Riaan Hendricks’ documentary Devil’s Lair follows an ageing Cape Flat’s gangster, Braaim, as he struggles to hold on to a precious piece of turf against rival gangs while trying to raise a child and look after his wife. Intimate, riveting and heartbreaking, Hendricks’ film has won critical approval and is currently in a mammoth international festival run, screening in Canada, Korea, China, Nigeria, Holland and Brazil. He also recently won best director at the Screen Excellence Awards.
Devil’s Lair is similar to Hendricks’ other films in that his protagonist is a personal connection. In Revolutionaries Love Life, Hendricks took his younger brother on a road trip to Zimbabwe in search of the graves of missing MK soldiers. The Last Voyage (2009) was set into motion by a promise made to his father while he was dying of cancer, and, most recently, 2011’s Cocaine, Suicide and the Meaning of Life, which tells the story of a close friend and his struggle with suicide and recovery from addiction. But Devil’s Lair is Hendricks’ first film where he removes himself as the narrator, which marks a significant departure in style. The Con spoke to him earlier this year at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) about the trajectory of his work, the pitfalls of working with gangsters, and his future projects.
There’s a lot of talk about it in South African film at the moment about how characters need to have redeeming qualities, or that the narrative itself has to have a positive message. Devil’s Lair is kind of ambiguous, it goes entirely against this tendency …
The biggest problem we had with the story was that it is about a man who’s not … sorry it’s difficult to put it into words. There’s a gang war taking place in Cape Town and it’s constant and it’s consistent. I set my character in that context so I can get to the answer, and it’s essentially conflict around the drug trade. Their reality is that if they do not take a life, they stand a great chance of losing their own life and the character is set in that context. There are other men whose lives depend on his choices … and in many ways that makes him an anti-hero. This is where the challenge of the film comes in. We had to get the audience to identify with this kind of man and take a journey with him, and in order for us to do that we created some empathy for him as a dad. Hence the whole image of the film is him as a dad with a daughter because he’s a very gentle man and in many ways the film asks the question: How can you be a loving dad and a gang leader who makes these choices at the same time? If you removed his wife and his child from the equation I couldn’t have made the film.
During a Q&A session after the DIFF screening, you spoke about the redemptive power of love. Is that what the story is really about?
It’s not about that, but it proves in a few moments that if anything will ever change this man (because in this film nothing can change him) it would be the return of the love that he’s giving to his family. Because that love is genuine, you’ll have to harvest what you plant, and he’s planting a few different things. On one side it’s a life of murdering and on the other side it’s that love that he’s giving to his family, but that love is affecting him in a positive way. For me, if anything can change this man it would be love, and that’s what I’ve learned. It was not an intended message − we never had an intention in the film. We just went to film a man with a conflict − he’s trying to be a dad and a drug dealer at the same time, so we thought we’d see what came out of it. I think it applies to all men of his kind, ordinary people who have a family and make tough choices.
A part I enjoyed was where you focused on a guy in the background and he’s just singing Hard Knock Life − that was incredibly funny and sad at the same time; it just resonated for me. You said the Cape Town audience picked up on the humour more than the Durban audience…
There are a lot of reasons for that. In Cape Town I experienced some things I did not experience in Toronto. In Cape Town you have an element of people expecting certain behaviour from certain people. Whether it’s racist or not, there was this constant expectation from the audience to laugh for these guys − you know, the silliness. Normally when you see coloured gangsters you expect some very foolish things. You do not expect to see these people portrayed in a humane way, if I can put it like that. So there was a constant need for the audience to let go, to laugh a little bit. They were looking for a way out of the film and the film doesn’t allow anybody out until the last few moments. When the producer and I sat down, when we finished the shoot, we came out with one word − it was going to be a claustrophobic film. It was going to be set in one place, a place where drugs come in easy, where people can’t leave easy.
I find that for me a lot of the humour I encounter on the Flats is that kind of bleak, desolate, we’ve-got-no-other-choice kind of humour. But what I said earlier was economically he doesn’t have any other choices, but you say he does.
Look I’m a husband, I’m a dad.
I want to qualify quickly. In Braaim’s mind he’s got no other choice. Do guys like that frame it like ‘this is my only choice’?
