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Oh, how I’ve grown to love the Foreign Language category of the Oscars. When I was younger and watching the ceremony, I’d usually pass it over, because there were no recognizable stars to me, and, what kid is really watching films with subtitles? Thankfully, growing up and into my cinema tastes opened a whole new world, and movies with subtitles have been some of the most rewarding film experiences I’ve ever had. Especially in my own home country of South Africa, where foreign language unfortunately also encompassed 9 of the 11 official languages.
It’s been 10 years since South Africa had a film competing for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. That film was Tsotsi, and it, as we know, went on to win. Next year marks 60 years of the category itself, and to celebrate the Academy has put out a playlist of speeches from the winners. Personally, I think it would have been better to have some of the best clips from the films, but it is fun to see how Italy has dominated this category, from La Strada through to recent times.
As for South Africa’s chances this year – well, I recently had the chance to watch Noem My Skollie, or in English as it’s known, Call Me Thief. Living in NYC, I rely a lot on online buzz and the film has been generating a lot of that for telling the story of a man who escaped the clutches of the infamous Numbers gang in prison by himself telling stories. The National Film and Video Foundation, which also helped with developing the script, decided to submit it for Best Foreign Language. This kind of exposure for the film is great. It does not, as many outlets in SA have erroneously stated, mean the film is up for an Oscar. Not yet, at least. It still has to make the short list and then after that actually make it into the list of official nominees. Only 5 films will make that list and then, it will be true to say the film is ‘up’ for an Oscar. We – and the other 84 countries with submissions – will find that out in January.
But, accolades aside, the film is still worthy of attention. For South Africans, it’s a story many will be familiar with – the Numbers gangs, 26s, 27s, 28s – have been the subject of films and documentaries before, and most extensively in the award-winning book by Johnny Steinberg, The Number. In this film, which is based on the real life of John Fredericks, who penned the screenplay, we see how someone tries to make another way for his life, in spite of his prison circumstances. Fredericks directed a documentary about Mr Devious, an emcee from the Cape Flats who, too, tried to use his words to escape a life of gangsterism, but wasn’t as fortunate, and died at the hands of a gang. Noem My Skollie, while specific in its plot, is a story of hope where there really seems like there is none. That may seem cliched to say, but you can never have too many reminders of how true this is, especially when it’s done as well as it is in Noem.
The movie, directed by first-timer Daryne Joshua, took Fredericks about 16 years to get to the big screen, according to an interview in the Mail & Guardian. The time it took to get from initial idea to credits rolling is a small factor now that it exists. It wasn’t an easy write for Fredericks, who says the script for Noem My Skollie was written on a typewriter that his dad got from a dumpster near where they lived. It’s this kind of detail included in the film that makes it sincere and genuine in its approach, from the dialogue to the cinematography.
When the Best Foreign Language category is announced, some of the films I’m sure will make it as nominees will surely include Germany’s Toni Erdmann, which had audiences in Cannes raving about it, and me too, when I finally saw the drama/comedy about a father-daughter relationship in need of salvaging, in Toronto; France’s Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert as a woman who develops a kind of weird relationship with her rapist; and Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s It’s Not the End of the World, which walked away with a prize at Cannes (as have practically all of his other movies). Perhaps maybe, just hopefully, there’ll be a spot left for a South African gem of a film too.

Like many, I’ve been binge-watching Luke Cage – the Netflix series is perfect for afternoons once the long run is done. In this episode of The Rundown, I ran to some of the locations used in the show.

Also, this has to be one of my favourite scenes ever. The energy of Jidenna – he’s so compelling to watch in performing this track that opens Episode 5. Pro-tip: Long Live the Chief is also pretty great to run to!

If you want to run the route too, here it is:

luke cage map

There was a moment during this past weekend’s Global Citizen Festival when I looked back over the crowd stretched out across Central Park – 60 000 or so people – and I felt my jaw drop, in the very real and literal sense. It’s not the first time – it happened before, in 2014 when No Doubt joined Sting to sing Message in a Bottle and in 2012 when John Legend played Imagine on his piano. It’s a moment, spurred by a song, that contains a kernel of the Global Citizen Festival’s significance.
This moment came during Yusuf Cat Stevens (he now goes by all the names!) singing Father & Son with Eddie Vedder. Stevens hadn’t played on a NY stage in 40 years but that meant little to me as someone who’s never had the pleasure of seeing him live in any place. He only played 3 songs – Wild World, Father and, fittingly, Peace Train, but it was what he said as an intro to Father, that gave me goosebumps in reflection.
“Like that song says, there’s too much distance between people these days…Unrest around the world is caused by people who feel their identity has been traumatized and trampled on, so they lash out,” he said. “Movements like this can remind us that the globe is big enough for everyone to share.”
It’s been 5 years since the first Global Citizen Festival took place in Central Park, with the likes of Foo Fighters, Neil Young and John Legend performing. Since then a bevy of names – from Stevie Wonder to Coldplay and Jay Z and Beyonce (separately and together) – have all taken to the stage to complement the message behind the movement. With Chris Martin as the music curator, and a host of celebrities and world leaders at his side, CEO of the Global Poverty Project Hugh Evans has managed to create a must-watch event on the calendar every year.
More than that, it’s a must-do in the sense of taking part in one of the activities needed to be done to earn tickets – all centred on helping to end extreme poverty by 2030 – and also talking about some of the biggest issues facing the world right now. Right now that includes refugees and gender inequality, and to speak to those, there was a guest appearance of gleeful waving from six-year-old Alex who wrote a letter to Obama about little Omran Daqneesh that went viral, and a memorial video to Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch, who died at the hands of her brother in an honour killing.
The music is the reason we are there, to be sure. Sets from Demi Lovato, soaked in female confidence, Metallica, who sent rockwaves through Central Park, and a potent punch from Kendrick Lamar that included the anthemic and urgent Alright made sure of that. Rihanna’s headlining performance, with tracks from Anti, Unapologetic and Good Girl Gone Bad, sizzled 
Music is the reason we’re there, but it goes beyond and further. It’s a gathering of people, of actual bodies in the same place, at the same time, giving their energy to something good, rather than just sitting as individuals behind computers and phones. And it’s a wonderful, like I said, jaw-dropping thing.

