FILM / The dark side of the moon: On location / Ruth Picardie watches Elaine Proctor filming her multi-racial Friends under cover of night in Johannesburg

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The Independent Culture
5.30pm

LATE afternoon and it's time for breakfast - not because of jet lag (flying south from Britain, there isn't any) but because I have entered the curious world of night- time filming. Elaine Proctor's Friends, shooting in and around Johannesburg for nine weeks, is taking advantage of the new moon. Lychee juice is two rand a litre - about 40p.

6.30pm

WE meet at the production office, the Sonneblom film studio in the veld at the edge of the city. It's incredibly plush - all hand-made ceramic tiles. It is left over from the mid-Eighties when South Africa's film subsidy and tax write- off system created a local boom (800 pictures in five years) in straight-to-video schlock. In Febuary 1990, after a government inquiry found that hundreds had never been released, the free-for- all was abolished, plunging the industry into recession.

The pounds 1.5m budget for Friends, an emotion-driven piece about the friendship between three women - one black, one Afrikaans, one English - has come from Britain and France. 'I've never had a penny from this country,' Proctor, who made political documentaries in the Eighties before going to film school in Britain, says. Her graduation film, On the Wire, won a BFI award for best first feature of 1991, though did not get shown at cinemas.

7pm

We drive downtown in convoy - cars, transit vans, caravans, trucks and the all-important 'honey wagon' or mobile toilet. The city is not in the grip of civil war as I had expected: the streets are empty, the violence and poverty concentrated in the townships. 'It's no more dangerous than the time I shot in Belfast,' says 34- year-old British producer Judy Hunt. Still, I am handed a memo headed 'Please Be Aware: During night shoots no one should travel alone in a vehicle'. Four security guards with guns protect the equipment around the clock.

Johannesburg looks like LA without the smog - lush suburbs and shopping malls, multi-lane highways and no public transport, with townships instead of inner-city ghettos. Downtown is office blocks and concrete and neon and no people. We are accompanied by Willy and Dill, two Afrikaans traffic cops on loan from the police, who turn out not to be die-hard racists but socially aware. 'I always find out why people jump a light,' Willy says.

The cast and crew are bewilderingly international: South African, Namibian, Zimbabwean, British, French - plus Australian actress Kerry Fox. The combined cameraman / director of photography, Dominique Chapuis, is French - very French. He wears a beret and a brush moustache, smokes smelly cigarettes and delivers dramatic Gallic epigrams like 'night is the territory of fear' and 'all directors ask the impossible'. He says the film is structured like a South African day: very bright in the morning, stormy in the middle and clearing again in the afternoon.

All the heads of department are white; black film-makers have had almost no access to film school. The white crew look as though they do a lot of surfing - all long hair and bare chests and not a beer belly in sight. The black crew are busy humping heavy equipment about. The atmosphere seems harmonious. 'There's never been any racism in the film industry,' says Sidney, a black trainee nominated by the African National Congress-affiliated Film and Allied Workers Organisation (Fawo). 'It's like the army. You do what you're told.'

Thami, the other Fawo 'trainee' (in fact he's 34 and has produced an award- winning documentary about township life), is less sanguine. He's already had three run-ins with the production manager about his wages - R250 a week, while other crew members are earning closer to R2,000. 'We call it our bus fare,' Thami says. 'We'll never earn what a white person earns.'

Midnight

WE eat outdoors, from trestle tables pushed up against a building to shelter from the rain - spectacular electric storms are a feature of the summer. Black and white sit separately. 'The disease (of apartheid) is still in us,' says Sidney, who hours earlier announced there is no racism.

The new South Africa is full of such contradictions: Sidney, a member of the ANC, worked as a stuntman on Red Scorpion, the Namibian-made, anti-Communist, Dolph Lundgren vehicle that was boycotted overseas. 'That film changed my life,' he says. 'It employed more black people, and paid them better, than any other film.'

Politics isn't simple in South Africa these days. Three anti-apartheid films - Mapantsula, Sarafina] and The Power of One - are showing all over the city, yet the cinemas are empty; no one wants political history lessons now.

Proctor says: 'It was important for me to make a story in which politics happened but that wasn't absolutely defined by politics. Apartheid is a continuing phenomenon so it's dangerous to call it a post-apartheid film, but it's definitely post-apartheid genre cinema.' Friends is also an ode to Johannesburg. 'I love it,' she says.

1am

IT'S still raining and there's not much we can do. Hunt paces anxiously. 'This is severe,' she mutters.

Proctor is wearing a leather jacket but she doesn't look tough; she is 32, tiny, with a high, girly voice.

Still, the all-male crew seem to respect her. She buys a different leather jacket for each film. 'I need another skin,' she explains. 'Skin' is a recurring image in conversation with her. Coming back to the violence of South Africa was extremely difficult. 'Skins were growing over my eyes because I couldn't bear to see it.'

Marius Weyers, an Afrikaans actor now based in Los Angeles, is relieved not to be playing a baddie for once. 'We're stuck with the villain parts, like the Germans after World War Two.'

2am

THE rain has turned to drizzle, so we can set up a wide shot - Kerry hurrying through a park. Liz, a young British anthropologist, is co-ordinating the extras. Barney Simon, founder of the Market Theatre, where Elaine worked after leaving school, has been enlisted as a 'chess- player'.

There is also a rent-boy, a man selling whips, three hookers, one drug dealer, three shady characters in a doorway, one man with a beer stall, one drunk woman and three street kids. At least one of the street kids really is a street kid - 15-year- old Shadrek, who has become a kind of mascot. Some of the other homeless kids queue up for coffee, thinking this is a soup kitchen. 'Settle please,' Elaine says. 'And action]'

3.30am

BIRDS are starting to sing noisily, and Dominique is racing against the dawn. Adjusting the lighting is like cooking, he says. 'A leetle more basil 'ere, a leetle more salt there.' The first assistant director, who is also French, shouts, at the volume required by all first ADs: 'Stop smocking]'

4.30am

THE sky has turned purple and it's too light to go on. The group fragments. Foreign cast and crew go back to the hotel, a quiet, colonial enclave in a city of Holiday Inns, with sepia photographs of South Africa's founding fathers on the wood panelled walls. The black crew wait for 'taxis' (in fact, mini-buses) back to the townships. Shadrek wanders off, probably back to the park. 'Thanks everybody,' Elaine says.

(Photograph omitted)

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