to want to tell a lighthearted story about a family of feuding brothers brought together to sabotage their mother’s love life. What the film actually wanted to be about, is how we deal with the loss of one of our own – in this case, a father and patriarch. The story became about a family grappling with a legacy that has left an empty seat at their table. For me, it is about how we honour familial, collective memory even as life moves on. That difficulty, of ‘moving on’ from the death of a loved one, is a universal theme that speaks to our humanity anywhere in the world. Perhaps that’s why the story we gravitated toward telling was to explore and unpack that grief. But sometimes, pain manifests in absurdity or comedy.
The movie is also a love letter to the homes and surroundings of the family, it’s hard to look past the characters without spotting tattered recipe books, handmade doilies, antique radios, as I understand it the authenticity of the props is in part because they were found objects?
The brief to our art director, Sumaya Wicomb, was that nothing we saw in the Davids house should be ‘new’. Many of these objects I remember growing up with, have a patina and a history to them. We wanted to make sure that every object you see in the film was imbued with that history.
This film is new ground for South Africa’s entries into the Academy Awards, and at the risk of being the 100th interviewer to ask, what’s it like to be recognised by the National Film and Video Foundation in this way?
It’s an honour of course to be recognized and to be the first female of colour whose work has been submitted to represent South Africa at the Oscars.
Probably the most remarked upon aspect of the film is that it is full of authentic, local speech, was this chosen to add another element for South Africans to enjoy or simply a matter of writing accurately for the characters?
It was important for us as filmmakers to produce a piece that reflected the lived reality of this subsection of black South Africa in an authentic and honest way. Authenticity of language was everything. For us, this language of Kaaps is organic and second nature. So writing it was a conscious decision, that also didn’t feel forced.
Some local academics suggest points-of-interest like Barakat can help legitimize Afrikaaps to those who still suffer under the misconception that it is a bastardized take on Afrikaans, an odd distinction since Afrikaans itself is a creole-language. You must be proud to be a part of this push for greater recognition?
I’m very excited that Kaaps is finally coming into its own and being recognized on a local and global stage. It’s an exciting time for us who speak and live and inhabit this language. I know there’s also a lot of politics around whether Kaaps is a language, a dialect, a creole-language, etc. Those rhetorics I leave to academics – how it’s classified doesn’t really affect my lived experience either way. For me, Kaaps is my storytelling voice, and that’s what I’m engaging in.
Could you speak to the choice of Barakat as the film’s title?
Barakat is an Arabic word meaning blessings. Barakat also means a blessing in any form, whether it’s a person or a moment that comes into your life. We wanted to explore the many facets of Barakat – and what forms blessings can take – in this film.
What was it like working with your stellar cast, and beyond that, the bit-players that help make up the film’s community? The on-set energy seems to have been joyful?
The energy was exhilarating and joyful at all times, yes. This cast brought their own lives to the table, every single one of them, so to be able to shape that raw material was such a privilege. The whole community within the film also understood the world we were creating together, inside and out. It’s so rare as a director to not have to ‘explain’ the vision of the film. Everyone who came on board just ‘got it’.
Having said that, since you finished shooting just before Covid hit, there will have been challenges associated with working on the film into the pandemic?
None at all. We finished shooting in January 2019, two months before the lockdowns started in earnest and our lives all shifted. What it did affect, though, is our cinema release. We were unfortunately not able to experience the film with our audiences in the way we would’ve hoped. But it challenged us to find different avenues.
Was it important to you that the film receive a theatrical release, to instill the sort of communal experience that the movie cherishes, or would you have been happy so long as it got into people’s homes? How can readers see the film now?
I think it still makes me happy that the film has been seen and embraced by people in their homes. We’ve heard of people organizing family and friends screenings. We’ve heard of people who’ve rented it on DSTV Box Office multiple times (someone on our Facebook commented to say they’d watched it 5 times already!). So to have the film embraced like that is all I can hope for as a filmmaker. It’s still available on Eventive and on DSTV Box Office, and will be on DSTV in December.