My time at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was unfortunately shorter than usual, on account of being an in-demand journalist (ha, just kidding, but I did have another assignment that required me to be in Los Angeles) and so I hold dear the time I did get to spend and the film-going experiences I had while there.
My stand-outs start with the film that went on to win the People’s Choice award, La La Land. I liked it so much I was inspired to dedicate an episode of The Rundown to it.
The film stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, in their third on-screen pairing, as a couple who falls in love while they’re trying to make it in Hollywood – him as a jazz musician, her as an actress. I really like that it’s set in today’s time, but with little throwbacks to old Hollywood and that remnants of Los Angeles from a bygone era form the backdrop to their story. The singing and dancing was delightful to watch, and the scenery sumptuous. I tap-danced my way out of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash follow-up, looking forward to his next movie even more.
A United Kingdom


Along with Loving, which I saw at Cannes, this film tells us about an illegal interracial marriage between Ruth and Seretse Khama that had global repercussions.  Whereas Loving is situated within Virginia in the US, this relationship had an impact far beyond the countries of just the husband and wife. David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike have a great chemistry, but Oyelowo proves once again, he is so adept at being able to disappear into a character and deliver a speech with such earnestness (whether he’s MLK Jr or a would-be king, as he is in this case). He’s also in Queen of Katwe, a wonderful film about a female Ugandan chess prodigy that premiered in Toronto too.
A Monster Calls
During the quiet parts of the last couple of scenes of this J A Bayona film, you could hear so many sniffles. Walking into a film about a boy (“too old to be a child, too young to be a man”) seeking the help of a tree monster to cope with his single mom’s terminal illness, I knew it would tug at the heartstrings. But it does so much more than that. The imagination that drives the story, based on the original novel by Patrick Ness, the drawings that whirl into the tale, and the relationship between Felicity Jones and Lewis MacDougall makes this film about family and love and death and loss and life a must-see.
I Am Not Your Negro


Raoul Peck (who also made Lumumba) returned to TIFF with this really timeous meditation on a James Baldwin letter that examines the movies and how people of different races have – or more like – haven’t been represented onscreen. It’s one thing to read the work of Baldwin, it’s a far more compelling thing to see him on video, giving a lecture or speaking in public.
Arrival and Jackie
These two films, about vastly different subjects – JFK’s widow and former first lady, Jackie Kennedy, and communicating with aliens – were both highlights because they’re rooted in two sterling performances by two of the best actresses of our time. Natalie Portman so wholly becomes Jackie Kennedy that she truly brought her to life for me, giving context to so many iconic photos of historic moments from her point of view. Director Pablo Larrain made me feel like I understood more about what made her so iconic.
With Arrival, a great sci-fi flick that calls into question how we communicate, what we value in life and the idea of what it would take to create world peace, I felt a deep sense of awe. Amy Adams is superb as the every-day woman who is actually a hero in disguise, using her skill as an translator to ease relations with foreign beings, aka aliens.
Manchester by the Sea
This drama is a slow-burner that sucker-punches you in the last scene, even if it’s a subtle blow. It’s such a moving story about dependency, remorse and guilt. After watching this film, I now see Casey Affleck in a new light, and as many publications have already noted, so too, surely, will the Academy come Oscar time.
Oh, and if you missed The Rundown from TIFF16, here you go!

Originally published in The Star Tonight.
40 years ago, Meryl Streep couldn’t have known, when she joined college friends in having a laugh over a recording by a person dubbed the world’s worst opera singer, that she herself would one day replicate the sound she heard on that tape. She couldn’t have predicted she’d take on the role of a woman whose voice elicited astonishment from all who heard it – or that it would be just one of a number of memorable characters she’d take on in a career as one of this generation’s finest actors.
Back then, while studying at Yale School of Drama, the multiple Oscar-winning actress couldn’t have foreseen that the part of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy socialite who had a passion but not the skill for singing, would be offered to her by British director Stephen Frears. “She’s not up there with Kanye,” jokes Streep, sitting in a London hotel, talking about how she came to know of Foster Jenkins. “But everybody that studied drama, certainly every music student, knows who she is. She’s sort of legend.”
Foster Jenkins, who found passion and purpose in music, achieved notoriety for singing in spite of her inability to carry the correct note, or pitch, or even tone, for that matter. The story of how she used her family money to put on shows in which she would sing for an audience, culminating in a sold-out performance at the hallowed Carnegie Hall in 1944, lives on in recordings made available to the public online. So, too, now in the movie Florence Foster Jenkins.

