Director Ralph Ziman takes a fascinating look at violence in Johannesburg in this new urban gangster film

Writer/director Ralph Ziman's latest film, Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema, which opens in theaters on June 11th is an intriguing and remarkable look at the violence and corruption that affects the most crime-infested district in Johannesburg. The film follows the rise and fall of South African gangster Lucky Kunene (Rapulana Seiphemo) who eventually graduates from petty crime to more aggressive heists like armed robbery and carjacking. In order to realize his dream of a house by the sea, Lucky hatches an elaborate and violent plan to make his fortune hijacking buildings from landlords of Johannesburg tenements by convincing the tenants to let him hold their rent hostage from the landlords. His high-profile real estate acquisitions attract the attention of the police, as well as escalating a war between local drug lords. Things get more complicated when Lucky begins a relationship with Leah, an upper class white girl from the suburbs who has a drug addicted brother. Now, Lucky must avoid the cops and keep peace in his buildings if he wants to make it out of Johannesburg alive and live happily ever after in that beach house with Leah. As you can imagine, that is easier said than done.

We recently had a chance to speak with filmmaker Ralph Ziman about his compelling new film; his research, the real-life person that Lucky was based on, the crime wave that infected Johannesburg at the end of apartheid and the influence that Hollywood movies have had on the violence in that part of the world. Here is what he had to say:

To start with, I know that you did a lot of hands-on research into the Johannesburg crime world. Can you talk about how that research helped you craft the story for the film?

Ralph Ziman: You know, it was really like this crime wave that had taken over South Africa from the end of apartheid and even before that in the years leading up to the end of apartheid, crime had just been growing incrementally. Johannesburg has got this reputation now for being the crime capitol of the world and just looking at statistics for the last four years I think there were forty-five hundred homicides, a million rapes and two million robberies, which comes out to like fifty murders a day. It's just unbelievable and I'd been looking for a story that kind of got under the skin of a lot this crime in South Africa. You know when I came across this, and it was through a personal contact of mine long before the newspapers got in to it, it was amazing. I just thought, how does somebody steal a high-rise building and how come nobody really seems to care about it? What had happened is this guy went around with a gang of people to buildings that were partially occupied and they would go in around four o'clock. They had taken fake complaint letters and given them to the shop owners just to buy a few hours of silence. Then they started cutting their way into the building to get four or five thousand people in there by six or seven o'clock at night. The guy who had done it, who I had based the character in the film on, actually left a calling card and this ledger that had his telephone number so the tenants could pay him. I called him up and I told him that I was doing a film on crime in the inner city of Johannesburg and his response was, "Why do you want to talk to me about it?" I said that I heard that he knew a lot about it and could I meet him? He set up a meeting with me in central Johannesburg and he agreed to meet at a McDonalds. When I went along I saw a guy standing outside the McDonalds but he didn't look the way I had expected from talking to him on the phone because the guy on the phone was very polished and very smart. Anyway I walked up to the guy and I said, are you Steven? He kind of gave me a smile, he's a big guy, he's got scars on his face and he's missing some teeth. He says, "Yes you must be Ralph." I said, yes can I get you something to drink and he said, "No I'm waiting for my bodyguard." I asked if he wanted something to eat and he said, "Lets wait for my bodyguard." So we sat down and he kept saying, "I'm just waiting for my bodyguard to arrive." We sat around uncomfortable for a couple of minutes and then I looked and saw a guy in the distance starring at us so I waved to him and he waved back to me. Then he walked over and I said, is that your body guard? The guy said, "Yes." Then the other guy arrived and I said you must be Steven? He started smiling and said, "Yes." He said that he wanted to make sure that I hadn't been followed or had other people with me. Then we sat down and we got into this discussion about buildings, property ownership and what he felt. I actually put a lot of that into the movie. Every time you see Kunene being interviewed, when he talks about creating a better life for all that was taken verbatim from my notes. While I was writing my script I had applied to the South African police services to go out driving with them in patrol cars on Friday and Saturday nights. They had given me permission so I would go out every Friday and Saturday night with the Flying Squad, which is an elite crime-fighting unit in Johannesburg. So that gave me a lot of insight into what was really going on underneath the surface because I think the police there have seen a lot and they tell a lot of stories. That was kind of my way into it.

