Film director Michael Oblowitz, who was born in South Africa and has made a series of critically-acclaimed movies and videos since moving to the United States, and is currently shooting a film in Bulgaria, spoke to CLIVE LEVIEV-SAWYER.
TO write a story about film-maker Michael Oblowitz and describe him as best known for recently directing a batch of action films, two starring Steven Seagal, or to recall his award-winning music videos, or the attention he got as the tyro director of the critically-acclaimed King Blank in 1982, is to miss the measure of the man.
Because this does not produce a truly focussed picture of Michael Oblowitz.
These, rather, are those things that are important about him:
He is on the verge of making a film that is close to the core of him: close because it will be based on a contemporary Jewish novel written by someone who, like him, is the offspring of Holocaust survivors with roots deep in Eastern Europe;
A journey of discovery into his Jewish roots, that took him to a small town in Lithuania, was one of the most profoundly emotional experiences in his life;
That from that small town in Lithuania he bore back with him to Cape Town a handful of earth to place on his father's grave, having first stood among the deserted settlement from which he once came, to say Kaddish, the ritual Jewish prayer for the dead, for his father;
That the path his life has taken has shown him parallels between Eastern Europe, where lately he has done much work, and his native South Africa;
And that he is the kind of man whose energy, passion and insight lead him to recognise what to him is genuinely fascinating; and to spin out from that fascination those things he might still create.
Biography: Oblowitz was born in 1952 in Bantry Bay, an Atlantic seaboard suburb of Cape Town, to a Lithuanian father, and an English mother who was the descendant of Russian Jews.
After an education in the city, a spell at its Michaelis School of Fine Art, he went to Columbia in the United States. But while back in Cape Town, having begun to make a name as a film-maker, he spent time with JM Coetzee, the iconic South African novelist whose works even then were well-known among the literati of the English-speaking world, and who last year received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Oblowitz, then 23, sought permission from Coetzee, his former lecturer, to turn Coetzee's novel Waiting For The Barbarians into a film.
But in spite of an initial agreement from the author, and the backing of the British Film Institute to provide finance for the project, Coetzee's agent let Oblowitz know he would not be given permission.
Oblowitz had planned to film the novel in South Africa's stark semi-desert Karoo, where the book was set, and to cast two of the country's most famous cultural figures, playwright-actor Athol Fugard and award-winning actress Yvonne Bryceland, in leading roles. Instead the rights went to a Belgian film-maker who did the film in Spain, casting Jane Birkin in the lead role.
Oblowitz to this day believes that Coetzee had something against a fellow South African filming his book, for reasons that are not clear.
When the filmed version came out, Coetzee conceded a great mistake had been made.
Unsolicited in the post came a script Coetzee had drafted for one of his other great novels, The Life and Times of Michael K. (Some theorise that the "K" is a nod to the fact that Coetzee's work has often been likened to that of Kafka).
"Dear Michael, if you are still interested in making a film of one of my books..." the letter from Coetzee began.
But Oblowitz was, as he put it, "shattered" by the letdown. He did not film the script. Nor did he make another film for 14 years.
Instead, in America, he moved into the world of music videos and commercials. David Bowie and John Lee Hooker were among those who moved in front of his lens. Oblowitz became the first director of a rap video for MTV. He made commercials for Lucky Strike, and for Chrysler, among others.
Having moved to the US ahead of other South Africans who appeared later in the New York and Hollywood movie scene, he became a kind of one-man reception committee for his compatriots who arrived later.
The turning point back to making films came when he read Jim Thompson's The Grifters. He tried and failed to get the rights - these went to Martin Scorsese - but Oblowitz read the rest of Thompson's works and got the go-ahead for This World, Then The Fireworks, a dark and violent tale of abuse and incest.
His direction of the film shot him to new prominence, and the dual distinction of awards at Cannes and the Sundance Film Festival. And the distinction of being the first South African to get his work to either and both.
Commissions were also beginning to take him to Eastern Europe.
He shot a Heineken commercial in Prague in 1997, followed by a vampire movie in Budapest.
