Filmmaker Ralph Ziman

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Johannesburg native and writer-director of the Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema comments on life in South Africa after Nelson Mandela.

Ralph Ziman began his career as a news and documentary cameraman for the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Born in Johannesburg, he moved to the U.K. in the early 80's and, after working as a film editor, became a top director in the music video world. He then segued into films with the award-winning Hearts and Minds, the first indie South African feature to be completed after the fall of apartheid. Ziman's latest project is Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema, which looks at the most crime-infested district of his native city.


Tavis: Ralph Ziman is an accomplished filmmaker and music video director whose most recent project, Gangster’s Paradise, opens in select theaters around the country today in fact. The film is set against the backdrop of some of the ongoing challenges for his hometown of Joburg, Johannesburg. Here now a scene from Gangster’s Paradise.
Tavis: So, Ralph, from that clip, I’m trying to figure out what this is gonna tell me, this movie, that is, about life in Joburg.
Ralph Ziman: It’s a kind of modern day look at life in the city of Johannesburg which has, you know, in the last ten or fifteen years really been blighted. Some of the built high-rise suburbs in the center of Johannesburg have become derelict. They’ve become run by slumlords. It’s a kind of look at the reality of modern day Johannesburg.
Tavis: There was so much hope obviously after Mandela was released and, of course, became president that the country was going to specifically turn for the better for those Black Africans who had been so denied for so long during apartheid. That’s not the message that I necessarily get from the film.
Ziman: Well, I think 15 years after the end of apartheid, what had happened looking around the inner city is the rich had become richer, the poor had been poorer, the middle class had been squeezed really hard.
If you look in the film, there’s the footage in the very beginning in Johannesburg circa 1994 at the time of the transition. There really was this incredible moment of hope. There was this idea that, you know, Johannesburg was kind of a new paradise, a new Jerusalem.
The film really seeks to look at, you know, what had happened 15 years down the line and how we went from a time of such incredible hope to, you know, what is really the reality.
Tavis: How do you take that political reality, to use your phrase? How do you take that political reality, that social reality, that cultural reality and make it – because it is a film – entertaining?
Ziman: Well, that was why we kind of tried to package the film within the genre of being a gangster movie, to try and look at it and try to do it in an entertaining way, try to just have a film which wasn’t just very heavy on social message. I think there’ve been so many films that have dealt with apartheid and HIV. It was important that we would connect with an audience with the film.
Tavis: How are South Africans, specifically those who live and work in Joburg, going to take the message of the film?
Ziman: You know, the film has been absolute like runaway smash in South Africa. We premiered at [unintelligible] and we had four packed cinemas. The film started playing the very next morning. They had it in four cinemas. Nine o’clock was the first show, 9 a.m. in the morning, and played until, you know, nine or ten at night.
We played in cinemas for six months all the way through June through December. It really did connect with an audience. You know, we wound up releasing it on DVD while it was still out in the cinemas just to thwart the pirates. But it’s really become kind of a cultural touchstone in South Africa.
Tavis: I’ve been to Joburg any number of times.
Ziman: Right.
Tavis: I’m headed that way this summer for a couple of weeks. When I get there and get a chance to move around the city, what am I going to hear from the residents about life in Joburg today, 15-plus years after apartheid?
Ziman: Well, you know, with the World Cup going on at the moment, I mean, everybody is very positive and really want to put the best spin on it.
You know, one of the things I wanted to do in making this film is actually show people what the city of Johannesburg because a lot of people just don’t venture there anymore. You know, you stay close to where you live, you stay in the areas where you’re comfortable and not many people would necessarily venture into a place like Hillborough.
Tavis: Is there a reason to go there for anything?
Ziman: You know, it was only people who lived there would go there. People who would go from outside were going in to buy drugs. That was really the bottom line of it. You know, to see the place, not really because it is too dangerous and particularly if you’re wandering around and you seem like you don’t have business or you don’t know where you’re going, you probably are looking for trouble.
Tavis: Since the film obviously deals with crime, from the clip we saw a few moments ago, how does the film treat the relationship between the police and the residents and is that depiction meant to be fictional or an assessment of the way things really are?
