You don’t need isiZulu when making a Zulu movie – but it helps

Review: Vivien Horler

Starlite Memories – Misadventures in moviemaking, by Dov Fedler (Tafelberg)

What is the Zulu word for “furtive”?

This is one of the first challenges Dov Fedler confronts when he begins to direct a shoestring budget movie for black audiences called Timer Joe Part 3.

Fedler speaks no Zulu, but on the first day of filming in downtown Joburg, he is informed by the producer, the gum-chewing Moe Mankowitz, that the cast must be addressed only in that language. This is one of the terms of the subsidy given by the apartheid government to movie makers for the black market.

The year is 1983 and it is a long time before Google, so Fedler can’t look up “furtive”. He asks Moe if he can speak isiZulu. Moe chews harder and responds: “Do I look as if I speak Zulu?”

Fortunately Fedler discovers someone has hired the Coach, one of the crew who will translate all the instructions to the cast into isiZulu. This takes a lot of time.

Fedler begins to realise making this movie is not going to be easy. He thinks: “The movie I should be making is the making of this movie. This is the stuff that comedy is made of.”

Fedler is best known for the political cartoons he drew for The Star for 50 years, but it is clear on reading this wonderful memoir that he has a wealth of talents. He is a fanatical movie buff, has written screenplays, including that for Timer Joe Part 3, he has written three books, and is a sculptor and an artist.

He is also drily hilarious.

The making of the movie is the structure on which Starlite Memories is built, but within that skeleton are memories of Fedler’s childhood in Mayfair and Greenside, growing up as one of the three children of immigrant Jewish parents.

His father, who runs a printing works, has great ambitions for sons Mot and Dov, but to Dad’s despair, Mot refuses to read a book. Mot is a mechanical whiz, but if he doesn’t read he won’t get matric and he will be doomed to the life of a printer.

Dad wants Dov to be a dentist, a good job with the title of doctor but you don’t get called out at night. Dov wants to draw, and to make movies.

There is also a sister, Rae, but her future is in their mother’s hands. Rae and her mother’s job is to find Rae a husband before she turns 21 and ends up on the shelf.

In his foreword, Fedler muses that the 20th century was his time: it had Einstein, Freud, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan and Superman. It had brilliant movies. It had everything.

Admittedly there were two world wars and the bomb, but none of the horrors came near Dov. And with the insouciance of the young, he concedes they did hurt his mother, “but then the people she mourned were only sepia photographs in a worn album…”

Starlite Memories is funny, poignant and a great read.




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