No, there is more to the equation because I’m not filming an ordinary guy, there’s no king who is just willing to leave his power. This is about power and authority. The men you see in the images, they all submit themselves. I don’t think there is a king who would just give up his power. I don’t have empathy for those who justify taking another life so they can feed their family. I think when it comes to taking a life that’s a choice you make. But to understand him is to understand what a king, a warrior king who has got authority and power, who is in a position to make money. Drugs make a lot of money – you can make R50 000 a week type of thing in the area that they operate and it just happened to be when I met him when I started filming he came from jail, he lost everything and he started all over again, but otherwise to understand him is to know that this is a king, a general. He’s a big person and he’s got authority over people’s lives. People respect him and people admire him and it’s not easy to walk away from that
And if he did walk away from it, he’d be in the opposite position. He’d have to get a job and because he has a record, he’d probably get a really shit job…
Look, in South Africa we always need to blame in order to justify. You can’t even blame his criminal record. It’s got no reference to your desire to be alive and to live. So there’s no relationship between that, we don’t exist based on having a criminal record or not. You’re still alive, you’re a living being, you need to make choices. There’s business opportunities, there’s a lot of things where your criminal record doesn’t come into play so I wouldn’t even consider that, but for him to change his life would mean physically relocating a few hundred kilometres from where people know him and for him to fall back on his old skills. He can do welding, he was a male nurse, he’s got all those skills. He’s got to fall back on that and physically remove himself from there and I don’t think that’s a choice he will make because there is no king who will give up their power and that applies for all these gang leaders.
So the gang wars will never end?
No. It’s a cycle, it’s always been a cycle. It’s just getting more complex because of the weapons that are involved. They’re talking about hand grenades, they’re talking about machine guns, and you always hear things that they’ve got direct contact in the navy. You hear strange things.
You say when you made this film you had to rethink the way you make documentaries. How would you compare this process to your last film?
I think every other film I’ve made I’ve always had my voice in it, literally my voice over, because it allows you to create context. For this I could not use my voice, I had to let the images tell the story. Hence the film ended up a feature-length film because it was an image-driven film instead of a voice-driven film and that’s what made a difference. It also allows the audience to get closer to the character because there’s no third voice over, voice of god. They’ve got to relate to the character, they’ve got to relate to the problems. So it makes the storytelling more difficult.
Do you feel that now that the film is made, the story is over? As a filmmaker would you go back there and make another film about the same area, the same struggles?
I would not make a film like this, and I would not accept money to make a film like this because it’s a foolish thing to go into an environment like that thinking you’re just going to make a beautiful film and walk out. The film came out by coincidence – this character was not even the initial character in the film. The initial story was the neighbourhood watch and how they’re trying to cleanse the communities, and while filming that I started realising if I’m filming these people I’m going to make a film about a community who is just another vigilante justice community, so I stopped that process. While showing the trailer to friends of mine in Mitchell’s Plein, they said, ”Come, come, let’s go to Briaam”, because one of the characters in the initial trailer was caught for one mandrax tablet and Briaam sells mandrax tablets and thats how the story started.
We were talking about the gangsters’ reactions and that they wanted the film to do well. Can you tell me a little bit about that? How they see it will help them or not help them?
There’s a question of vanity involved here and a question of who I am to them. They relate to me in a certain way – particularly Briaam, because he was my first childhood friend in Mitchells Plein. He was across the road, so we’re talking about a connection that goes back years and I was the worst one in the street. Parents used to say you must stay away from Riaan, and even Briaam’s mother, before she passed away, she was like, “Riaan, look how you’ve turned out whereas we always wanted our children to stay away from you”. (I was a troubled kid.) Even the initial motive for doing it was like, “Okay, let’s help Riaan to make a success of his career”. That was the initial motive. It was confirmed only when I played the film to them. It was him and his wife and a few other main characters. So I didn’t know what to expect, because here’s the film, here’s the guns being commissioned, here’s all these things and I asked them, “So what do you think?”. You know, all they said was “Is the film a success? Is it helping you?” So they kind of gave me goosebumps because I realised that was the motive, it was a real motive. And in terms of vanity … these are gangsters, man. They all want to be famous and this is the one guy who has got it going for him. There might be another film like this in the future. That film should be about sex, it should be about violence, because that’s what really happens in those communities. Sex, violence and drugs instead of the gentle approach that I’ve taken in the film. Maybe someday someone will do a film like that
Do you think this film has helped Braaim in his turf war? Has it changed his status?
No, he is an admired man. The film is not yet out, the community has not seen it. Look, I don’t think it’s helping his status at all – now more people will know the things he’s doing, but he has a leading role in the community, albeit a very negative leading role. And people like him will be around as long as people need drugs. And you can’t even say, “Let’s kill the drug dealer to get rid of the drugs” – that’s backward thinking. The very reason I made a film like this and why they allowed me to make a film like this is just to show that during apartheid they created these backward communities, they left them like that and there’s a lot of social ills and there’s a very particular reason why drugs has such a high demand in those communities. In terms of the film title, the film is called the Devil’s Lair. The premise of the title has to do with the nature of man. If you get a chance to take another man’s life and get away with it, you will do it. I mean, that’s the whole premise of Cane and Abel and that’s what happens in the context of gang wars.