Jokes can be hard to get. Especially if they come from a world that is not your own. Humour can be exclusively culturally-specific, but it also has the ability to cut across boundaries like no other kind of human interaction.
Material is a film that manages to encompass a universal story of pride and ambition within the clearly defined borders of a few streets in Johannesburg. In the suburb of Fordsburg, a proud Muslim shopkeeper named Ebrahim (played by Vincent Ibrahim, star of The Kumars at No. 42) prepares his son Cassim to take over the gradually failing family business. This set up, along with the dull brown tone of the film might initially conjure expectations of a depressing drama about family obligation versus personal ambition. This tension certainly forms the basis of the plot, but the film is anything but depressing.
Comedian Riaad Moussa lifts the story from its potential descent into clichéd family drama onto a higher plane. In his role as the gentle and sometimes goofy Cassim, Moussa brings a sense of lightness to the film – a reflection of real life acutely observed by the comedian’s eye. He wants pursue his hobby as a stand-up comic, but is constantly obstructed by his father’s stubborn rejection of stand-up comedy as ‘haram’. In Ebrahim’s view, ‘Life is not a funny business’.
Grim scenes of conflict and tension in the family are expertly balanced by excerpts from Cassim’s stand-up routine. With skilful editing and deft pacing, jokes from the main plot feed into the sketches, and vice versa in a cycle of satisfying self-referral that shapes certain phrases into classic movie punchlines. One of the funniest is Cassim’s observation that Indians in Johannesburg are always ’15 minutes’ away when you call them, or ‘just round the corner’, even if they are in Bloemfontein. Cultural stereotypes that form the basis of Cassim’s stand-up are teased out gently, and are expressed using a sense of humour that is funny even if you’ve never come across a South African Indian in your life.
For one member of the festival audience in particular, Material hit the nail on the head in its portrayal of this Johannesburg community. She was clearly moved by how this film spoke to her own experience. Director Craig Freimond and actor Victor Ibrahim explained that a gradual, collaborative process of script and character development allowed the film to create a particular sense of authenticity in portraying the people and atmosphere of Fordsburg, a process that evolved over 5 years of pre-production.
And Friemond admitted that jokes can be hard to get even for a director. Using his background in theatre, Freimond used a lot of improvisatory work with his actors, particularly Moussa and Joey Rasdien (who plays Cassim’s friend Yusuf in one of the funniest performances by a South African comic this reviewer has seen). But he often found himself bemused by the culturally-specific references in their jokes and couldn’t follow the humour. This was ‘amazing’, as Freimond describes it, because the film is set ‘about ten minutes’ from where he lives.
His comment sums up the significance of the space that this film occupies– allowing the specificity of clearly defined suburb in Johannesburg – a ‘legacy of apartheid’, as Ebrahim would put it – to generate a universal story that has so far been met with acclaim across South Africa, and on to Canada, Korea and now London. This film tells some blunt truths about human relationships and all the pride and compromise they entail. It is heartbreaking and hilarious, and you should go and see it.
Material also screened at Film Africa 2012 on Friday 2nd November at the Hackney Picturehouse, followed by a Q&A with lead actor Vincent Ebrahim and producer Tendeka Matatu