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Filming and phoning it in: the future is right here, right now

Phoning it in

The world’s first full-length movie to be shot entirely on cellphones has just been wrapped up in Joburg, writes Ryan Fortune

IT’S 3AM on Christmas morning 2005 and while Santa makes his final deliveries to good children around the world, a bunch of filmmakers in the pool bar of Johannesburg’s Melrose Arch Hotel are accelerating the digital cinema revolution.

They’ve been shooting for over a week now, mostly nights. Everyone’s dead tired, so this particular scene is taking a bit longer than usual to get in the bag. “Action!” says the director for at least the 20th time in as many minutes, prompting the two female leads to start doing their thing at the pool table. As the girls hit the balls, chat and flirt, their movements are recorded by the cameras embedded in two of Sony Ericsson’s slick new W900i cellphones. That’s right: once this film, SMS Sugar Man, is completed, it will be the first feature film in the world to be shot entirely on cellphone cameras.

At this point, every tech head in the room will begin to sneer derisively and mutter words like “pixellation” and “let’s just wait and see”. None of them will have reckoned with the persistence of the film’s director, Aryan Kaganof, who loves nothing better than to disprove all doubters and naysayers. In 1996, just a few years out of film school in the Netherlands, he made Naar de Klote! (Wasted!), the world’s first 35mm feature film shot on mini-dv tape — and a Dutch box office hit. A week before shooting began on SMSSugarman, a Swedish lab returned the test blow-up to 35mm film. It looked great, rich in colour, grain and contrast. The doubters will be disappointed.

“We are re-writing the book on cinema here, Ryan, things will never be the same again. From now onwards, all you’ll need [to make a film] is a good idea, a cellphone, a laptop and you’re off. It opens up a whole world of possibilities for African filmmakers …”

It’s another long night on the shoot of SMS Sugar Man and Kaganof — film director, poet, writer, photographer, musician and, for the purposes of this project, a top-end pimp named Sugar Man — is waxing lyrical as he guides his gleaming white Valiant down a deserted Oxford Road. I’m in the passenger seat and the two “hookers” — Leigh Graves and Deja Bernhardt — are chatting and touching up their lipstick in the back. “I haven’t thought about film as much as I have in the past two weeks,” he says, “and I’m learning new things all the time on this shoot.”

That sounds a bit disingenuous, I think, coming from someone who has made nearly 40 films and videos in the past 15 years, many of them such radical breakaways from conventional form and structure that they earned him — besides international awards and critical acclaim — the label “underground cinema’s baddest bad boy”. “I can now shoot what I like,” he says, with the glint of the true believer in his eyes, so I don’t disagree.

Kaganof first hove into my field of vision towards the end of 1999. We were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, an actress. She told me he was a South African filmmaker just returned from exile and that I should interview him, but I never got around to it. His craggy features, hulking posture, combat fatigues and the Glock he wore on his ankle conspired to dampen my enthusiasm for the idea.

Having attended several of his many book launches and performances in recent years, read his online short stories and browsed his website, I have had cause to modify my initial impression, if only slightly. Kaganof is, indeed, a dangerous man, but only because, like the 20th century’s best artists and philosophers, he has a far lower tolerance for bullshit than the rest of us. Poured into art — visual, musical, literary — his particular kind of madness, if that’s what you’d like to call it, poses no threat to anyone on a personal level. Instead, like Ed Norton’s dual character in Fight Club, he is intent on bringing the whole damn superstructure down.

After the lukewarm box-office performances of its earlier productions (Forgiveness, Max & Mona, The Flyer) DV8’s Jeremy Nathan believes SMS Sugar Man will be the company’s first breakout film. Its fusion of improvisational acting and high-quality cell-cam technology is what will clear the way for African filmmakers to leap onto the world stage in the same way as Latin-American and Asian filmmakers have in recent years. “We just don’t have two or three years to get to a shooting script, then another couple of years to spend raising the money to start production,” he says. “The cellphones allow you to do far more camera set-ups than if you were using bigger cameras; on this shoot, for example, we were able to get about four hours of footage a day, compared with about an hour on a normal shoot. And that has all kinds of implications down the line …”

In another experimental move, DV8 intends to collapse the usual distribution windows. Starting in May, SMS Sugar Man will become available across a variety of media platforms — cellphone, Internet, cinema, DVD and television — within a very short space of time. Seems they’ve taken a hint from Steve Jobs at Apple: the producers have to become pirates if they hope to leave the pirates high and dry.

Apart from all of the above, SMS Sugar Man is emblematic of what anthropologists refer to as the “leapfrog effect”. This is when people in developing nations adopt new technology and use it in ways that allow them to overtake users in developed nations. To extract maximum value from leapfrogging, however, you must be an early adopter.

The ways in which people consume entertainment media are undergoing rapid changes. In the US, Apple’s Video iPod sold out over the Christmas holiday season. Millions of US “podders” are downloading and watching episodes of Desperate Housewives and Lost. Vodacom recently introduced live mobile TV in South Africa and is hungry for new content.

And when the Sony Ericsson W900i is launched here in the next couple of months, every handset will come pre-packaged with a trailer for SMS Sugar Man.

The future is right here, right now.

For more information:

Ryan Fortune
from Sunday Times 28/01/2006
Deja Bernhardt & Leigh Graves in SMS Sugar Man, billed as the world's first feature film to be shot entirely on mobile phones. The film was shot over 11 days in Johannesburg, South Africa.


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