When Oliver Hermanus was fourteen, he made his first film. Titled Déjà vu, it was a gruesome horror film that starred his cousin, ruined his friend’s carpet with tomato sauce, and ultimately landed him a spot on TV. “I can’t remember how the film got the attention of KTV,” he laughs. “But the movie was so gory that they couldn’t show it on screen.” While he may not have recognised it at the time, this was an early tell of Oliver’s inclination to challenge his audience.
Fourteen years later Skoonheid was released in theatres. His second feature, the film was impossible for audiences to ignore. Meaning ‘beauty’ in Afrikaans, it tells the story of a conservative, middle-aged Afrikaans man whose own repressed homosexuality ultimately leads to violence. It proved a difficult film for conservative viewers to stomach. Some requested its removal from a theatre in Somerset West; certain religious groups took umbrage with it on radio stations.
But eliciting reaction has always been the point of Oliver’s work. His unflinching stories hit a nerve that few local movies do and provokes the kind of audience reflection the director sees as lacking. “It’s rare that cinema speaks to a South African reality,” he explains. “We like escapist cinema, where we don’t have to include ourselves in the narrative. I intentionally had the film open, not just in Cinema Nouveau theatres, but in places like Bloemfontein and North Pretoria – I wanted it to be accessible to everyone.”
Though not be used to being on the other side of the lens, Oliver’s portrait shoot is not his first time in front of Gary Van Wyk’s camera. The two are old friends, brought together now by their respective creative achievements. Though the two spend much of the shoot playfully ribbing each others chosen vocations, Oliver is acutely aware of the value his own photographic experience: “When I was educated in photography I was really being educated in telling a story through a single frame – film is really just an expansion of that,” he states.
Oliver is the golden boy of provocative South African cinema, a youthful boldness imbuing each picture he helms. Of his three feature films, not one has emerged from the festival circuit without a significant honour. Expressing no desire to flee to Hollywood, he continues to produce work that tugs at his audiences’ anxieties and pushes boundaries. The South African industry remains in its teething phase but sooner or later, with the continued contribution of artists like Oliver, we will learn to run.