“The Umbrella Men” Making Waves After 13 Years of Gestation
For director and scriptwriter, John Barker, 2023 has been a year of accolades for “The Umbrella Men.” This has included a South African Film & Television Awards for Best Achievement in Scriptwriting, as well as an audience award in London. Barker says, “We closed the Joburg Film Festival and received a standing ovation which was really heartfelt and beautiful.”
When the film was screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) all the actors were there and they felt how the audiences loved and responded to the film. He remarks: “You know when you sit in an international audience and they get all the gags and the story beats, it’s pretty special.”
More recently, “The Umbrella Men” has received four nominations for the first-ever National Film and Television Awards South Africa, which is a national award ceremony that’s shown to 20 countries around the world. These include Jacque De Silva for Outstanding Performance, Best Feature Film, Best Director, and Best Producer.
As a film-maker Barker has always been drawn to the heist genre and the script that was thirteen years in the making has taken off like a well-executed heist. Set in the Bo Kaap in Cape Town, during the minstrel carnival, a colourful troupe of musicians are forced to rob a bank.
“I think I’m a terrible writer, which is probably why it took me so long to write,” Barker says.
At one point he went to see Joel Phiri, who was one of the producers on Barker’s first film, “Bunny Chow” and on Phiri’s advice he partnered with Philip Roberts with whom he had a good constructive collaboration.
Barker found Roberts to be very kind and although the script was initially not working, together they developed it, and ultimately made a really good film. Since then, they have done two films together.
“It is an amazing relationship that we have and originally I didn’t think it was going to work,” Barker opines.
By teaming up with Philip Roberts, what had taken Barker around thirteen years, came into being in just three months.
Barker remarks, “Philip added a great layer of setting up beats and playing them off and he is just a really clever writer and a great collaborator. For me, it’s all about the chemistry. We were very lucky and now we’re writing another film. We’re on our third film in two years. We’re almost at a point where we have another full script on another completely different story and together, we’re developing an interesting style of working.”
Barker’s father, Clive Barker was the well-known South African football coach who guided the South African national team Bafana Bafana to their only African Nations Cup title in 1996.
“Our family’s kind of weird because we’re like half artists and half sports people,” the younger Barker reveals.
The complexity of family dynamics that “The Umbrella Men” dramatizes is akin to Barker’s lived experiences. “” The Umbrella Men” is a family story where the character feels that he’s better or different to his father, goes to Johannesburg and realises that he’s not and comes back and reconnects with his family and what he’s supposed to be doing in his life. I think to a degree there’s probably a lot of my life in there. Also, I think that the heist and breaking into places is very much what I did as a kid, I was very naughty. I thought everything was a game.”
Barker feels that currently the South African film industry is doing very well. He says: “We’ve had the stories all the time, but we just haven’t been able to get there. But now we’re making money back for the investors and everyone involved. That’s key. Also, our stories are resonating overseas because people want content, and they want new stories.”
He points out that well known genres, by being filmed in South Africa, are set in new locations and audiences get to see new communities of which they weren’t previously aware.
Streamers are and will continue to impact South African filmmaking in that they are creating a demand. “Where previously there was no demand, now the streamers want the content. They want to give you money to make a sequel or encourage you to have a spate of films,” he says.
Singing the praises of streaming further, Barker says, “Distribution represents a lot of the stress that you don’t need as a filmmaker. if you’re writing and directing and you want to create, you don’t want to have your dreams smashed because it’s too hard to get to America and to raise the money. That can take a lot of people out of the game, and you don’t want that. You want people to be getting better at writing and better at directing so that we make films that stand out.”
Whether with an opened or closed umbrella, one can only hope that Barker continues to click his heels, and swagger along as he makes his indelible mark in the South African film milieu