Were you scared or concerned about meeting with Steven?

Ralph Ziman: I actually wasn't scared because we were meeting in a public place but when I went I did take three off duty policeman with me. I drove there with them and we parked. When we took an elevator into the building, I went right and they went left. I had them on speed dial and they were walking around so even though I wasn't there long I had three guys with me. But I didn't in any way feel threatened in that situation and maybe that was kind of foolish of me. There were three guys walking around so I was protected.

Were you able to draw a lot of inspiration and specific traits from Steven for the character of Lucky Kunene?

Ralph Ziman: Absolutely. He had that way of talking. He talked about everything in the language of a struggle. He talked about building a better life for people. He was incredibly slick. He was incredibly well spoken and very charming. I knew certain things about him because I had spoken to a few police who had problems with him and I knew he had done some very bad things. It was hard to see that. It was hard not believe in his story because he was a young guy, maybe thirty-one or thirty-two years old. He was very articulate, charming, spoke perfect English and you know, he sold himself so well that I really felt like I almost believed him.

In your film, there is a scene where some of the characters get the idea for a crime from watching a Hollywood movie, can you talk about the influence that American culture has had on the violence in that area of the world and were there any Hollywood gangster films like "Scarface," for instance, that influenced you while making this movie?

Ralph Ziman: Let me get into the first question first. The film that they were watching was Heat. There was a scene were an armored car gets knocked over by a truck. Actually this is quite interesting because I think Heat came out in 1995 and almost immediately after it came out there was a wave of what they call in South Africa, "cash in transit heists" or CIT. You can look it up on the Internet. It's unbelievable because the crime has gotten so bad, every shop, every small business, everyone that collects money does not take that money to the bank them selves. They have an armored truck come around and they do their rounds collecting money. But what happened after Heat, weeks after the film had been shown, the first copycat CIT crimes started happening. It just mushroomed from there. Johannesburg is the biggest CIT capital in the world. While we were shooting the film in 2006, there was anything between four to six and sometimes eight or ten of those single robberies every day. They normally involve one of these trucks being rammed or driven off the road or smashed and it's just unbelievably prevalent. When they caught some of the first guys to do it, they said that they got the idea from watching Heat. They said that they had watched the film and that it was such a good blueprint. I wound up talking to one of the guys that was protecting us, he had been involved with cash in transit heists in the '90s and had done a lot of them before he was caught and went to jail. He did say how smart, clever and how well designed that burglary was. I think Michael Mann is a brilliant filmmaker and the great thing about watching his films is that you see how every piece of it unfolds. He did that incredibly well but it was copied and to this day it is an enormous problem in Johnsonburg. On to the second part of your question, a lot of people have said that my film is like Scarface but I was much more influenced by a film like Heat or a classic gangster film like Goodfellas. Although I definitely like Scarface I hadn't seen it for many, many years and only really watched it again after people started comparing it to my film. When I was watching Scarface I realized that Kunene was a very different character from Tony Montana in that he wasn't addicted to drugs or himself a very violent man. He'd seen himself as a businessman and the character himself was very influenced by American self-help books. I think the way he sees himself is, well he never saw himself as a tough guy. There were definitely a lot of influences conscious and sub-conscious. I'd say it was really Goodfellas and Heat if I had to be honest about it.

When Lucky first moves to Johnsonburg he tries to lead an honest life by going legit and opening a taxi company, but it's only when his taxi is car-jacked, something that he did himself many times as a child, that he returns to a life of crime. Can you talk about the irony of that and how that incident sent him on his path towards a life of crime?

