OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters Life!) - When businessman Lyndon Plant answered an advertisement in his old school newspaper, little did he know that it would be the start of a new career as a film producer.
The trained accountant’s eye was caught by an appeal from award-winning Zimbabwean director Michael Raeburn, who was on a seven-year hunt for funds for a shocking and darkly comic film featuring incest in a poor white suburb of Johannesburg.
After three glasses of wine at their first meeting at a London arts club, Plant agreed to put 30,000 pounds ($42,600) of his savings from his London job into Raeburn’s production.
“Once Michael knew my own money was on the line he kept trying to dissuade me, telling me how risky the project is,” Plant told Reuters by the swimming pool at Azalai Hotel Independance, the gossipy hub of this week’s FESPACO pan-African film festival in Burkina Faso’s hot dusty capital, Ouagadougou.
“But I told him: “It’s either you or the stock market’.”
The feature-length film, “Triomf,” which is competing for the top prize at FESPACO, benefited from more than 200,000 euros ($253,500) in donor financing, mostly from France.
But it still needs to earn 500,000 euros to break even. If all goes well, Plant should see a 25 percent return on his investment, plus a healthy share of any profits once all the expenses have been paid.
Plant, 38, was born to poor mixed-race parents in Zimbabwe and was the first in his family to attend university.
He became so involved in the project that he set up a joint production company with Raeburn, Giraffe Creations Africa, and raised the 200,000 euros invested in the film.
“It’s an absolute risk, but I think it’s a managed risk. I still say it was absolutely the right decision: I would rather invest in my own business than venture into the stock market, which is someone else’s business,” said Plant.
He has invested in Zimbabwe’s stock exchange in the past.
“First I did well, and then I did very badly. I’d have been a whole lot worse off now had I invested in the London stock market.”
It is famously difficult to secure financing for big-budget film productions in Africa, as well as distribution, and many filmmakers say donor funding is drying up, especially since financial crisis hit Western governments’ coffers.
“One of the things we gained through being entirely independently funded is no constraints,” said Plant, who is leaving his London job so he can work more in film. He says he will invest any profits from the film into the next project.
“If people were doing a better job at producing, I think there would be more independent cinema in Africa.”
Director Raeburn said he had secured big names including Tim Roth, Sissy Spacek and Jessica Lange, but gave up when an agent said funds would flow only if he got Meryl Streep.
“I lost patience with them all about three years ago, so I cut the budget by ten, to 650,000 euros,” Raeburn in a telephone interview with Reuters from South Africa. “We can make movies about anything we want after 15 years of democracy.”
It also meant he could shoot the movie, which was voted best film at the Durban Film Festival last year, in a local language, Afrikaans. It is due to show in Britain, France and Sweden.
Production was nevertheless shot through with difficulties: freak rainstorms, carjacked crew members and the loss of the film’s entire audio when laptops were stolen from the poor Jan Hofmeyr neighborhood, which doubled as a real-life set.
“In October it’s not supposed to rain, but it rained shed-loads, and the sound getting stolen blew a hole in the budget — we had to get all the actors back to recreate the audio,” said Plant.
“But it meant I increasingly saw the need to be hands-on during production — I found myself knee-deep in it and ended up doing more and more.”
The film is named after the poor white suburb where it is set, which was built on the remains of Sophiatown, a black zone known for vibrant jazz that was bulldozed under apartheid. It is so shocking viewers regularly walk out in the first 20 minutes.
“It is an awesome, shocking, funny expose of a marginalized family in a marginalized community,” said Plant, who recently returned from a trip to Zimbabwe depressed at the state of his homeland. “It’s hard to be polite and sophisticated about poverty when it’s right in front of you.”
Editing by Alistair Thomson and Paul Casciato