"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth." - Oscar Wilde
The Actor made my Springbok Cinema list for 2015, putting it among the very best South African films to cross my path last year. This came as a surprise to me, considering what I knew going in: that The Actor was a $4,000 found-footage indie thriller by a first-time feature director and his small band of aspiring filmmakers.
What I did not know going in was that Aidan Whytock - the director, as well as titular Actor, and producer, and co-writer - is a budding South African auteur, and that he would wring more thought from me with his discomforting debut than almost any other filmmaker last year.
Frankly, what the film achieves with its minuscule price tag is staggering, and news that ithas now been picked up for local distribution must surely - and deservedly - rank it among the finest examples of South African guerrilla filmmaking.
South Africans: support this film so that others might follow in its wake!
The Actor opens with the above quote from Oscar Wilde; a clear statement of intent, but an audacious voice to appropriate for your first film. There is always risk of pretentiousness when invoking legends; it reflects grand ambition, too often merely grandiose in execution. And truth be told, The Actor cannot escape pretense entirely because the contradiction between its professional ambition and practical means essentially define it as such. Wisely, the film does not pretend to be what it isn't, and instead embraces this existential paradox, imbuing itself with a discord that mirrors it's protagonist's state of mind. The result is a psychological thriller that is prying at the mind long before we see the blade.
The Actor is, ostensibly, a self-aware take on the found-footage sub-genre, revealing the experiences of Simon Warwick, a floundering actor desperate to secure the lead role in a possession film - desperate for the personal validation; for his daughter's admiration; for his ex-wife's respect. The film is set entirely within Warwick's apartment, where he records himself practicing for the audition, and battling his existential demons.
The found-footage trope has long been a good practical choice for cash-strapped filmmakers with a penchant for the dark, and such considerations are clearly at play here. But to pigeon-hole this film based on its genre and budget would miss the point entirely, and in so doing overlook the arrival of an exhilarating new talent on the South African scene.
In no small part, this film transcends itself thanks to Whytock's powerhouse performance in front of the camera, by turns douche-chilling, spine-tingling, and dementedly moving. However, his performance behind the camera is just as impressive; he wrings everything and much more from his budget, and ingeniously interweaves the film's fiction and filmmakers' reality. For all its satisfyingly psychotic horror, this also feels excruciatingly personal, and deep.
To borrow the film's central metaphor, The Actor is masked in self-deprecating black humor, low-budget ingenuity, and some well-proven modern horror hooks. However, this seemingly familiar mask is progressively adorned with beautiful, sometimes jarringly original flourishes, suggesting a collective creativity far surpassing their budgetary means. These reasons alone make it a worthy contribution to the indie thriller/horror aisle, and a particularly welcome addition to this sparse South African section. However, The Actor is much more than its masquerade, and what lies behind the mask elevates this film to something much more. Dare I say it... this little film is important!
I want to be cautious here of allegorical over-extrapolation, but I think it's fair to suggest that a striving non-fictitious actor, writing and starring in a film about a striving fictitious actor, invites some comparison. Whytock carries the film with a disturbed glee and penetrating vulnerability, and we get the undeniable sense that we're watching a personal creative catharsis. And not just for Whytock, mind you - in his own words:
"The cast and crew all have this in common - we got into the film industry because we love the art of movies. We all had a dream of making something bigger than ourselves. However it's not an easy game and there is a lot of rejection and hearing 'no'. After hearing 'no' a certain number of times it became clear that if we want to make a feature film then, well, we'll damn well do it ourselves. So rejection, followed by resilience and stubbornness helped prepare us."
Though the filmmaking industry in South Africa is booming, most of the boom can be attributed to international productions taking advantage of a weak Rand and strong tax incentives, a wealth of local talent, and exquisite settings. By contrast, funding for local productions by nascent filmmakers is very hard to come by.
Tired of waiting for an invitation, Whytock has gathered his friends and gatecrashed the party, and I am thrilled to hear that local distributors see the value in this audacious effort. Whatever audience the film finds, it already stands as a powerful example to the many South African filmmakers frustrated by the lack of local opportunity: if you build it, they will come.
