In a notorious, now-defunct nightclub, the Documentary Film Director, Mr Lebogang Rasethaba, recalls a lesson in access, delivered by one Mr Julius Malema.
As the music blares in a nightclub, a woman – young and drunk – interrupts me as I make an ambitious plea to Mr Julius Malema to appear in a film I am making. “I have already started shooting and have so many great thinkers in it,” I lie, “your thoughts would fit right in there.” I don’t turn to look at the woman asking me how I know him. “You must be someone,” she blurts into my ear, “someone important”. Her words are wet, literally, as pellets of her drink and spit nestle into my ear. I grimace. I am back home from Film School in China for a visit and have started working on a documentary on China/Africa relations, using the Dalai Lama visa refusal as my raison d’etre. It is 2008, I am barely 25.
“Julius is my cousin,” she continues, “and there are lots of rich men in here who want to fuck me. I assume because Julius is talking to you, you must be important.” Malema excuses himself from the conversation and his cousin collapses next to me, into one of those couches that are only found in nightclubs. I can see why all these rich older men want to sleep with her. The world has always had archetypes of what desirable is and isn’t, and for that particular moment, she is the epitome of female desirability. She is the prettiest woman in the room, but also every woman in the room, in every room across town. Light skinned, flawless make up, shiny weave, with a naturally athletic body in a tiny dress. Being beautiful is too easy for her and she doesn’t have the time to conceal that she knows all this. A rich businessman called Mr Kenny Kunene has gained notoriety as the Sushi King for hosting a birthday party where models were used as plates for sushi. That is the era and I am in his nightclub.
“I’m a filmmaker,” I reply, looking around the room for Malema, who is at the bar. I stand up to go talk to him. Now that I have sold him the idea of the film and the need for his voice in it, I have to lock down a time for the interview. The lady of the moment follows me and somehow arrives to speak to him before I do. “Tell him we are cousins, he doesn’t believe me.” Malema instructs her to take good care of me and instructs me to call his PA to set up the interview. As a human, Malema is 60 percent water; the rest is made up of issuing instructions. Before I can say anything, lady cousin has linked her arm to mine and ushered me outside to the balcony.
“As a human, Malema is 60 percent water; the rest is made up of issuing instructions.”
The room is swimming with women that look like her and men who look like Malema. Having worked in fashion, I came to understand that clothes are an agent of symmetry and symmetry is a pillar of beauty. I have a small torso and long legs, so I wear long t-shirts to create an illusion of symmetry. They all have big bellies, shoehorned into tiny shirts that draw unkind attention to their disproportion. Their pants are long and untailored, with a vulgar relationship to their shoes, yet their confidence is regal as they relish the attention from a room of beautiful young women.
I am young, skinny and underdressed, feeling watched and judged, much in the same way I am watching and judging. “Let’s go have a smoke,” my persistent companion says. I don’t smoke. I keep looking over my shoulder, scouting another gap to talk to him. His cousin tells me how much she likes guys like me, guys who are different. I nod, dreading another week of calling Malema’s PA to arrange a meeting. I have been calling him for two weeks, on a total of seven different numbers.
At this stage of my holiday my routine is as set as the sunrise, with only slight variations, and almost all weather dependent. I wake up, shower, make coffee, avoid my parents and the shame of not knowing what I am doing, and then I sit in my room and call all seven of Mr Malema’s numbers. The following week would be more of the same. One Sunday afternoon I am lazing around the house, unshowered, unprepared and oddly comfortable in this state, a state abruptly interrupted by the arrival of Malema.
Panicked, I freeze. I feel like a Christian caught sinning, mid-Jesus’s second coming. To this day my breath has never been smellier, my feet never crustier, the elastic on my PJs never looser and my shame never greater. Aidos could have never been prouder. My father instructs me to bring ice, an instruction that temporarily breaks the rock in my rock bottom. I walk slowly, holding onto my loose pyjamas, each step a reminder of the many reasons Malema isn’t going to work with me.
“To this day my breath has never been smellier, my feet never crustier, the elastic on my PJs never looser and my shame never greater. Aidos could have never been prouder.”
I race away upstairs, to hide – hopefully forever – but my father calls for me. “You have been crying that Julius isn’t taking your calls, here he is and now you want to run away. Sit down and talk.” Trying not to offend anyone with my otherwise offensive presence, I start to talk, but my words are nothing but complicated airflow. Malema looks down at his watch, a Breitling. The saying ‘time is money’ takes on a greater significance. My father mumbles something and for the second time that day I take a walk of shame, knowing that this time I am walking away from any chance that Malema would be in my film. As Mr Peter Doherty once famously sang, “to make it in this game you need to have the luck and the look”. I agree, but also disagree.
To make it in this game you need to have access. I spent a month phoning Malema to no meaningful avail. At the end of the holiday I left Johannesburg empty-handed, a failure, a seasoned failure, a veteran, some would argue. Very quickly I learned that access and access are two different things and to successfully make the types of films I wanted to make, I needed both types. The film never happened and I am grateful because I would have obviously fucked it up. I was too green for it, but it did set me off on a path of paying closer attention to the requirements of a good film. Not who, but what. Access to Malema at nightclubs and for impromptu lunches at my parents’ house didn’t mean I had access for him to appear in my films. There was the man I wanted to talk to, sitting right in front of me, yet there was absolutely no way of getting to him.
This article has been edited to indicate that Mr Julius Malema, like all human beings, is indeed 60 percent water and not 70 percent, as in the original version stated.