There is a sense in which through making a hyper-specific story, the authenticity of the film reaches more people than a film which is made to please everyone could have. It’s being touted for Academy Awards recognition, it’s been available to view on United Airlines flights, it’s been catapulted to the US and Canada and Australia and and and. Did you believe Barakat had the potential to be received so appreciatively by audiences who won’t even have known of Afrikaaps, let alone been able to speak it?
Not at all. I made this film for a local audience first. It was never intended to be a festival piece, or a film for global eyes. I always said, if the community represented here feel like they’ve been honestly portrayed, I’m satisfied. Everything else is a cherry on top.
You’ve spoken about the film being heavily inspired by the lived experience of South Africans, you even grew up where you’ve set the story, but since in many ways Barakat is a first of its kind, were there any films or pieces of media you could draw on at all?
Not really! There’s a canon of South African comedies of course, but none of them hit the tone I was trying to hit here with Barakat – one that was subtle, small, funny but not outrageous, where the comedy was in the detail and not in broad strokes. I think South African audiences are used to a certain kind of sledgehammer comedy, and I really wanted to make something different. But we also come in the footsteps of movies that have gone before, that used Afrikaaps and showed this community, albeit in a different light… films such as Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story, Noem My Skollie and Four Corners.
Tell me about the cultural advisors and what their role on the production was?
Our cultural advisors were there to make sure we got the detail of the rituals around Eid, the language and word choices, and of course the Arabic speech, as accurate as possible. They were on set at all times to advise on the staging of scenes… in the mosque, at the family ‘boeka’ table, and at the ‘maankyker’ scene on Three Anchor Bay beach. We wanted to make sure we got as close as possible to what this community looked like in real life.
Some local productions seem to scale back on original music, but with Kyle Shepherd at your disposal audiences will be glad to know the film makes liberal use of his alternately emotional, playful and delicate score. Since Shepherd is so versatile, did you work closely with him to dictate what you wanted for the film, or was he left to his own devices?
Kyle took a very simple idea I had for this score and just ran with it. My brief to him was, nothing stereotypical. None of the sounds we stereotypically associate with ‘Cape Colored’ or ‘Cape Muslim’ …the ghoema, the Minstrels music, the banjos. I wanted a score that was lush and orchestral. He made something that was very emotional and vivid, which I love.
I like what Quanita Adams said about there being such a glut of Christmas and Thanksgiving movies, but no such tradition of Labarang/Eid movies. All three share a familial spirit, but Ramadan leading into Eid also marks renewal, was this part of why you chose to set the film over this holiday?
It’s a period of intense reflection for Muslims. It’s a period in which you count your blessings, reflect on yourself, reflect on Islam. And for something so sacred, to have that as the backdrop to petty squabbles and family tension, was a great built-in conflict machine. In many ways the sacredness of Ramadan is held in contrast to the humanity of this family. There’s something much larger at work, but our own foibles as humans often gives us tunnel vision.
Not to imply any sermonizing, since Barakat is absolutely an undemanding watch that focuses on the lives of its characters rather than imparting heavy-handed messaging, but what do you hope to leave audiences seeing this film with?
I think an appreciation for the Barakat in your own life. Whether that means a reflection on your own family, your place within that family. It’s always my intention to leave audiences with a ‘glow’ when the film is over. I want people to feel inspired and uplifted by the storytelling.
You once said that earlier in your career you were worried about where your next job would be coming from, now that you’re more secure than ever can you tell us what you’re eyeing to work on next?
I’m moving into bigger playing spaces, bigger sandboxes, for my next project. It’s a dream project that I can’t really say too much about yet, except that I’m being trusted to create a world that really excites me and will give me scope to play in a genre I absolutely love, which is sci-fi. It’s a total 180 from Barakat. I’m excited to not be boxed-in by a certain kind of story, and that I can have room to explore different aspects of my voice as a filmmaker.
The Academy Award nominees will be announced on February 8 next year, so there’s nothing left to say but good luck.