The small supporting cast all warrant individual mention, and do well with some distressing material at times. Greg Parvess is Nathan Underwood, Warwick's loyal friend and agent, who perhaps pushes Warwick too far for his own good; first-time actress Heidi Bottcher holds her own with aplomb as Warwick's daughter, Sarah; and Shannyn Fourie, playing Warwick's ex-wife Emily, delivers a performance every bit as vulnerable and fierce as Whytock's.
Whether Whytock was actually possessed during some scenes appears to be a more reasonable question than one might think, and the sound team - Morne Marais, Diano Mino and Robyn Leigh Knox - deserves special creepy kudos for their work if he was not. With scant cash for fancy effects, sound plays a crucial role in delivering the devil. Good cheap blood is also important, so it's worth noting that the blood used in the film was apparently a combination of fake blood, pig blood, and Art Director Esté Kira's blood.
Special mention must go to Leon Visser, who shot, cut and graded the film, and therefore takes substantial credit for the visual value on screen. It would be tempting to assume the low-fi atmosphere of the film was imposed by financial constraints and filming circumstances, and these no doubt informed it, but one look at what Whytock achieved in his slick first short (included at the end of this review) proves, by omission, The Actor's aesthetic intentionality.
This is, however, Whytock's show. Whether for financial or aspirational reasons (probably both), the film is written - by regular writing partner Colin Pegon - as a virtuoso vehicle for Whytock, and the film is at it's best when Whytock the Director revels in Whytock the Actor.
I was not surprised to discover he has seen success on stage - he won acclaim for his performance as Hamlet in a production that won South Africa's prestigious Fleur de Cap People's Choice Award. In fact, his use of stage theater devices throughout not only played to his own dramatic strengths and the intimate scale of production, but made for some found-footage novelties in an otherwise well-worn genre. I particularly enjoyed his subversion of the soliloquy.
The Actor premiered last July at South Africa's esteemed Durban International Film Festival, and will roll out in South African theaters on April 1st of this year. Presumably this deal also ensures the film will see a homevideo/web release, which is good news for the rest of the world.
While we wait for that, Whytock continues production on a macabrely comic web-series, Weapon Of Choice, about an aspiring class of misfit assassins learning their trade in Cape Town. For a more immediate taste of his wicked style, pitch black humour, and gift for the gut punch, I suggest his fantastic first short film, embedded below.
"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth."
The poetic potency of Wilde's insight was distilled from his own experience, and the same heart beats in The Actor: the recognition that creativity is re-disguised reality. That the mask is actually the truth. The Actor just is a collective exorcism of pent up creative demons, and becomes more than its fiction through this connection with reality. Warwick just is Whytock and his entire team, possessed by this film and closeted together in an apartment while it battles to break free. It reminded me, I must admit, of Herzog.
Now, I don't mean to suggest this is playing in Herzog's league; Whytock's film is a fiction rich with allegory, whereas the Herzog I'm reminded of is fiction rich with documentary. And though The Actor towers above its budget it is still tethered to it. Like most shoestring indie efforts, the film lacks the cash to transport viewers completely from reality. However, it is precisely the juxtaposition of Whytock's mesmerizing performance within a production that cannot escape its indie affectations that gives the film its potency and poignancy. The contradiction simultaneously blurs and refines the distinctions between art and life, fiction and reality, form and function; a paradox that is quintessentially Herzog, both in his films' structure and themes. Though not yet playing in his league, The Actor is certainly playing Herzog's game.
Behind the mask of psychological thrills is the face of an actor contemplating his own creative process, and the excruciating choices this art demands. Tongue firmly in cheek, but all the more penetrating for it, The Actor ultimately earns it's appropriation of Wilde. Any $4,000 film that can not only justify quoting Wilde, but also elicit more thought and feeling from me than most films tens of thousands times more expensive, is a film worth seeing. And any filmmaker who can pull that off, is filmmaker worth watching out for.
Aidan Whytock - remember the name.
Aidan Whytock's untitled first short film. Warning - pitch black satire.