Ralph Ziman: I think he was looking for opportunity and he is a very flawed character. In his mind he wants to do the right thing but ultimately every time he winds up taking the easier road. I also think that there was a very interesting thing that happened in South Africa in the apartheid years, that any person who didn't have the correct papers on them at all times was arrested by the police. The police could stop any person at any time and demand a pass, which was an identity document and if you didn't have one you would go to jail. Given that, the political unrest and everything, in Kunene's generation, going to jail and being a criminal is not stigmatized in the same way it is perhaps in other places where the police are used as a strong arm of the state to oppress people. I think it is always kind of a blurry line with that character. I think he feels that in someway he didn't get a fair chance at doing what he wanted to do. Crime is easy. When I met the real guy he said to me that it had been a Black Country and then white people had arrived a hundred years ago and they took everything. They took all the land, everything that belonged to the Black people and that he had now at the end of apartheid finally taking back what had originally belonged to him and his people. As a result he didn't feel like he was a criminal, he felt like he was taking back what was taken from him. It's not a justification but within the political context of South Africa it was quite an interesting one and that was a line I wanted to explore a little.

Can you talk about the relationship that Lucky has with Leah in the film and how that effects him?

Ralph Ziman: I'd always seen his relationship with Leah as being somewhat inspirational and I didn't think that they were really connected completely. I thought that she portrayed one set of ideals to him and he portrayed another set of ideals to her. As such the relationship is kind of difficult and stilted. That's what we tried to get across. I think he saw her as an on tray into a more elegant light and to things he'd never had and things he'd never seen. I think up until the point where he meets her we didn't really have many scenes in the film that were shot in suburban Johannesburg, it's all either the townships or the inner city. I think to him she is his doorway to this new world, into places elegant and affluent and all the things that he's always wanted his whole life.

Ultimately, do you think Lucky loved Leah or just the idea of her?

Ralph Ziman: I think he loves her ... I think he wants to love her. I think that perhaps the differences between them are very great and in a sense I didn't have a problem with it feeling slightly ambiguous at the end. We had had some scenes in the film, which came out with more interaction at the end but he at the end of the film really wants to get her back and patch things up. I always thought that if we made a sequel that, you know, that would be the jumping off point.

Can you talk about the character of Nazareth, Lucky's mentor, his downward spiral and how that ultimately led to his betrayal of Lucky?

Ralph Ziman: Well Nazareth was a very interesting character because he was based on a lot of soldiers who had gone into the military and had fought to end apartheid. When they came back to South Africa, what I think happened a lot was that the leadership had been in exile. They came back and a lot of the leadership that had sprouted up in South Africa toward the end of apartheid, they had filled a lot of the top positions. I think that a lot of the Gorillas that fought and struggled thought that they wanted a victory day parade. They wanted to march down the streets and they were promised to be rewarded for fighting. Nazareth says that they would be given a home in the suburbs and a nice car to drive because after all that was the struggle they fought for, to live like the white people that they had lived under during apartheid. There was an incredible amount of betrayal with the soldiers coming back and in fact it was mostly ex-fighters who had thought of doing the cash in transit heists and were behind the initial crime wave that took South Africa at the end of apartheid. I think it was because they did feel like there was a sense of betrayal, that they weren't included, that they weren't taken care of. I think it's like war veterans everywhere, it's fine when you want them to go and fight, kill, die and put their lives on the line but now that it is over where is what they were promised. Guys like him were war hardened, they were well trained, a lot of them had been in Russia, they had been in East Germany, they knew military planning and they knew how to use their weapons. That was the character that it was based on. Where we took Nazareth is that his sense of disillusionment continues to grow. That he goes to jail and when he comes out a younger generation like Kunene who had not fought the struggle but perhaps had been much better education and graduated from university had now taken over.

Finally, can you discus Lucky's brother Zakes and how his death affected Lucky and led to his eventual downfall?

Ralph Ziman: I think up until the point where Zakes dies, I think Kunene is trying to cling to the image that he is more of a businessman then he is a gangster. You don't really see him pull a gun in anger at anytime. There was some gun play when he was a kid, holding up some cars and stuff but as a man he has worn a business suit. He's kept a veneer of being above it in his head and he's had people like Nazareth and people underneath him doing the dirty work. You never really see him getting his hands dirty. I think that is a breaking point for him, a turning point and he has to confront the fact that what he does has consequences and that there is violence. I think the character does snap, he does become violent and I think that is his downfall. That is where the police get him and that was a breaking point for him, definitely.