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Katzen blazes a trail in comedy that’s pure Jozi



Soweto Blaze, a South African action comedy is doing well on Netflix. The SA Jewish Report speaks to its director and writer, Brad Katzen, to find out more.

What inspired you to write and direct Soweto Blaze?

I wanted to make a film set in South Africa that I would want to watch, something that didn’t concern itself with an agenda or a self-serious message of poverty porn, just a fun, entertaining, light-hearted story that explores quirky characters in quirky situations, which was something I felt was lacking in the local cinematic landscape when I started putting this project together.

How would you describe it?

Soweto Blaze is a hyper-stylised stoner-comedy set amidst Soweto’s vibrant streets in South Africa. It’s about a small-time pot dealer whose dreams go up in smoke when his clueless friends sweep him up into a wacky kidnapping caper, and their fiery hostage, a feisty young woman, flips the script on them with her own plans.

The film has no agenda other than to entertain with a strong South African flavour, a healthy dose of romance, humour, and spectacle, and maybe to show that getting high sometimes can be a fun time.

I wanted to showcase characters that are eager to better themselves and improve their life situation. It doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of South African life, but embraces it, giving us a fun, tongue-in-cheek glimpse into a group of larger-than-life, quirky characters doing whatever they can to get by in the urban jungle of Jozi.

The film had its international world premiere at the Austin Film Festival 2023 as official selection, and is enjoying a fruitful run on the international film-festival circuit, playing around the world, including in Berlin and Toronto.

What audience are you are trying to appeal to, and what’s the message of the film (if any)?

We’re appealing to anyone looking for something a bit different, stoner youth culture, and supporters of indie and international cinema.

One of the goals of making Soweto Blaze was to infuse the film with a youthful energy and optimism that reinforces positive themes of self-improvement, friendship, and love. It’s something all audiences can embrace, especially as a pleasant distraction from some of the more sombre world events happening around us.

The overall message is that with enough drive and motivation, you can better your situation and achieve your goals with the right people beside you, no matter where you come from. It’s a familiar story told in a – hopefully – unique way.

How did you select the actors? What were you looking for specifically?

There was an extensive casting process to bring together an ensemble of performers such that there’s almost no single lead character – every character in the film has something unique or quirky about them to make them memorable.

What drew you to this career? When did you know this was what you wanted to do?

I’ve been dreaming about making films since I could talk. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I blame my father, who was a huge movie buff. I was that cliché in high school, dragging my friends back to my house to make shitty home movies every weekend! Filmmaking is a medium that encompasses every other art form – prose, music, performance, photography – and the idea of being able to bring those elements together in a cohesive way to tell a story just tickled me pink.

You’ve won awards for your productions. What have you won, and what was it like?

I’ve been fortunate enough that some of my work has been recognised in delightful ways across a myriad of international festivals. The more noteworthy include a short film I wrote, directed, and edited, The Beginning, which was featured at the Cannes Film Festival Short Film Corner 2015. The Mzansi film Stick-Up won Best TV Movie at the SAFTAs (South African Film and Television Awards) 2017, and my first feature film, a horror film called The Domestic, which was bought by Amazon Prime and is streaming on the platform, won the Dark Matters Jury Award at the Austin Film Festival 2022, and Best Music and Best Actor at ScreamFest 2022.

Soweto Blaze is showing on Netflix to an international audience. How did this happen?

My script, Soweto Blaze, was selected out of more than 200 submissions to go into production following a Netflix-NFVF (National Film and Video Foundation) talent-search initiative for upcoming filmmakers after the COVID-19 pandemic. Made on a low-budget of just R4 million, the film was shot in 2022, while an extensive post-production concluded in 2023. The film was a labour of love for all involved and a testament to the resourcefulness of all local creative industries.

What response have you had for Soweto Blaze so far, and from whom?

The response has been very encouraging. Within the first week of release, we made the Netflix top 10, and the film has played at a variety of international festivals, including the Austin Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Comedy Vanguard Award. It’s enjoying a fruitful international film festival run around the world.

Tell us a bit about your career to date. How did it start, and what have you done to get to this point?

It’s been a lot of writing and networking. After studying film and screenwriting at AFDA and the University of the Witwatersrand, I began working in the industry as a researcher and editor in post-production, where I met and partnered with my producer, Shaun Naidoo, and we started a production company 33 Films. From there, we collaborated on a short film, and after the positive response from that – at Cannes and other festivals – we got the attention of M-Net and Mzansi Magic, which allowed us to make a film. The recognition from that film – the SAFTA awards and so on – pushed us to make our first feature.

Alas, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that feature project fell away at the last second. But from the ashes, the money we had saved for it allowed me to double-down and write a feature film that could be done on a smaller scale which ended up being The Domestic. That also got some festival recognition, and after selling it to Amazon, got us in the door to meet Netflix, which got us to Soweto Blaze.

What has been your most incredible moment in your career to date?

My first day on set directing my first feature film. It was a surreal moment that was the culmination of nearly 20 years of dreaming and wishing.

And the worst?

My first day on set directing my first feature film! The mix of terror and excitement in rallying a crew to tell a story of my own invention was a wild time. Not to mention the fact that it rained that very day and our entire location and equipment got flooded. And we were shooting in my sister’s house. She wasn’t impressed. It was a good start to production.

What does being a part of the Jewish community mean to you?

It allowed me to have a Barmitzvah, which still haunts me to this day. Also a helpful community of friends and family, which has been a pillar of support without which I wouldn’t be where I am today. I cherish 99% of them.

How, if at all, has being Jewish had an impact on your life and career?

Big time. It allowed me to kick-start my career, as one of my earliest projects was partially funded through a mysterious benefactor whom I wouldn’t have had access to, if it weren’t for my Jewishness. I thank Hashem every day for my circumcised life.

What’s next for you?

I’m developing my next feature film with Amazon, which is co-financing the project, and a slate of other projects with Netflix.

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