Mill Valley Favorite 'White Wedding' Makes Light of South African Racial Relations
An Oxford alumna who studied film in graduate school at New York University, Jann Turner has traveled a long, circuitous path to White Wedding, her acclaimed directorial debut. Already a commercial hit in South Africa, it won the Audience Award at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival and is now playing at the Opera Plaza Cinema.
The daughter of Rick Turner, an anti-apartheid activist assassinated in 1978, and Barbara Follett, whose second husband Ken is the bestselling author of The Key to Rebecca and World Without End, Turner, 46, won an Emmy in 1994 for her contributions to the National Geographic documentary Wolves of the Air, about Harris' Hawks. Three years later, she published the first of her three novels, Heartland, and won the Foreign Correspondents Award for Journalism for her work on South Africa TV’s Special Report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
When she began working on the fledgling soap opera Isidingo in 1998, two years after returning to South Africa, she didn’t imagine that more than a decade later she would be bringing her first feature to international audiences with two of the nighttime drama’s co-stars, Kenneth Nkosi, 37, and Rapulana “Raps” Seiphemo, 42 – both Soweto-born, raised in ghettos far removed from the white, suburban Cape Town home of Turner’s childhood.
Yet here they are, lounging in the deserted bar adjacent to Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas, recalling their fast friendship and the road trip they took in 2002, driving from Johannesburg to Cape Town in Turner’s Land Cruiser. “On the journey we talked about romantic relationships, friendships and films,” says Nkosi, who played supporting roles in last year’s District 9 and the 2006 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner Tsotsi.
“From time to time we stopped in little towns like Phillipolis and Colesburg. This planted the seed of the idea [for White Wedding]. When Raps went to the restroom in one of these towns he saw the sign ‘White Men Only.’ We thought, ‘What country are we in? Have things not changed?’ We felt compelled to write about it, but in a humorous way.”
The result? Wedding, South Africa’s entry in this year’s Oscar race, a sharp, poignant comedy about a bridegroom and his best-man-to-be, played by Nkosi and Seiphemo, traveling that same 1,100-mile road from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Complicating matters is the white English doctor, played by Perrier’s Bounty’s Jodie Whittaker, whom they meet along the way.
On the fateful road trip that inspired White Wedding:
Jann Turner: “Ironically, we don’t like road trips. Circumstances forced us to take one in the first instance. We were all going down for Christmas holidays.”
Rapulana Seiphemo: “We were going to Cape Town in Jann’s car, and we drove because we knew we’d need transportation once we got there. We started talking, and that’s when the idea was born – I don’t know if it was me, Jann or Kenneth – about friends traveling to Cape Town. We got into stopping in the small towns, admiring landmarks, getting to know the land that makes up South Africa. And, in the process, we also met some actual human beings.”
JT: “We met two guys at a petrol station who sidled over to me and asked, ‘Are you OK?’ – presumably because I was with Kenneth and Raps. And we stopped at a place to eat, one of those road-stop franchises, and everyone got really quiet when we walked in.”
RS: “You have to understand that we come from Johannesburg, a melting pot that is very multi-ethnic, quite progressive in dealing with racial stereotypes and issues. People there have tried to forge relationships, and for us, hanging out with a white chick is nothing unusual – she just happens to be white. But we found out there are places still in South Africa where these things are looked upon differently, where people are shocked by the sight.
“This is true in America, too. I studied in Texas for four years, and going into a bar full of young cowboys, all of them white, with their cowboy hats and their cowboy boots – I got strange looks. I wasn’t dressed even remotely like a cowboy.”
On South Africa today:
JT: “It’s a country the size of Texas and California combined, so it’s hard to define the state of the entire nation.”
RS: “Even in 1994, I remember there were lots of people who died working to eradicate this scourge of racism and forge a relationship between different colors. Now that we have laws that are enforced, giving people the freedom to go where they want to go – a freedom we were denied before – the only obstacle that remains is dragging certain people from the doldrums of what once was, the people who don’t want to leave that legacy behind. But that’s what makes life interesting. We’re all different in some ways, but we are always trying to be better.”
Kenneth Nkosi: “The reality is, we still have issues in South Africa in terms of racial relations, just as America does today. Except for us, our country is only 16 years old as a democracy, and there’s a lot of work to be done. And I don’t think we talk about that enough. It’s an awkward conversation that some people would prefer to avoid. But the imbalance between the rich and the poor exists, and until it’s addressed, the issues of color are going to be there.”
JT: “In the United States, everyone uses the public spaces. They’re very mixed – everyone is moving through them. In South Africa, we still don’t really do that, but during the World Cup we started coming together in public, at soccer games. In South Africa, we’re pretty blunt in the way we talk about these issues, perhaps because we’ve had institutionalized, legalized racism. To disassemble that, to break it down and create something new, we have to discuss race in straightforward terms.”
On dealing with racial issues in the context of a broad comedy:
JT: “The three of us grew up during apartheid and our early lives were focused on work that related to our changing society, with subject matter that was often of necessity very dark and heavy. For a long time now we’ve wanted to get away from the past and do something about who we are now.
“With White Wedding we set out to make a movie that lots of people would want to watch. We are in the business of entertainment. Nevertheless, it is about South Africans and the way we react to one another with so much prejudice and baggage. If you’re forced to meet by circumstance like the people in the film and you see beyond the accent or the white or the black face then you discover the humanity and the similarities in one another and get over the intolerance.
“It sounds terribly grand but it only made sense in retrospect. We didn’t set out to make a film about our common humanity, we set out to entertain. We like to make each other laugh. We enjoy comedy, and we wanted to use that medium to communicate and connect with people, rather than confront them with something dark and heavy.”