Back of the Moon, an impressive SA production screened in the unique Egrek cinema
The stylish gangster tale set in Sophiatown in 1958 and directed by Angus Gibson has found an apt home for previewing in Johannesburg’s new high-end, independent cinema
When the credits roll after a tense new gangster movie starring SA at its savage worst, it’s a relief to emerge in a plush cinema in the upmarket suburb of Parkhurst.
Previewing the locally made film Back of the Moon in the new Egrek cinema was a stark illustration of the different worlds that still uneasily divide SA. You can pretend the world of racism, gangsters, knives and poverty you’ve just witnessed no longer exists, and that life’s most pressing problem now is how to keep an independent cinema afloat.
Back of the Moon is an impressive production from The Bomb Shelter Film Company in Johannesburg. It’s a stylish gangster tale set in Sophiatown in 1958 just before the apartheid police demolish the area, and the gangsters are running amok.
It’s based on a play that director Angus Gibson first produced 30 years ago about Sophiatown’s forced removals. As Gibson extended the plot with scriptwriter Libby Dougherty, a love story flourished amid the violence. The result is a tense and brutal thriller, softened by thoughtful, melancholy and almost languid moments.
It’s full of tall, dark and handsome actors who look good but play dirty, with the beautiful singer and actress Moneoa Moshesh as Eve, who survives however she can in a world where women were treated as objects to take or dispense with. Congolese-born Richard Lukunku is brilliant as gang leader Badman, an intellectual who followed the easier path of crime. When his gang goes rogue and kidnaps Eve, Badman protects her and falls in love with her.‘’
Cinematographer Zeno Peterson has created a palette of rich reds and earthy tones that tinge everything with a touch of glamour, and the 1950s are recreated beautifully with dapper clothes, shebeens, clubs and dusty streets between them.
The movie opens nationally on September 6, and its quality confirms that SA’s film industry can be world-class.
Back at the Egrek, its founder and owner Akhil Nana hopes people will support a local cinema as well as local films. The Egrek is reached by pressing a buzzer on a nondescript door next to Coobs restaurant on lively Fourth Avenue. It all feels very clandestine, with no movie posters advertising the place to draw you in. Nana did put up some posters, but someone complained that it spoilt the aesthetics of the building and he had to take them down again.
The cinema is lovely, with 30 large reclining seats and a cosy bar, where he’ll sell wine, now that he’s been granted a liquor licence. He hopes the bar will become a place where people linger and chat about the movie they’ve just seen.
Nana himself is a friendly and likeable dreamer, but you can’t help wondering if his vision is going to fly. The hidden nature of the place is just one of the obstacles that will hinder its success. Another is that the single-screen cinema can only show one film each week. Nana is currently selecting mainstream movies such as Rocketman, Yesterday and The Lion King to appeal to a broad market, but at R120 a seat it’s dearer than the multiplexes. It’s closest rivals are NuMetro VIP seats at R120 and Ster Kinekor Prestige at R161. He doesn’t see Johannesburg’s well-known independent cinema, The Bioscope, in Maboneng, as competition because that differentiates itself by off-beat content and isn’t as upmarket.
“My vision is to create a beautiful cinema experience, so I wanted to make everything nice. I don’t want to define the type of movies I’ll get, but if people request something or there’s something I want to show I’ll try to get it,” he says.
“I do want to do foreign language films and documentaries and live events, which will be really nice with a concert or an opera.”
Nana worked for Proctor & Gamble for a decade, and it’s all very different from selling nappies, he says. The idea came when he spent two years in Geneva, where there was an independent cinema near his apartment.
“I watched The Revenant there and as soon as I stepped in it was a different place, with a mature, cool crowd and a very classy design. It stuck in my mind as something I wanted to do,” he says.
To create a high-end cinema in Johannesburg he assessed various locations in the northern suburbs before he found the office block in Parkhurst.
“The landlord was very keen because he said the Parkhurst community needed some other form of entertainment to all the restaurants,” Nana says.
There has been — and still is — an enormous amount to learn. He’s signed deals to source movies from UIP, which is handling Back of the Moon, Disney and Empire Entertainment, which together handle about 80% of new releases.
“For an independent cinema, it’s not difficult. There’s so much content out there that they want outlets for it, so it’s just about the price,” he says.
He doesn’t expect to break even for at least two years, but private events might prove the success factor. Companies or individuals can hire the whole cinema and request a specific movie for R3,000, or R2,500 for children, which will compensate for low day-to-day ticket sales. So far he’s ahead of target for private events, with one recent kids’ birthday party where he screened Spiderman, and a children’s charity event screening The Lion King.
Financially, the whole operation cost about R4m to set up, including close to R1m for the projector alone.
“The quality is most important to me,” he says.
“When cinemas went digital many years ago, about 80% of independent cinemas went under because film wasn’t that expensive, but digital equipment is expensive.”
Banks rejected his loan applications with the verdict that his business plan was too risky, the market was saturated and there was no future. So the entire business is underpinned by his father’s house. His father knows, but his sister isn’t enthusiastic, he jokes.
“You earn well as an expat, so I’d saved some money and I’m single, so I don’t have many expenses, and my dad’s house has funded the rest. He said we have a home loan access bond, how much do you need?”
His uncles also put in some savings, because Nana proved very good at selling his dream to his family. Now he needs to sell it to the public too.
• Egrek Cinema is at Parkhurst Square, 38 Fourth Ave, Parkhurst, Johannesburg. For details see https://egrek.co.za/
Akhil Nana’s five favourite movies:
Unforgiven — This slow, talkative and introspective western, starring Clint Eastwood, is full of old-school good actors and you really think about what it means to be a good person and forgive yourself.
Hulk — The 2003 version directed by Ang Lee is the only one where you really feel the anger when you watch it. The other Hulk movies are just fun.
Maverick — This witty adventure with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster looks like all the cast were just having great fun, and it makes you feel like you’re part of the in-jokes and in on the adventure.
Nacho Libre — My endlessly quotable movie. Almost every scene makes me laugh out loud and it has the go-to line, when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed: “Take it easy” — said in Nacho’s Mexican accent.
Sabrina — I figure I have to have one romantic movie on the list, and Sabrina shows what it’s like to be in a loving relationship where you’re just yourself, instead of trying to be someone you’re not.