Interview: Ralph Ziman

On September 22, 2010, I received a phone call from none other than director Ralph Ziman, known for his music videos and recent film about South African gangs, “Jerusalema”. We had a chat about the World Cup, various films about South Africa (not just his own), and what it’s like working with rock stars. That’s right: an interview about film that covers Faith No More, Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osbourne.

The conversation not only highlights his film career, but does a fine job of covering South African politics and history from an inside perspective. No plots are spoiled here, so feel free to read and then go out and rent (or buy) the critically-acclaimed “Jerusalema” (also known as “Gangster’s Paradise”).

GS: Ralph, you started out your directing career with music videos.

RZ: I did. Roughly in London in the early 1990s.

GS: In terms of creative control, how does the world of music videos differ from feature films?

RZ: Honestly, I have more control in feature films. Music videos were always very difficult, being driven by the record companies, the production companies, UK or American companies, and sometimes even different factions within a ban. People with different ideas of how the video should look or how the band’s image should be portrayed. I think also with the music video, you have to get the image of the band right. Is it them, is it the band? And that always comes to dictate the creative process to some extent.

GS: One of the bands you worked with was Faith No More. They have a reputation of being quirky. Did you find this to be the case?

RZ: They certainly were. You know Mike, the lead singer, was really an amazing character. They were very easy to work with. I remember doing the video in 1987, the “Epic” video, and they had one day off in London in the middle of a world tour. They more or less asked us to do it at the last minute, and we set it up in a studio. They were sleeping late in the morning, so they ended up coming down around 12 o’clock midday, and stayed until 9 at night. And that was pretty much how it was: they came down and turned up the volume almost immediately. We rolled camera, and that was kind of how it happened.

GS: Any stories about Ozzy Osbourne or Iron Maiden?

RZ: You know, Ozzy was fantastic. Later on I saw their TV show and I realized… Well, I did “No More Tears”, I did…

GS: “Perry Mason”.

RZ: Yeah, and “Mama I’m Coming Home”. I did, I think, three or four videos with him. I remember shooting “No More Tears” and we were down in San Pedro, down by the dock, and his son Jack was 6 or 7 years old. Jack took a fishing pole, he chucked it in the water, and he caught a baby shark. He brought it in and showed it to Ozzy. He’s the same character when the camera runs and when it doesn’t. Like I started to say before, it was like living inside the TV show, it was always really intense. But his music is so good and when you roll the camera his performance is so great.

GS: With “Hearts and Minds”, you focused on apartheid South Africa. For those who missed it, what message were you trying to send?

RZ: It was about a white South African police man who gets sent undercover in the ANC in the dying years of apartheid. He’s caught and at first they don’t believe him and he’s kept in solitary confinement. He’s trying to gain the trust of these people and he’s been sent in to assassinate somebody. As apartheid ends, Nelson Mandela is let out of jail, the ANC is disbanded and his police group is disbanded. It’s kind of the story of this lone white man in Harlem. There’s just this tremendous sense of isolation brought on by the end of apartheid.

GS: In “Jerusalema”, you again return to South Africa, before and after apartheid…

RZ: I’m continually returning to South Africa. I’m working on another project about South Africa at the moment. I think it’s what material comes to you, speaks to you and appeals to you. I’m just drawn to the politics; the people and situations are really fascinating.

GS: As a South African, how much do you feel you are telling a personal story?

RZ: I feel very connected with the place, the stories, the people. To some extent, I feel that it’s what I know and understand. I grew up in it, and formative years are very intense. I was born in Hillbrow and spent a lot of time there as a teenager growing up in record shops, bars and night clubs. It’s not really my story, but it’s something I feel a closeness to.

GS: Your film is more or less a true story. In making it, you met the real Lucky at a McDonalds. Can you tell us about that?

RZ: When I was doing the research, I came across this guy. I’ve told the story before, but a friend of mine who manages buildings in downtown Johannesburg had this situation where a gang had arrived and tried to hijack a building — tried to steal it. On a Friday afternoon, they came and said they were the new owners, and began cutting their way into the building. It had shops at street level, and from the second floor up it had been closed off. There had been offices some ten or fifteen years before. Behind them came five or ten busloads of people who were moved in by 6:30. The building was then, for all intents and purposes, lost to the owner. And I was just like, how can anyone steal a building? And it was done through a mixture of cunning, gangsterism, legal maneuvers and basically forcing them into debt.

I called the guy’s number and told him who I was. He told me to meet him, and he talked so smooth. And he started telling me that South Africa had a hundred years of apartheid and black people were not allowed to own land. They had their land taken away from them and you had to be white to own land. Apartheid comes to an end and they still have nothing, he he said they were taking back what was theirs. He didn’t feel it was a crime, he was taking it back. And that was really fascinating. It hooked me in.

I went to the inner city of Johannesburg, and saw what had become of it. I was from Hillbrow, and things had gone from being an affluent neighborhood to something of a slum in ten or fifteen years. I also tracked down a policeman who had been in law enforcement a number of years. So yes, the film was all based on a number of stories I had been told about.

GS: You have called “District 9” both “entertaining” and “encouraging”. What more can you say about that film, or “Invictus”, as far as shifting the spotlight to South Africa?

RZ: What I loved about “District 9” — and I really loved “Invictus”, too — is that “District 9” just went in there with South African actors and didn’t rely on bringing in Denzel Washington or anyone like that. It believed in its own filmmaking and its own story. I thought it was tremendously entertaining and very well made. It felt authentic. I think even American and foreign audiences really appreciate that. It made you believe in the aliens and everything. I remember sitting and watching it and thinking “wow”. It was just a great film — the acting, the cinematography, the whole thing.

I really liked “Invictus”, too, and it was a very old school way of making a South African film. With Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, it just doesn’t have the same immediacy to me. I remember the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and remember when the Springboks won it. I was actually at the stadium. The backstory was terrific, and Clint Eastwood did a great job… Morgan Freeman was completely seamless as Mandela. Before the film, I was a bit worried, but he did it.

GS: The World Cup was in South Africa this year. What do you see as the political or economic aftermath of this event?

RZ: Speaking to a lot of people now, it seems like there’s been a kind of hangover. It’s almost like a bit of post-natal depression or something. I think it went really well. There were a lot of concerns about crime, but the security situation was good and it made the country look good. A lot of people had a great time. And apparently the crime rates fell during the World Cup and haven’t come back up after it. It’s really encouraging and I’d love to understand why that’s happened. As South African, we’ve been kind of pariahs of the world for so long. You know, under apartheid, obviously there was a cultural boycott and as a musician or artist you couldn’t play abroad. Working as a South African, I was always instructed to not say I’m South African, because people will not work with you. And there are times when that happened. After the end of apartheid, I think a lot of people felt we had to tell a lot of stories about apartheid and be socially conscious. “District 9” is kind of breaking out of that mold. It’s just kind of taken awhile, but I think the World Cup has shown people that South Africa is a place that can hold their own, do it in their own style, and with an African flavor. 100,000 people with vuvuzelas blasting… it’s pretty home grown.

GS: It certainly is. Thanks so much for talking with me today, Ralph… you’ve been thorough and very informative.

RZ: Thank you. Take care, Gavin.

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