Filmmaker sees South Africa through a gentle but keen eye

This is the birth of a South African movie, at a kitchen table in suburban Johannesburg. Two black men and a white woman work a comic moment. Their voices compete, louder and faster. They backtrack and rework the scene, exhilarated, laughing.

Kenneth Nkosi and Rapulana Seiphemo, screen stars in South Africa, spark as if they're lightning charged. Jann Turner sits at her laptop, eyes dancing, fingers tripping over the keyboard, trying to keep up.

The film's called "Fifty Coffins. A Love Story." As they banter, a character's name morphs from Lazeeboy to Zeeboy. A finale emerges from thin air, as Nkosi and Seiphemo leap to their feet, their voices husky with excitement, improvising a scene involving coffins and crooks and rival brothers.

With the kitchen door open, the air is heavy and warm. Beyond a curtain of lush foliage a swollen storm cloud threatens to burst.

For a few hours in Turner's kitchen, the contagious disillusionment of post-apartheid South Africa evaporates. The sad, exhausting stories of crime and racism are chased away by the sound of people laughing.

This is the South Africa — ordinary, decent, human — that Turner's father died for.

Rick Turner was a banned anti-apartheid academic. Early one damp tropical morning nearly 33 years ago, he was shot as he stood in his daughters' bedroom in Durban.

"He died in my arms," Jann Turner says. "I was 13."

Her sister, Kim, was 9. The girls lived mostly in Cape Town with their mother after their parents divorced, and were visiting their dad for the holidays. He'd been planning to take them for a beach walk, if only the rain would stop.

The family believes it was a political assassination.

South Africa is filled with so much pain that it often bleeds into the arts. Turner and her two partners' production company, Stepping Stone Pictures, makes films that are funny and light on the surface, with dark underlying themes.

The idea for their first movie, "White Wedding," written by the three friends, starring Nkosi, 37, and Seiphemo, 43, and directed by Turner, was born on a trip the trio took several years ago. They stopped for gas and realized that people were staring. Especially a tall white Afrikaans-speaking man, who looked more concerned than most.

"And this big Afrikaner guy comes up and asks me if I'm all right," Turner says.

At a restaurant stop for lunch, the bathroom sign still said "whites only."

"It didn't feel threatening. It just felt humorous and sad," she says.

"White Wedding," which was in independent U.S. theaters this fall and will be released on DVD later this month, is nominally about a road trip: Nkosi's character, Elvis, is on the way from Johannesburg to his wedding in Cape Town with his best man, Tumi, played by Seiphemo, amid setbacks, conflicts and doubts that he'll ever make it. Along the way, the two men pick up a young white English woman and a goat.

But it's really about South Africa's race relations.

The low-budget film, hugely successful here, captures some typical South African moments.

There's the signpost with arrows in opposite directions for the same place. There's the scene that plays on the fact that when you turn up in a remote African village with an "appointment," it doesn't mean the person you've driven hours to meet will actually be there. In this case the main protagonists finally get to a remote village to meet an elderly African woman, only to find she's "gone out" and no one knows when she'll return. And there's the hostility when two black men walk into a hotel with a white woman.

"The story is South African," Turner says, "and every interaction in this country is loaded with issues of race."

As friends and creative partners who happen to be of different races, Turner, Nkosi and Seiphemo have had their share of racial tension. After a long hot day's filming on their second movie, "Paradise Stop," which will be released in South Africa in March, the cast and crew were lounging in the foyer of their hotel in Limpopo province. They all looked sweaty, tired and dirty.

The hotel owner walked in and eyed them disapprovingly.

"They all stink," she said loudly in Afrikaans, "even the whites."

::

The letters to Jann Turner in Cape Town ended in a constellation of scrawled ballpoint kisses and "Lots of love from daddy."

He wrote her the same things he was saying in his books and speeches, urging whites to see the poisonous effects of racism and join the black struggle.

"Our government has spent the last 30 years saying that the most important thing in South Africa is the difference between black and white and that whites must go on ruling blacks. They have created race hatred, so they can hardly complain when blacks turn race hatred against whites," he wrote in 1975, when she was about 10.

From 1973 to '78, he was not allowed to teach, travel, publish or meet with even small groups of people. His second marriage, to a nonwhite South African, Foszia Fisher, violated apartheid law.

He was a close friend of black activist Steve Biko, who was initially indignant when Turner, a white man, came to address students at a black university about black issues. Biko died in police detention four months before Turner was killed.

When the bullet blasted through a front window into his body, Turner did not die immediately. It took 20 minutes, as Jann cradled him and tried desperately to bring him back.

He wasn't responsive, but she would always wonder what was going through his mind as those last minutes crawled by. Was he afraid? Regretful? How much love did he feel in those moments, and how much forgetting was there, and how much forgiveness?

Three months after his death, Jann's mother, Barbara, was told she was about to be banned, and so she fled to Britain with the two children. Jann completed her education in Britain and the United States.

In the late 1990s, after apartheid was dismantled, she returned to South Africa and covered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a journalist. She heard many confessions from many assassins, but never one from the killer of her father.

She started looking for the killer in 1989 and met many shadowy former apartheid security operatives, including the strangely personable Eugene de Kock, nicknamed Prime Evil. The commander of Vlakplaas, the headquarters of the apartheid death squads, was sentenced to 212 years in prison for his crimes, including six murders.

Many times, Turner felt that she was getting close.

"Over the years, there have been a series of leads, flutterings of hope when it seemed we might discover who killed him and why," she wrote in 1997. "Now my search is over. I suppose the story was never going to have a happy ending, but I never expected the truth to be so depressing. The truth is … I'll never know who it was that fired the shot through my sister's and my bedroom window, who it was that ran away from the house as my father lay bleeding, who it was that left me trying in vain to resuscitate a dying man.

"Somebody shot down this man who spoke gently of reason and freedom, who swore violently at the failures of his do-it-yourself projects, loved bad English cooking and Elvis and Hegel."

::

Turner, now 46, doesn't dwell on South Africa's crime the way many do, nor does she see crime through a prism of race with whites as victims and blacks as perpetrators. But the night before the interview, she experienced what she calls "a South African story." She offered no details, just that men with guns got into her property and no one was hurt.

She felt liberated on a recent trip to Los Angeles to promote "White Wedding," walking around Venice Beach amid a crowd of diverse, interesting people, basking in the unusual experience of feeling utterly safe.

What angers Turner more than crime is political corruption and cronyism, the enrichment of a new well-connected elite that happens to be black instead of white.

"I am desperately disappointed in our politics and upset about the inequality in our country. This is not what people fought and died for," she says, staring numbly. "For the most part, lives of ordinary South Africans have not changed very much."

"I think we could have been great, and I think we are desperately average."

The films don't do big political questions like that, she says. Except that gently, by telling stories that touch people's lives, they do.

The thundercloud outside Turner's kitchen has darkened from steely gray almost to black.

Inside, there's a pause. Raps, as she calls Seiphemo, offers a twist in the plot about death, family and deceit.

"That's good," says Turner. "I like that."

"Yeah. I like it too," Nkosi says.

They sense that the day's work's over. The cloud hangs low, then it bursts with drenching rain, washing in rivers down the streets.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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