Elani has grown up in violence. It surrounds her. It inhabits her father and lives on every face in her neighborhood. But Elani has learned a trick: watching people’s hands. If she carefully observes how someone carries a mug or a phone or a bottle, she can spot that subtle difference between holding and wielding. This keeps her alive.
Elani has been with Mikey for almost a year. She is his number one girl. Mikey and his best friend, Sunday, are small time drug runners and tonight is their biggest score. If it all goes well, they’ll have enough money to get out of Cape Town for good. It’s up to Elani to keep Mikey happy for one more night and prevent their relationship from imploding.
Before watching and communicating with directors Matt Portman and Jason Donald about their short film, I had no idea what exactly a Passion Gap was. Beauty is often something culturally determined, in the vein that over in the West certain groups of girls will drool over what the Kardashians will be wearing next and how to apply their mascara in a certain way, whereas in other parts of the world elongating your neck will crown you as the next big thing. (After a bit of researching, a Passion Gap is the process of removing the front teeth) and there’s a myriad of reasons why people would do this – either because their teeth are rotting, because it’s a cultural initiation into adulthood or because it’s a status symbol of the area.
However, you don’t need to know the above information to enjoy Portman and Donald’s short, Passion Gap, an honest and phenomenally raw insight about a small group of characters based in Cape Town. STORGY sat down with director Jason Donald to delve deeper into these characters and what messages they wanted to convey onscreen…
STORGY: Where did the idea of Passion Gap originate from?
Jason: Matt had this idea for a story which loops back in on itself and I had a piece of flash fiction with three distinct acts; where the theme in the third act wraps back around to meet the first act. We started from there. For a couple of days, we brainstormed ideas and stuck post-it notes all over my living room window! From those notes, I wrote a rough draft of the screenplay, which we worked and reworked continually, till we had a story set in Cape Town that mostly takes place over the course of a single night.
STORGY: Elani has grown up in violence – from the outset it’s obvious that she’s been surrounded with hostility (with her father, on the streets when she’s young and then with her boyfriend, Mikey.) Was there a conscious message regarding the constant undertone of threat of violence playing throughout?
Jason: Matt and I are wary of condescending to an audience by spoon feeding them a message. Stories are more engaging when you honestly portray the world a character lives in, without flinching in the depiction and without making excuses for the character.
Violence is the world Elani has been raised in, it’s the air she has breathed her whole life. Elani’s relationship with her father is the shadow cast across every scene in the film. It has nurtured her and shaped her. Now, what is she going to do about it? That’s our invitation to the audience: to consider this question. As the audience engages with Elani and her circumstances we trust them to come to their own conclusions regarding the character’s motivations and choices.
STORGY: We can tell that Elani wants to make the big score and then flee from her current situation. To escape and start a new life. There’s great juxtaposition with the way she’s manipulating Mikey and the way he’s manipulating her. There seems to be a desperation in these characters for them to be listened to, to be respected, to be loved. Is the fear of not being loved, or being loved in the wrong way at the core of Passion Gap?
Jason: That’s a very perceptive way of understanding these characters! Yeah, essentially, they want to be loved. There’s even a little hope in their story because they could provide each other with the love they seek, but they’re being pulled in opposite directions. As a colored man, Mikey wants to be respected. As a woman, Elani wants her freedom. The tragedy of their relationship is that they never really understand each other, they never truly listen, instead they resort to manipulating each other. The result being that neither of them gets what they want. Neither of them gives, or receives, love.
STORGY: The character of Elani seems to be acutely observational and street smart – at the beginning of the film she’s talking (almost) poetically about using her eyes and learning the trick to watch people’s hands. Do you think she’s a victim of circumstance or do you think she’s wilfully put herself in her current situation?
Jason: I always saw Elani as both victim and perpetrator of her situation. Marguerite understood this too and did astounding job of portraying Elani’s duality and complexity. Her performance is spot on!
Elani has willfully put herself in this relationship with Mikey and is, in fact, the leader of their little trio. She calls the shots. While she is very observant of others, her blind spot is herself. She’s so focused on escaping her home town and her past, but she hasn’t quite grasped how her past has shaped her. She isn’t aware of what she has become. And the sad thing is, she’s becoming the very thing she is trying to escape: her father. Her repressed anger and need to dominate comes from him. And when things don’t go her way, she reacts violently in precisely the same manner (shot for shot) as her father did. So, I’d say she isn’t a superficial victim of circumstance. However, unfortunately, she’s an unaware product of her upbringing.
STORGY: All the actors involved create a tense, raw realism to the piece – was it easy or hard to find such talented individuals? Tell us more about your directing techniques to these young actors?
Jason: We auditioned a lot of people, but Matt and I knew instantly that we’d found something special with Shuraigh (Mikey) and Marguerite (Elani).
Our approach to directing was to listen and invite the actors to collaborate in creating the characters. The screenplay was written in standard English and one of the first things I asked the cast to do was change all the phrases, swear words and slang terms into the words used colloquially in Cape Town. Needless to say, Matt and I learned a lot of horrifying new swear words!
Shuraigh has real presence as an actor. He controls a scene. He’s very contained and deliberate but can suddenly burst loose. He told us he preferred not have a very tight and controlling director. So, we discussed his character and then we gave him a lot of free reign to shape Mikey in a way that felt real to him.
Marguerite works in a different way, she would regularly ask what her character is feeling in a scene. She has the ability to quickly express whatever nuanced emotion you’ve been discussing between takes. One morning on set, she cried on que six times in a row! It was remarkable. On another occasion, we were discussing her lines, she repeated them to herself and then muttered, “No that’s wrong, that feels like acting.” This is a woman who understands her craft.
