Oliver Hermanus

Champagne for Beginners

2011-08-10 09:52
It was a sunny Monday afternoon in Paris when I was called into my producer’s office to receive a phone call. The man on the other end speaks in a warm but thick French accent. He congratulates me on the rough cut of my new film, Skoonheid, that he and a few other colleagues had scrutinised in a private screening two weeks before. He finally ends his short statement with the sentence "…and we would love to invite the film to premiere with us in Cannes".
Speechless. I hung up, stepped out onto the terrace of the office, where my producer was already standing, champagne bottle in hand. We all hugged, me still stunned (my lifelong dream suddenly a reality in front of me). I sipped the champagne, thanked everyone in the office, walked to the metro stop, got on the train and went back to work at the sound studio. For the next week, we toasted nightly, champagne being the only acceptable way to celebrate a Cannes selection when in Paris.
Three weeks later I am back in Cape Town to repack my back, grab a suit, kiss my mother, and score a couple of free drinks from my friends. Then, I hit the south of France to take our place amongst the world’s cinema Olympians. In the seven days I was there, I caught a cold in 30 degree heat, met my idols - the Dardenne brothers - got my name shouted back at me by fifty photographers and shared the red carpet with one Milla Jovovich.

Critics divided

The reviews from our film poured in within hours of its 2 500-strong attended premiere screening. The critics were divided, but considered. The sales offer got fresh, and the taste of Moet Chandon got old. Then, moments away from my departure to the airport, when my cold was just about to render me bedridden, I am told "you need to stay, you’ve won something". So, I drop my suitcase, get into bed and awaited nightfall.
The award was the Queer Palm, and the jury was impressed. I thank them all in broken French, explaining my cold. "More champagne!" they cried.
Two days later and I am back in sunny Cape Town. The news has broken Southside, and the stream of messages and 'shout outs' are abundant. First stop is a family lunch, having not really seen them in months. The door flings open, and I am ushered to a familiar round table, atop rests none other than… another bottle of champagne. My father pops the cork triumphantly and I begin the measured task of retelling each detail of my trip to France.
A week later, the date is set: August 5 becomes our deadline to tell South Africa that Skoonheid is coming to a multiplex near you!
Cue: new office, new team and new company. We launch Swift 2.0 Distrubition two weeks later and begin a "fun" e-mail exchange with the Film Publications Board during which we have to explain to them the difference between a distributor and an exhibitor. Not deterred, even when the chief of the clan has us on the phone, trying to work out what it is we are doing, we decide to nod and smile when she certifies us as both.

That swimming pool scene
We start by asking ourselves: "Is South Africa ready for this film?" The answer we decide on: "As ready as they will ever be!". We arrange some private screenings for the old critics, asking them to gaze into their crystal ball and tell us what they see. Turns out, they see very little. So, we ask the young critics to do the same (their balls a little less developed); their predictions are enthusiastic.
Hoping for a chance to catch that elusive afternoon nap, I push forward towards the Durban International Film Festival. I arrive on a Friday, it’s been a year since I last saw the familiar business cards of my fellow industry members. The cocktail hours are beer and wine affairs – ah, I am home. Saturday night is a packed audience of 300 local cinefiles and lost Durbanites. When the credits roll, the room is silent. I get given a microphone and utter the age-old festival slogan "…any questions?"
Fast-forward two hours and the crowd is dancing to the musical stylings of DJ Something or Other. No champagne in sight, the party is spent standing next to my mother and father who have just seen their son’s latest cinematic essay. They are, for the most part, speechless.
A week later and we are back in Cape Town, this time it’s the Labia. The audience is a collection of crew and cast, French and South African. They all clap proudly at seeing their work realised as a complete coherent text. The party down on Long Street is fun and familiar, but by now I have seen the painkiller end of too many nights talking about 'that swimming pool' scene.
Saturday is the proposed day off – couch potato day in sight but then, midday Friday, the phone rings: "You need to come back to Durban, you’ve won something". So, I pack my bag, call my mother, while my producer cries from the desk next to mine, "More champagne!"
* Skoonheid is currently on circuit. Follow Oliver on Twitter

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