Kurt Orderson to Bring South African Hip-Hop Culture to the Screen With ‘Apetown’

South African filmmaker Kurt Orderson’s “Apetown,” one of 20 projects selected for this year’s CineMart, the co-production market at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, describes it as a “hard-hitting love letter to Cape Town.”

The film is a South African urban story “weaving together hip-hop, graffiti, segregation and camaraderie,” told through the eyes of “a charismatic graffiti artist” and his “allies at war with a city hell-bent on reinforcing apartheid’s social caging,” he says.

After a violent encounter with private security, a rebellious graffiti artist is swept into a parallel universe he creates through his art. The altered state heightens his already volatile nature, leading him to make a connection between graffiti and the rock art of his ancestry. While on the run from authorities, he must choose between his ambition for fame or exploring the truth of who he is.

Orderson says: “I’m from the community that ‘Apetown’ originated in. I grew up in hip-hop culture in 80s Cape Town and it saved my worldview, gave me a voice and helped me articulate my politics and my world-making. So this project is a culmination of all I’ve done in my life, including filmmaking.”

He adds: “I grew up in post-Apartheid South Africa and there was a major paradoxical shift, the world spotlight was on South Africa. Popular culture and youth culture was ammunition to articulate what was going on in the country and what it sounded like, sonically.

“I was part of the foundational hip-hop culture in Cape Town, I directed a lot of hip-hop music videos and worked as a culture worker using hip-hop as a pedagogical tool for social change and a vehicle for how you can speak about the house crisis, labor rights, gender identity… It has been a great tool to approach often difficult questions.”

The director goes on to highlight how the film will speak to the younger generations, a key element of the project given that Africa has the youngest population in the world. “Young people, specifically Gen Z, are saying: No more, we’ll draw the line. There’s a moral compass you need to follow to be able to work with them and this is so exciting. Gen Z is about life being more than generational wealth, it’s about articulating what justice looks like and how to fight for equity through grassroots activism.”

The entire cast of “Apetown” is to be composed of non-actors, a decision Orderson defends by stating, “there is an authenticity that can only be captured by people who are from the community, whose identity has been shaped by it. Hip-hop culture is unique in South Africa, there is a localized aesthetic.”

The filmmaker began writing “Apetown” back in 2012 and the timing was finally right this year to bring the project to Rotterdam. “In the last two years, we’ve been trying to raise money and package the project. As much as South Africa supports local film, it can ultimately only provide us with 30%, maybe 40% of the financing,” said the project’s producer, Bridget Pickering.

“The timing was right because we already had a script and had raised some local money. We have a Dutch producer. So all the elements made it a great moment to be here at CineMart,” Pickering continued. “We had a great response so far, met with a whole range of different people from all over Europe, producers and distributors from France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Taiwan… This is what’s great about Rotterdam, it offers a mix of cultures and new perspectives on the film.”

“African cinema is very, very new,” says Pickering when speaking about some of the challenges they have faced in the project’s development. “We are taking baby steps and trying to figure out what African cinema is and what stories we want to tell. The challenge is that a lot of money still comes from Europe, so how do you tell stories that are deep and layered and speak to African audiences when the money comes from outside? We are certainly a generation that is still grappling with that.”

Orderson’s previous films include 2017’s “Not in My Neighborhood” and 2016’s “Action Comandante.”

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