Aaron (Sunday) is a rapper and not a trained actor. He was encouraged to freestyle his lines and interrupt the other actors all the time. His contribution was a crucial sprinkle of chaos in every scene, no one new what to expect from him. In every single take he delivered new lines, always fresh and unexpected. The guy’s gifted!
STORGY: There’s a vivid, vibrant palette running throughout Passion Gap. What was your aim with the colour scheme used?
Jason: Matt and I really love the work of Gaspar Noé, Nicholas Winding Refn and Lynne Ramsay. That vivid neon color scheme is so inspiring. We thought it would fit well in our film. The first act in Passion Gap is awash with natural light and pastel colors because we were aiming for that feel of childhood memories. But by the second act, we wanted to give the sense that Alice has now entered Wonderland, so to speak. It’s a whole different world. Our DOP, Fabian, came highly recommended. He has tons of talent! He understood our vision and did a superb job of using light, color and framing to help tell the story.
On a side note, the cast and crew really had fun playing with all the neon lighting. It felt fresh, because Cape Town, and Africa in general, is rarely portrayed on film this way. We were trying to look at Cape Town in a new light. (Am I permitted that lousy pun? Ha ha.)
STORGY: What would be your advice to people who read STORGY that are interested in beginning a career in film?
Jason: You know, neither Matt nor I are trained film makers. Matt spent most of his degree in Art painting and I’m a novelist. Passion Gap is our first film. What’s so fascinating about film making is that it’s all a collaboration (unlike painting or writing, which are mostly solitary art forms). I’ve found that the bulk of the work in film making is communicating and coordinating your efforts with others. Everything is a group effort. Everything is a compromise and collaboration and a trade off of contributions. What I have learned is that while having a single vision and sticking closely to it, you also have to effectively share that vision and allow others space to interpret it. Often their contributions are more creative and astute than your own!
STORGY: Did you come across any difficulties filming Passion Gap? Or have any interesting stories to share?
Jason: Oh yeah! The hospital scenes were filmed in an old abandoned hospital, often used for various film shoots in Cape Town. We rented space and confirmed dates with the security company who watched the building. On the morning of the shoot, we were told that two nights prior a violent group of squatters had taken over the wing we wanted to shoot in. The squatters were doing ‘tik’ (crystal meth), uncooperative and dangerous. All we needed was a corridor to film one scene in but the corridors were chained shut and the security company wouldn’t grant us access to any other part of the building. Needless to say, there was a lot of heated exchanges between ourselves and the security guards. Luckily for us, someone (and I couldn’t possible say who!) cut the chains, kicked the door in and we were able to get that shot along the corridor. Funny how these things work out. Isn’t the world simply full of delightful little miracles?
STORGY: Passion Gap is currently doing the rounds at festivals – what’s the end goal for the film and where will people be able to watch it?
Jason: We’re surprised and delighted by how well it’s been performing at festivals. We’ve been screened on every continent except Antarctica! Next, we’re going to send it to a few online platforms to see if they accept it, before, finally, releasing it on Vimeo. Our goals have always been to a) see if we can actually do it! b) see how audiences react. So far, so good.
STORGY: What kind of message do you hope Passion Gap sends to its audience, especially people who live in potentially domestically violent relationships?
Jason: I’d need to spend a lot of time listening to and understanding people who live in domestic abuse situations before I can ever attempt to offer advice. The thrust of the Passion Gap’s storyline is not meant to be aimed at people in abusive relationships.
As a story teller, I’m aware that a lot narratives fall into one of two categories: they’re either models of hope or warnings. Passion Gap is a warning. It’s a tragedy. And tragedies are based on characters who either don’t acknowledge their flaws or choose to act in a way they shouldn’t. But the audience has to figure this out for themselves, they have to ask themselves what they believe the character’s flaws to be, they have to mull over what could have been done differently in the story. What we learn from tragedies is what not to do and how not to be …and that’s really valuable.
STORGY: Lastly, what’s next for you guys?
Jason: We are about to start shooting a feature length documentary called CAPE FLAT SMILE. As our short film plays festivals around the world, the international reaction and curiosity surrounding this issue of Passion Gaps (the cultural practice in Cape Town of removing healthy front teeth) has been astounding. People are absolutely fascinated by this! So, we decided to explore the issue ourselves and shoot a documentary about it. We’ll be featuring some of the actors and extras who appeared in Passion Gap, and delving deeper into their real lives.
Matt Portman was born in London and grew up in Switzerland. He studied Fine Art at Central Saint Martins college of Art and Design. After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree he began directing and producing music videos. Collaborating with musicians and bands from around the world, some of his projects include Murasaki by Cheatahs in 2015, Supermaster by A Place to Bury Strangers in 2015. In 2016, he choreographed and directed an experimental dance video Schistocyte. In 2017, he produced and co-directed his debut film, Passion Gap, with the acclaimed author Jason Donald. He lives in London.
Jason Donald was born in Scotland and grew up in South Africa. He studied English Literature and Philosophy at St. Andrews University and is a graduate of the Glasgow University Creative Writing MA. His debut novel, Choke Chain, published by Jonathan Cape, was shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and the Saltire First Book Award. His second novel, Dalila, was published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage in January 2017. He has also published short stories in various literary journals, including The Astronaut for BBC Radio 4 and Puerta Galera for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Donald has just written his first screenplay, Passion Gap, and co-directed the
film in collaboration with the filmmaker Matt Portman. He lives with his wife in Switzerland.
You can watch Passion Gap online NOW at Vimeo:
3.2K Arri Mini
DCP, BluRay, DVD, .mov, mp4 (HD)
Stereo & 5.1 Surround
Interview by Anthony Self