Ronnie Apteker is manic. He always is. A South African internet success story in his twenties, he’s the human version of the fabled Duracell bunny on TV, banging his drum when everyone has long passed out along the way.
He works all the hours there are, doesn’t suffer fools easily and now his eyes are burning with the passion of a zealot. They always are when he’s talking about movies. He’s done 13 now, a love-hate relationship that consumes him.
He’s involved with a 14th. It’s called Nothing for Mahala, a redemption tale with a message: Get back to the old values – if the offer of quick money is too good to be true, it is. The only way is work hard, save and create your own wealth.
“You look at the kids of today, everyone wants to become a gangster or a crook, nobody wants to actually do a full day’s honest labour,” he moans.
“Look at the tenderpreneurs, what about that provincial contract that was awarded for tens of millions for a website? The best people in the industry would have done it for less than R100 000. The problem is everyone’s adding their cut to the tender.”
Instant wealth, material possessions, people like Julius Malema, although Apteker never mentions it, are part of the malaise turning South Africa into itself, stopping it from developing into the nation it should have become.
This is the underlying premise of Nothing for Mahala, the film put together by Garth Japhet, written by Darrel Bristow-Bovey and directed by Rolie Nikiwe. The cast are some of the best known in the business: Marius Weyers, Thapelo Mokoena, Desmond Dube, Jamie Bartlett, Dorothy Masuka, Casper de Vries, Kenneth Nkosi and Lillian Dube.
Japhet, the legendary driving force behind the crusading and award-winning Soul City health initiative, has been friends with Apteker for a decade. These days, he heads up Heartlines, an NGO hammering out health education topics through TV and print.
“Garth came to me and said: ‘Ronnie, I can do content and I can do film, but I need you on the marketing side. I need you to look after the business of the film.’”
Apteker told him he would look at the script and if he liked it he’d do the job – for free, because everyone’s doing it as a charity gig to kick-start a national conversation about doing the right thing.
“The problem is if you look at guys in their late forties and fifties, there’s no self-esteem. I see it in India, across Eastern Europe, in the old East Germany. They’ve been beaten down all their lives. They don’t have hope.”
The new generation, he believes, is growing up with a freedom that’s not underpinned by a value system. It’s all instant gratification.
As he speaks, Apteker – who looks like a 40-year-old trapped in a teenager’s body – is shuffling cards.
His shtick used to be jokes. He’d always be telling jokes, to break the ice, make a connection, now it’s magic.
“I’ve been studying magic for two years now,” he confides, “it’s been life changing.”
I choose a card, a three of hearts. But I’ve chosen it from his blue pack. Apteker places it back in the pack, back to front. The pack is numbered 1 to 52 on the back. The card I’ve picked has been placed on top of card 14. It’s random.
Apteker picks up his red pack and starts flipping the cards over, 10, 11, 12, 13 and then with a showman’s flourish; card number 14. It’s the three of hearts.
“It’s magic isn’t it?” he grins. “It’s not really. There’s a trick to it, a technique. The thing about magic though is to amaze. If you amuse, that’s just trickery.”
Nothing for Mahala will need every ounce of Apteker’s brand of magic, to defy the odds, overcome prejudice about local movies and break the box office.
It’s a mantra he’s been repeating for years, since the days of Straight Outta Benoni and then his most recent film, Material, which defied the odds to record a pre-tax profit.
“In this country, there’s (Leon) Schuster and then there’s the movie industry. People are scared to watch local movies, even though we can and do produce ones that are very good, the equal of international productions.”
Nothing for Mahala, he believes, is one of the very good ones. “I read the script, I loved it. I’ve watched the director on set, watched the actors, this is a great movie.”
He’s billed as an executive producer on this one, along with Japhet, but as always Apteker has been getting involved where he can and negotiating the perilous track between conflicting egos and agendas, in between pulling 20-hour workdays.
He’s simultaneously invigorated and exhausted – an absolute mess of nervous worry.
“I know everything’s fine, the film’s great, the cast, the crew, but what if the public doesn’t like it, what if?”
It’s always like this; the difference is that there are funders on board too this time. He’s also stuck in some money, despite working for two years on the project without pulling a salary.
He doesn’t need to worry, he needs to take heart from another of his magic tricks.
Apteker pulls out a dice from his haversack. There’s a silver business card-holder in his hand; he puts that out too.
He looks me in the eye. “I’ve stopped worrying whatsoever over the last month, since I started doing this.
“I roll the dice and I do what it tells me. If it’s one, I do number one on my list, two, two and so on. If I want to go home, I go home. If I want to work into the small hours, I work.
“I have to do what the card tells me. Do you trust me?” he asks. I nod. “Roll the dice.” I roll the dice and it’s a one.
Apteker opens the silver case and lays out the six laminated business card-sized cards face down.
“Now I’ve got to do to you whatever the card says. Are you ready?”
He turns it over. “Be nice,” it reads.
We both laugh.
“Do you want to know what was on the other cards?” he asks. I nod. He turns them over: “Kill”, “Kill”, “Kill”, “Kill”, “Kill” read the other five.
Apteker and Japhet have rolled the dice. Nothing for Mahala faces the same kind of odds from cinemagoers.
They won’t have too long to wait to find out what number came up.
Spending more than you earn, borrowing what you can’t afford to repay isn’t a particularly South African phenomenon, but it is one that’s wreaking havoc in our society.
In Nothing for Mahala, Thapelo Mokoena plays Axe Gumede, an up-and-coming property agent determined to make his mark, until the mashonisas catch up with him. When his lavish lifestyle lands him in hot water, he is sentenced to community service at an old-age home. There he meets Hendrik (Marius Weyers), a grumpy old man. But in this clash of cultures will lie their redemption. Heartlines teamed up with Quizzical Pictures to produce Nothing for Mahala.
“This is our first foray into comedy and we are hoping that the script, which has been in development for more than three years, will touch South Africans. It’s comedy with a heart,” said Heartlines’ chief executive Garth Japhet.
The film forms part of a larger campaign which will include roadshows and resources based on the film distributed to communities across the country.
The aim of the campaign is to get South Africans to review their attitudes to money.
• To see the trailer go to i-lincc. code starmahala1