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Mayfair’s Muslim subjects resonate with film’s Jewish director

  • SaraBlecher
A local gangster movie that delves into family relationships and moral ambiguity in the Muslim community is already sparking international attention. So, too, is Sara Blecher, the film’s acclaimed Jewish female director.
by GILLIAN KLAWANSKY | Nov 08, 2018

“It’s funny, I’ve done all these movies about all these different things, and this is the closest to being about me,” Blecher says, of the movie, titled Mayfair, which features a father and son in conflict with one another and with themselves.

“You’d think it would be the one that would be the furthest away. But in making Mayfair, I learned that Jews and Muslims are not so foreign to each other. The way families operate in Jewish society is exactly the same way families operate in Muslim society. The way they think, their world view, and the way they love is the same. This is a story about family, about the relationship between a father and son. They’re exactly the same as us.”

Having already been invited to participate in three global film festivals, including the prestigious BFI London Film Festival, Mayfair is putting the South African film industry in the spotlight. For Blecher, the director behind such critically acclaimed films as Otelo Burning, Ayanda and Dis ek, Anna, Mayfair is the film that most strongly resonates with her own experiences.

Blecher hasn’t had the typical South African Jewish experience, however. “My family emigrated to the United States in 1981, when I was 12,” she says. “I went to high school in New York, and then to NYU film school, which was such a privilege.

“Growing up in New York in the ‘80s is a little bit different from growing up in Greenside in the ‘80s. I think my life took a completely different trajectory because I grew up in New York. It gave me a much more worldly perspective.”

Yet, even after spending her formative years overseas, Blecher chose to come back to South Africa to build her life and career. “My identity and my heart is completely South African,” she says. “I chose to come back and live here because I love this place, and I want to be part of it.”

“Yet recently, Blecher’s been struggling with her South African identity. “It’s all very well to be part of somewhere when that place accepts you, but when you feel rejected, it becomes difficult,” she says. “I’ve been feeling like being white means you’re no longer part of this country. That’s quite difficult to grapple with – especially for a person like me, who came back. The feeling that you’re no longer valid.”

For Blecher, this feeling of displacement was heightened when she was selected to represent South Africa as part of a group of BRICS filmmakers. “I was selected as the woman to represent South Africa, and there was a huge backlash against my selection on the basis that I was white. People felt they shouldn’t select a white woman. It suddenly made me think, if I can’t be South African, who am I?”

Having already explored her Lithuanian roots when she directed the South African version of the BBC genealogy series, Who do you think you are?, Blecher was disillusioned by the home of her ancestors.

“It was the first time I’d ever gone to Lithuania, and it was so awful,” she recalls, “hearing the stories and seeing what had happened to the Jews there. My whole life, I’d kind of felt like that was where I was from, and when I got there, it just wasn’t. So I’m definitely not Lithuanian, I certainly don’t feel American. South Africa is where I’m from.

“But recently, I’ve been asking, ‘Where should I be? What am I?’” A mother of three, Blecher says her two older children have both left South Africa. “They both felt like there was no place for young, white people to get work here. My daughter lives in London, England, and has a fantastic job and my son is working for SpaceX in Los Angeles. For them, it was like, ‘If you don’t want me, I don’t belong here.’ But I’ve got blood here. It’s not so simple.”

For Blecher, being a filmmaker was more of a calling than a logical decision. “You have to have perseverance to succeed in film here, because it’s a very tough industry. What it costs to make films versus what films can earn in South Africa doesn’t match. I keep asking myself why I don’t go and do something else? Why I don’t have a nine-to-five career? But, there’s something in me that has to come out, and the only way to do that is to make films. If I could do something else, I definitely would,” she laughs. “You do it because you can’t not do it.”

As the founder and chairperson of SWIFT (Sisters Working In Film and Television), Blecher is dedicated to empowering other women in the industry. “That’s critical if you live in a country like this, with high levels of violence against women,” she says. “We need more women in the industry, and the only way to accomplish this is to make the industry safer for women.

“People become what they see represented on screens and on TV. We need women to show women taking control of their own lives, not always being victims or objects of sexual pleasure for men. Showing women in a different way is how things change. This country can’t carry on the way it is.”

While her two older children live overseas, Blecher’s younger daughter is still at school. She credits her husband for the parenting support he provides while she pursues a demanding career with frequent travel.

“I wouldn’t manage without him,” she says. “I think for all women, balancing a career and kids is just about how good you are at juggling. It’s not actually possible, but everyone does it because you have to. A marriage needs to be a partnership. That’s got to be the way of the modern world, it can’t be an expectation that it’s just the woman that raises the children.”

Blecher also speaks of the struggles that come with three children living on different continents. “That’s the way of the modern world. I can’t limit their opportunities, so I’ve got to find a way to be in all those places.”

Blecher also emphasises of the importance of family in Judaism. “I’d never do anything to jeopardise my family,” she says. “Being Jewish is my worldview, so of course it has an impact on everything, just like being a woman has an impact on the way you see the world and what you find interesting. So does every part of your life experience, really. The melting pot of all those things come into play.”

“I really do hope I do a film that delves into being Jewish one day,” she says. “Maybe the next one, who knows?”

  • Mayfair is in cinemas now.
  • Pictured: Sara Blecher

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