Ziman: You know, I did spend a lot of time driving around with the police while I was doing my research and we would go into the inner city on, you know, Friday and Saturday nights. I think what had really happened in South Africa was that, because the police were an instrument of the apartheid government, I think a lot of people had just really lost respect for the police and they don’t look up to the police and they don’t necessarily trust them or feel like they’re in any way invested. You know, the police are very aware of this.
You speak to a lot of like the cop who’s depicted in my film. He was based in Uganda and he knew that there was this period during the apartheid years when guys like him had been, you know, propping up the government that had been oppressing the people.
Even though at this point when we’re making the film, there are a lot of cops who are very passionate about crime prevention, about fighting crime, it’s a very difficult uphill struggle because they don’t have the community behind them and they don’t have the trust of the people.
Tavis: I can only imagine the challenge that it is for law enforcement trying to gain the trust of a people who have legitimate reasons for never having liked you. How are they going about trying to make that transition?
Ziman: I’m not sure that they really know how to do it. I mean, they have tried various community outreach, but generally the police, like when you would drive through inner city Johannesburg, Hillborough, they wanted to go in a three, four, five cars in a convoy. Everyone had, you know, Kevlar vests and automatic weapons, so you wouldn’t go in with less than nine or ten cops.
Tavis: So they’re going in looking like a militia.
Ziman: They go in looking like a militia and they would go in and, you know, get through to where they want to and then they would get out. There are awesome scenes in the film where you see large numbers of police actually busting some of those buildings in Hillborough. We were low-budget, so we didn’t have the budget to do that. We were really following around real cops at that time.
You can see that they go in with the big armored vehicles. It kind of looks like Iraq. They go in with three or four armored vehicles with 30, 40, 50 cops. It’s more about trying to say we have a presence. We’re here. Look at us. Fear us. But there isn’t actually a lot of connection.
Tavis: One of the things that those of us who have studied law enforcement in this country understand better now than they used to where this notion of community-based policing is concerned? We went through this issue years ago here in Los Angeles with our police department. This notion of – how about I put this – you can get the community’s buy-in if the cops on the beat look like the folk who they’re protecting and serving.
If the cops on the beat live in the city so that they’re vested in the city, that they’re vested in this community, I mean, it sounds corny, but Andy in Mayberry. People trusted Andy, they knew Andy, Andy lived in the community; Andy was vested in that community. What’s happening in Joburg specifically about getting cops who look like the people in Hillborough?
Ziman: You know, the police probably do generally mirror the population. It may still be slightly heavy in terms of white cops versus Black.
Tavis: That’s why I’m asking about that.
Ziman: There are a lot of Black cops and, you know, really what it’s about is it’s not safe for a couple of policemen on their own to go walking down the street. So the police tend to, like I say, go in in big numbers.
Police who actually live in the area are open to intimidation by the gangsters and the thugs who live there who are very heavily armed and general travel around in very big groups. You know, when something happens, when you have a burglary, when you have a robbery, even sometimes with the hijackings nowadays in Johannesburg, it’ll be like ten or fifteen heavily armed guys. It won’t just be one or two guys on their own.
So the police are very outnumbered, they’re outgunned and probably under-resourced, not paid enough. A lot of them probably not paid enough not to be taking bribes or not to want to be taking bribes. It’s a very difficult thing.
Tavis: This conversation comes at an interesting time because the whole world, as you mentioned earlier, the eyes of the world are on South Africa hosting the World Cup. For one watching this conversation right now who is headed to South Africa for the World Cup, I hope the message here is that people shouldn’t be afraid to go to South Africa.
Ziman: You shouldn’t be afraid to go to South Africa.
Tavis: It’s just a movie, but still, yeah.
Ziman: You do have to be vigilant there. You do have to be looking out. You do have to be, you know, a little more cautious about making sure your door of your hotel is locked at night. But obviously, you know, we really want everyone to go and have a great time at the World Cup and hopefully [unintelligible] will do really well.
Tavis: Well, I hope that South Africa has the same experience that we had here in Los Angeles when we hosted the ’84 Olympics. Crime went down during the Olympics, so it was actually pretty cool for the city. Let’s hope the same thing will happen for Joburg. The film is called Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema. Ralph Ziman is the director.
Ziman: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Glad to have you here.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm