Interview with Geoff Arbourne, the South African-based English Producer of ‘Men In the Sun’, a Red Sea Souk Project at the 2nd edition of the Red Sea Film Festival.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So you’re living in Cape Town.
Geoff: I am.
How long have you been living there for?
Geoff: I came in 2017.
What first drew you to South Africa?
Geoff: What drew me? We came because we first came in 2007, and I came as a VSO volunteer and spent two years in the Eastern Cape. I studied Sociology and we always wanted to come back to South Africa, but we didn’t know when.
And then we came back with two kids, and I came as a film producer knowing that I wanted to make films all across the continent, not specifically in South Africa, and specifically trying to use European money to make films on the continent. And I don’t take any money from South Africa.
Where is your company, Inside Out Films, based?
Geoff: All in the UK. So I have a visa, which is kind of like the New York Times or the Guardian journalists who have the income come from outside, but they can be placed in and every three years I have to update it.
Is there not a visa that allows for longer than five years ?
Geoff: Doesn’t allow it and I can’t do it within the film industry. I have to invest 5 million rand. I can’t. I don’t have 5 million rand and I don’t have independent wealth of 12 million rand. And I’m not on the critical scales, so I will never have a good visa. So it doesn’t entice people in the film industry unless you’re Warner Brothers to come to South Africa.
Wow that’s an issue. It should definitely be looked at. But I’m glad that despite the difficulties of your visa, you’re still living in South Africa and loving it.
Geoff: We are completely you know, there are many people who are despondent and don’t see living in South Africa as a positive, but actually as our family, our kids go to school in the city bowl and and we find a lot of inspiration in living in the global South to, we have two young white boys who are English and Dutch. And to make them a little bit more humble in the world is a good thing. And it’s trying to look at the world from a different lens than the lens in the UK. And it’s just a little humble way of doing it. Might not work out, but it’s an approach.
You’re at the Red Sea Souk with your film project ‘Men In The Sun’. Can you tell us a bit more?
Geoff: It’s a film which is going to be shot in Athens in June and we’ve got like 70% of the financing. We’re here to try and get 30% to finish the finance and and green light in January and shoot a film in June, ready for Cannes in ‘24.
How are the meetings going so far in Jeddah? How has the festival been for you?
Geoff: I think there’s been some really surprising meetings because sometimes you have meetings which are like, you know, from the beginning it’s not really going to work. But most of them have been really productive, actually. And I’m not just saying that. So there’s been really ones in which we think we could get it over the line with them.
And I don’t know, we might leave in a couple of days with it done, but so that would be just, Well, yeah, of course we have to follow it up. You know, it’s really productive and it’s a new space, of course, is the second one they’ve been doing.
Why did you choose the theme of refugees and smugglers for this new film ?
Geoff: Mahdi has been making films on refugees for the last ten years. He made a feature documentary at the beginning, « A World Not Ours » which played at Cannes, played at Berlin, and then he went on and made four other shorts which are all on Netflix, and he made then a short feature, short fiction, should I say, and that premiered at Cannes. And so it’s all been around refugees. And now this is a kind of amalgamation of all of that work, which is his first feature. But it’s a crime thriller, so it’s not the kind of social realism.
It has an edge to it. It’s, you know, a trainspotting mixed with something else. You know, it’s a it’s an edgier film than the one that you would expect, you know. And it’s an urban on the streets of Athens. It’s about these refugees who have to commit a scam to get out. And, you know, it’s a dynamic film. So it’s interesting. It’s a genre. And he’s really interested by the kind of Hollywood 1970s. And so he’s mixing, you know, he wants to premiere at Cannes, but he has a commercial element to it, too. He wants it to be accessible.
It’s ambitious, but it’s, it’s an interesting space to carve out.
It’s not particularly easy to finance sometimes, but if people get it and they get the DNA of it and it’s, it can work.
What makes it difficult to finance?
Geoff: You just mentioned the word refugees and then suddenly everyone goes, ‘Oh my God’ and they step away. So that’s one element of it. They just don’t think people want to pay money to go and watch a cinema knowing how difficult life is for most people in the world. Would you pay $10 to go in and watch a movie about it? But if you try and look at it through a different lens, maybe you can access people.
So you have to make sure that financiers understand that.
