Film Interview: Jason Staggie – Hard Livings, Or Family Findings

July 6, 2021

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Director Jason Staggie‘s film Hard Livings, on the programme for the Durban International Film Festival, is a documentary exploring the impact of the feared Cape Town street gang of the same name.


Was there a single moment when you first realised you wanted to make films or TV programmes – a specific movie or show in a particular context? What was it that caught your attention?

When I was 14 years old, I was watching late night M-Net by myself, and Pulp Fiction played that night. It was something so different to what I had seen before – the dialogue, the rhythm, the strange structure, the music. It fascinated me! The next day at school, I went to the computer room and found out more about the film and Quentin Tarantino in particular. I started reading his scripts and I tried writing my own one. It inspired a lifelong obsession with film and writing.


Do you prefer doing as few takes as possible or as many as are necessary? Both choices have their pros and cons…

Hard Livings is a very personal documentary film, touching on emotional issues for the people who are in it. In this case, I went for as few takes as possible, as I wanted to create intimacy between myself and the subjects, and not put them off from sharing their story. For the short films I have made, I also went for a spontaneous approach, utilising few takes. This was the style that I wanted to pursue as a director at the time, although now with experience, I would probably do more takes to ensure that the editor has more to work with.


Getting (in conjunction with your team) the exact look or feel you want onscreen: what are the most helpful outside factors for you in this process (from location to make-up or costumes to framing or editing)?

For documentaries, editing is an important slice of the pie. But editing can only do so much, so proper planning in all facets is the key to getting as close as possible to the ideal look.


While everyone is looking to you for guidance, how aware are you of needing to limit what you say or do in order to let the combination of everything in the frame (the location, the lighting, the costumes, your cast) be as effective as possible?

It’s vitally important that everyone knows exactly what is expected of them on set. This ties in with my answer above about planning. Ideally, everything in the frame should compliment each other, work off each other. It’s my duty to ensure this and facilitate the unification of everything. I am aware of limiting myself if things are flowing, but I am also aware that if it’s not working, then I have to be more verbose. I think one develops a feel for it eventually.


The pandemic has created enormous challenges at every level in the film and television industries, but there is still fantastic work being created. What, or who, are the brightest lights in terms of work you have done recently or films or shows you are watching at the moment?

There is some really good work out there at the moment and vastly talented filmmakers struggling through this pandemic and getting their films out. Although, perhaps I am ill-informed, but I’ve yet to see anything during this time that’s pushing limits and taking risks. I feel it’s important for all filmmakers, not just Africans, to keep on pushing boundaries because that’s how we take this art form forward. I do understand the reason for this, as it is an easier path to receive funding, which is a huge stumbling block for the arts in Africa.


As a director – not just as a fan – what makes you excited about the above?

I’m excited because I see the determination that filmmakers in South Africa have. Hard work and passion are indispensable in this industry. I think I’ll be more excited when my own film scripts and series scripts will be produced because I follow the mandate of taking risks in independent cinema. I strive to marry risk taking with commercial appeal because we have families. A lot of us come from impoverished backgrounds, and we need to get paid. This is the reality. In the future, I would like for another 14-year-old kid in the township to watch one of my fiction works and for it inspire them into film because it blew their mind, not because they had seen something like it before. This makes me excited!


Please unpack your current project? How did you get involved and what is most satisfying about it?

Hard Livings is a film that I have wanted to make for a long time and one which I have struggled to produce. It revolves around my gangster-inclined family in Cape Town. When I was growing up, I was unaware of many things that were happening regarding my family, and I wanted answers. I wanted to find the root and I wanted to make a film about it to help others in the world, not just Cape Town townships, to not choose a similar path of gangsterism and crime. I believe that true understanding gives one choice and I offer this film to the masses in ghettoes all over the world to facilitate this understanding and make informed choices in their lives. I also wanted it to be somewhat inspiring, in that it truly doesn’t matter where you’re born or into which family, there is still hope for a better life. I write this knowing that it’s extremely more difficult for those in impoverished circumstances, but hope is a beautiful thing, it can make people push for better. Optimistic perhaps, but one needs optimism to inspire change. Sometimes I feel like I should have spent more time on my writing or other projects, instead of dealing with one setback after the next with Hard Livings – and there were many! But I am nothing if not determined! The most satisfying aspect is seeing the film released. Now I can focus on my writing and other projects with a mind at peace.

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