“I remember the first time I heard of her when I was in graduate school,” says Streep. “I was in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream and it was accompanied by the (composer Henry) Percell music. One day, all the Yale School of Music students were gathered around a tape cassette player in the stage-pit, screaming with laughter. We all went over and said, ‘What is this?’ ”

“I remember the first time I heard of her when I was in graduate school,” says Streep. “I was in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream and it was accompanied by the (composer Henry) Percell music. One day, all the Yale School of Music students were gathered around a tape cassette player in the stage-pit, screaming with laughter. We all went over and said, ‘What is this?’ ”
It was a time, Streep jokes, when her co-star in the film, Simon Helberg, wasn’t even a thought in his parents’ minds. The 36-year-old actor, who made his name known Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, shares the screen with Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, as the pianist brought in to accompany her. As Cosme McMoon, Helberg’s attitude towards Foster Jenkins mirrors that of the audience, as we switch between feeling incredulous and embarrassed for her to admiration for her unmitigated chutzpah.
Streep raves about the qualifications that made Helberg perfect for the role, which required him to play difficult piano scores. As director Frears explains: “Alexandre, [Desplat, the film’s French composer] said to me, ‘Get a pianist who can act, not just an actor who can pretend to play piano.’ A casting director in New York told me, ‘The person you want is Simon,’ and I went to meet him, and that was that.” The director filmed the concert and performances live – requiring a little more of his actors than usual.

“There’s a very short list of people who can do this,” adds Streep. “It’s very hard to find someone funny who could play that music, and play it live.”

“There’s a very short list of people who can do this,” adds Streep. “It’s very hard to find someone funny who could play that music, and play it live.”
In turn, Helberg is full of praise for Streep’s skill at being able to sing badly. “You have to be able to sing this stuff well before you can piss on it, systematically destroy it and wreck it,” he chuckles. “You have to know where the high ‘F’ is to dance around it, come up around it, and flirt with it. You can’t just flail and be wild with it. And then you’re singing in Russian and French too. Those are the hardest pieces of music ever.”
Streep, who studied opera during her youth and has sung in movie musicals like Mamma Mia and Into the Woods, says she doesn’t have the voice she once did – that “years of smoking and debauchery” have ruined it. Her preparation for Florence Foster Jenkins came hot on the heels of filming another movie that required her to sing, the rock-n-roll comedy drama Ricki and the Flash. “I was singing at the bottom of my voice, and my co-star in that movie, one of America’s best singers, the wonderful Audra Macdonald, gave me her teacher’s details. And I said to her, ‘Do you think he’d ever forgive you?’ His name is Alfred Levy, and he was a very good coach that I went to for a month, and broke his spirit!” she says, with a laugh.
Starring alongside Streep is Hugh Grant, who makes his return to the big screen in the kind of role he was once loved for in films like Four Weddings & a Funeral and About a Boy. As Foster Jenkins’ second husband and loyal life partner, St Clair Bayfield, Grant is charming and lovely, and provides a solid foil to Streep’s Foster Jenkins, who got syphilis from her first husband. “I had two jobs in this film,” says Streep. “One was to sing badly, the other was to love Hugh [Grant], and I’ve done that for years so that was the easy part.”
Frears offered Grant the role while he had been caught up in the Leveson Inquiry, set up to look into the practices of the British press. Grant liked the way the script played with audience expectations. “You’re not entirely comfortable as to what genre this is; there’s a little bit of laughing at her, and some laughing with, but you’re never quite sure,” he says.
For Grant, Foster’ Jenkin’s passion for singing is akin to his love of race-car driving. “I may not be good at it, but I look nice in my uniform,” he chuckles, smiling with those trademark dimples. For Helberg, it’s like his cooking. “I like eating,” he says. “But I’m a bad cook because I don’t have any patience to not eat the food while I’m making it!”
Streep, like Foster Jenkins, loves singing. “I’m really not that good anymore, and yet I continue to inflict it on others. I have a great respect for those who do it.” The chance to play another woman steadfast in her ways, as Streep has done in films like The Iron Lady and The Devil Wears Prada, extended this respect. “You could easily scoff at [Foster Jenkins] – she was silly in a way, an old woman, considered useless, rich, and ill – but to wake up every day, and to choose to look at this glass as half full and to say, ‘I’m going to drink it as deeply as I can, and to love as deeply as I can – the music, the man, the whole thing,’ is something to be admired. That’s what I loved about her.” It’s an admiration Streep couldn’t have known she’d come to have, all those years ago at Yale.