Did a lot of research have to go into this, or because Mahdi’s been doing this for a long time, he’s very familiar with it?
Geoff: Actually, the film is based on a true occurrence through four of the people that Mahdi’s been following over the last ten years through the documentaries. And so one of them is unfortunately passed away from a heroin overdose in Athens, and another one has made it into kind of northern Europe. And one of them came to Mahdi in London about ten years ago and told him this story and he sat down with him. He put a camera on him and he told him the story of how he got to Macedonia with four people gagged in a room who they left behind in Athens. And he said ‘Tell me this story’. So this is the story and we’ve adapted it into this fiction.
Have you ever shot anything in South Africa or made any movies in South Africa? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Geoff: Yeah, We have a film called London Recruits, which is South African UK production, and KZN supported it and they showed it in KZN as well as the UK, in and around Durban.
And we’re now going to probably pitch a lock in January and have it released in the spring of next year. It’s a feature doc.
Is there anything else about this film festival or your movie that you want South Africans to know about?
Geoff: Not really. I think it’s just that it’s obviously there’s a lot of political hesitation about coming here andwhether you come to a place like this knowing about Saudi Arabia and how it’s understood and what that means. So that’s something that I’m also working out. I have to say, I’m not, it’s not that I think I know the way. And of course, I come here with some hesitation about what that means. But I’m also aware that in some way how difficult it is to make Palestinian films and how difficult it is to make the films that we’re trying to make.
Not to say you just take money from everywhere just because it’s, you know, you have to be ethical and understand it. And we’re just trying to find that line, I guess. And that’s where we’re at. So at the moment it seems to be OK. But if someone came up with a strong argument not to, I think I would listen. And so I’m open to that. I think I agree that, you know, I’m an Englishman. My government is definitely not perfect and go to Iraq and go to Syria. Libya. So, you know, it’s very easy to criticize. And I try and criticize my own as much as anyone else. And, so I’m I guess I’m just being very open in that and trying to say that I don’t know the answer, but at the moment it seems like a place in which I can meet a lot of the Arab world. And now that Doha is not around, where do you go to do that? Especially if I’m new.
Mahdi has produced films in this region all the time. I haven’t as a producer. So where do I go to meet everyone? I need to go somewhere. So it’s a space in which I can meet other people and combine the worlds and combine and join these between Europe and the Arab world, between the Africa and the continent and Arab world. I can try to navigate that a little bit. If there’s if you just have European festivals and Durban office or whatever, then how do you meet them? It doesn’t work like that. Like, for instance, now there are 50 people from Netflix here who are going to the screening at 5:00 for the Pinocchio film and now I get to meet the head of the film from Netflix, who I really wanted to meet. I haven’t been able to meet them over six months of emails. But now we’ve managed to meet them. So that’s what it’s about. So if it wasn’t here, I don’t care if it was somewhere else, actually. It’s not about the place. It’s about being able to create those facilities.
What does it mean, though, if I go to Cannes, does it mean that I support the French government in what they do in colonialism in West Africa?
Do people criticize me? Because I go there? So I’m not saying that.. Or if I go to the London Film Festival, if someone goes to the London Film Festival, do they suddenly speak out against blah, blah, blah? You know, so I’m not saying that we shouldn’t we should everywhere. That would be my opinion that you try and think about who is being oppressed and listen to that. And so if you come here, I think you should listen to what is going on and not say that we know the right way. But you have to then do it everywhere. Consistently. Otherwise, don’t do it at all.
What’s your impression of the film festival, Jeddah and Saudi Arabia?
Geoff: Saudi Arabia I have no idea because I haven’t been anywhere outside of the film festival bubble. And it seems very well organized. We’ve been to a couple of films. You know, it’s very well looked after and how we set up these meetings. The team seemed very productive and on the ball, so we are looked after very well and we have all the meetings that we need to have. There’s not anyone that we can’t get hold of. And so everyone is accessible. And and that’s kind of the whole point. Sometimes you have these markets where you are wanting to meet people and you just never know where they are. It’s too big. It’s Venice, it’s Cannes, it’s out of reach. Everyone’s too busy. But here it seems like, you know, the ones we need to have, the distributors, the stage we’re at, the funders that we need are here. So that seems a pretty positive thing.
Thank you so much for talking with us.