His time in Eastern Europe gave him the chance to travel to Lithuania, to find the village about which his father had told tales and sung songs, recollected from his youth, from the time before fleeing the coming horror in 1939. In Oblowitz's possession was a photograph from the 1920s of the Maccabi Jewish soccer team of which his father, dressed in shabby clothing like all his team-mates, had been a member. In the background of the photograph was a house with a number visible.
Oblowitz found the house. Like all the others in the village, it was deserted. A silent symbol of the devastation that had swept the village, the country, and Europe itself.
"I come close to tears, telling this story," he says, pausing.
The stories of his father, who had just died, had left as Oblowitz puts it, "a tattoo from the Holocaust engraved on my heart".
Fast forward. Oblowitz met New Yorker Thane Rosenbaum, author of Second-Hand Smoke. Rosenbaum's novel, set in Miami in the 1960s and 1970s, with the theme of being a child of Eastern European Holocaust survivors. In the novel, a son is so haunted by his parents' experience that he becomes a Nazi-hunter. He loses his job and family pursuing revenge. Oblowitz and Rosenbaum bonded immediately, and Rosenbaum offered Oblowitz the rights to turn the novel into a film.
With finance for the film coming from wealthy Wall Street Jewish business people, Oblowitz is infused with excitement about the project and about the fact that he will have creative independence.
He compares the difficulty he had with Coetzee with the instant rapport he had with Rosenbaum: "It was the difference between dealing with an Afrikaner and a New York Jew".
After six action films, Oblowitz is excited by being able to do another serious film.
And he is excited about his current experiences into delving into Eastern Europe.
"I am fascinated by Eastern Europe. My family is from here. These are my roots. It's where I'm from."
He has fast come to appreciate Bulgaria, having been brought to the country after a call from producer Avi Lehrner to do a Steven Seagal movie.
Bulgaria, says Oblowitz, is fascinating because of its history and its proximity to the orient of old. While he has not been able to access Bulgarian literature, because of the lack of the classics translated into English, he has developed an appreciation for the country's music - including the pop-folk "chalga" about which his Bulgarian friends are so disdainful. The complex musical legacy it represents, and its authenticity - with chalga's references to gangsterism and debased culture - appeal to him. A night in a chalga club is "the most mind-blowing experience," he says, comparing it to the many other nightclubs he has been in elsewhere in the world.
Oblowitz finds parallels between Africa and the Balkans.
"Both endlessly lawless and wild, in a permanent state of revolt, they don't have, in the classic Western tradition, obviously definable cultures in the overt sense. The dominant culture is not self-evident."
In both places, "boundaries change. Place names change. Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe. Yugoslavia breaks up into everything from Croatia to Serbia."
This, says Oblowitz, "is essentially what attracts me, the outlaw nature of these cultures. They are both frontier cultures. It was what initially attracted me to the US, but America has become a hegemony, a new dominant culture. A culture not as interesting as it was in the days of Dylan, Ginsberg, John Lee Hooker."
There are parallels between the people too.
"Those who lived through the breakdown of the totalitarian state in South Africa have an experience identical to what happened in the Eastern bloc. One was right-wing and fascist, the other left-wing and fascist - they were both fascist in their own way."
For both South Africa and the former Eastern bloc, the void left by the collapse of the totalitarian state was filled by organised crime groups moving in. In the case of South Africa, some of these organised crime figures in fact came from the former Soviet bloc - Russia, Serbia, Poland and Bulgaria.
"It's kind of ironic that I ended up on these shores."
Asked which would have a better chance of getting a go-ahead from a hard-nosed Hollywood producer, a film set in South Africa or one set in Eastern Europe, Oblowitz says, "probably neither, but Eastern Europe would have the better chance".
"A lot of South African movies have been made, but none has done well. That's really a pity because the stories are really incredible, the country has great stories, great novels."
Recently, on the popular Slavi Trifonov talk show, Oblowitz said he wanted to make a film about the gangster culture in Bulgaria.
As he says of chalga, the role of the film-maker is "the art of the voyeur, of the observer. You don't have to comment on a cultural form, only to observe it."
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