The Hangman's Zwelethu Radebe on his hopes for Oscar gold

Channel24's Rozanne Els caught up with award-winning director Zwelethu Radebe to talk about his acclaimed short film, The Hangman.

New York - An audience gasps in a theatre in Brooklyn. Up until this moment, this heartbreaking moment in The Hangman, the theatre was enveloped in a foreboding quiet. The award-winning short film’s big reveal is distressing and unexpected. 

Whatever the audience’s predictions about how the film by 29-year-old South African director Zwelethu Radebe would end – it was hardly this. Applause follows, and then a heaviness enfolds the space and all within it. The Hangman stunned the usually lively audience at the New York African Film Festival into silence. 

The film, which Radebe is now adapting into a full-length feature tentatively slated for release in mid-2019, is set against the end of apartheid in 1989. The story follows Khetha (Thato Dhladla), a black prison warder guarding inmates in a maximum-security prison in Pretoria, as he grapples with the sudden reappearance of his estranged father who has been transferred to the prison on the eve of his execution.

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Since the film’s release last year, it has received high praise – both locally and internationally – as it thrust forward on its winning path. The reaction at the New York African Film Festival, says Radebe, has been much the same all over the world. 

“It’s been interesting to watch the film around the world and see a similar reaction of complete silence and contemplation at the end of the film. The most common feedback that I’ve gotten is how powerful the performances are, and recently in Los Angeles [where it screened at the LA Shorts International Film Festival and won best foreign film] someone told me that the film’s reveal moment was so well done.” 

The gasps and raw silence, however, may very well not be a reaction to the story’s dramatic pivot near the end – rather to the intensely brutal emotional and historical see-saw that is still alive far beyond the screen, and forever lives in the kitchens of a million families and the beds of a million others. 

“I think it will take a long time for us to truly understand how deeply the system of apartheid affected the people of South Africa,” says Radebe of the reaction. 

“Storytelling is one way that helps us understand that. The ordinary South African’s narrative is equally important as the stories of the freedom fighters and leaders. This is why I wanted to write The Hangman. I wanted to look at the human struggle and not the armed struggle.”

Radebe, who cites Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Capote by Bennett Miller, and A Prophet by Jacques Audiard among his inspirations while making the film, says that it’s always been a priority to show the film to as many people as possible. 

“We arranged a lot of screenings when the film initially premiered in Johannesburg and Soweto in 2017. We will continue to screen the film where we can, and to inspire others to tell their own stories.”


HOPES FOR AN OSCAR NOMINATION

Accolades for the short abound – from the award for the best short film at the Zanzibar International Film Festival and best international short film at the Durban International Film Festival to best international drama at the Discover Festival in London and the Made in South Africa Award at the shnit Worldwide Shortfilmfestival.

Radebe hopes these honours will lead all the way to the Oscars now that the film has been screened at two Oscar-qualifying festivals (the LA Shorts and the Hollyshorts Film Festival.) 

“It’s important to get to the Oscars, not only for my crew and me but also for my fellow filmmakers in South Africa and the continent. My dream has always been for African films to be celebrated globally and this would be another stepping-stone for us,” says Radebe, whose accomplishments thus far have mostly been as a director of commercials for clients across the globe. 

The Hangman’s acclaim, however, has led to a different kind of international professional recognition for Radebe. 

“As a result, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with an LA producer who watched the film and is now helping me make the feature film version of it. Personally, the process has also given me the confidence to tell my own stories.” 
 
That confidence reveals a profound storyteller who taps deeply into his personal experiences to bring stories to the screen, including Khetha’s. “I know what it’s like to lose someone instantly and not know why they were taken from you. My father was murdered when I was 14 years old and I never found out who did it and why. I think because of that, I knew how to tell a story like The Hangman.” 

It was sometimes tough to shoot some of the scenes, he says. And sometimes he would become almost embarrassed, worrying that the film would seem melodramatic and self-indulgent. “That people would hate it.” 

To make a film, however, is by its very nature a self-indulgent practice. Done wrong, or not very well, it can become self-involved and limited. Made for an audience of one. But a filmmaker who indulges in universal themes tears down the walls between all those who watch it. It makes us active participants of not only part of the story of real lived experiences, but the story. Radebe’s absolute determination to tell a story with a universal theme enabled a global audience to engage with the film. 

“I think people that lack the knowledge of what happened in South Africa [during apartheid] will still understand the message and get a glimpse of what effect it had on the lives of black people.” 

To this end, the script is deliberately sparse. Instead, Radebe trusted in non-verbal cues and body language. 

“A lot of what we feel as human beings are communicated by not saying anything at all.”


(Photos supplied)