Berk: “Raising capital SA filmmaking’s biggest challenge right now”

“I’m always happy to be there,” says veteran television director Barry Berk. He refers to the seven SAFTA (South African Film and Television Awards) nominations his debut feature film Sleeper’s Wake earned, for best film, best director, best writer, best actor, best editor, best cinematographer, best sound design. Last weekend, it walked off with best cinematographer (Willie Nel).

He spoke to My View on the eve of the announcement of the SAFTA winners for 2014. “I’ve had a plethora of nominations, but very few wins.” Berk, who has twice been a judge on the SAFTA panel, shot to prominence after winning a best director award in the early 1990s.

The idea of making Alaistair Morgan’s eponymous 2012 debut thriller novel into a film was suggested to Berk by the writer Damon Galgut. It tells of a transgressive relationship: 46-year-old John Wraith survives a car accident in which his wife and daughter are killed. He had fallen asleep at the wheel. And then there’s 17-year-old Jackie with demons and traumas of her own.

“I read it and I loved it,” says Berk. “I gave it to a producer friend of mine, Ken Kaplan and we set up making it.

“Raising capital”, is in his opinion the film industry’s biggest challenge in local filmmaking today. “It’s difficult because very few South African films see a return. This has to do with the size of our cinema-going population. On the other hand, our ticket prices are very cheap. If you go and see cinema on the West End, you would pay about £18 or £20.

“And then there’s quality. Because our budgets are so small, because the return is so small, it’s very difficult to make a film. People who go and see movies want to escape for an hour and a half. They’re not always willing to take the chance to see locally made shows – they might come onto satellite television.

“One solution is we start creating films we can export. The only way you can make money is if you sell overseas. Even if you do incredibly well here, not [slapstick SA humour veteran, Leon] Schuster-well, but in the R10 000 000 to R15 000 000 bracket, you’re earning a bit of money, but it’s not two years’ worth of work.

“Everyone gets paid. Except me. On Sleeper’s Wake, I reinvested my fees into the film,” he says, speaking of a dream film that’s been knocking around in his head for years, set in 1790 in the Cape and premised on true stories within slave culture. But, he confesses, wouldbe funders pall at the idea of this idea: it’s too expensive.

He supports the idea of crowd funding, but concedes that the budget for making a film is too high for projects like kickstarter or indiegogo. “Barmitzvah money,” is the source he laughingly says you go to for film funding. “Private money.”

Berk was born in Cape Town, studied drama at UCT and film at New York University. He directed the second season of the watershed SA television series Yizo Yizo in the late 1990s, a couple of years after returning from New York.

He came to film out of sheer love. “My dad had a 16mm projector. He loved films. On Saturday nights, he and my mom would go to the movies. On a Sunday mornings we would get together with my folks in their bed and he would ‘tell us’ the movie.

“In 1993, on the cusp of 1994, I was planning a thesis film and I just thought, why am I making another film about America? I realised I wanted to be in South Africa.

“I got a break with New Directions who commissioned me to make a film called Angels about two Bergies living in Cape Town and won Best Director at the industry awards of the time.

“Then things came up. Curious Pictures which is now Quizzical Pictures approached me for jobs,” he subsequently directed and had a hand in writing the SABC 3 series The Lab and Gaz’lam, for SABC 1, amongst other projects.

“I have my toe in the pond,” he offers about current projects. “I’m writing a script for someone, but I’m also recording music with Laurie Levin, from home. Music is my first love, before film; now I’m producing, recording, engineering, even putting together ditties, but I’m a little reticent to sing.” Digital equipment for recording is affordable enough to create a CD and market it from home.

Berk is optimistic about the future of film in South Africa. “We’re making more films than ever, annually. What we have to do is be able to market our films overseas. The same way that back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was Australian film. Everyone cited Australian film and wanted to see it because it’s Australian film. If we can get there, we create a brand South African film, then this industry that can really start flying.”

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