Leon Schuster: Mad Buddy of SA film
28 June 2012
It is illogical that one man dominates the South African movie scene with such
unbridled ferocity. This man is Leon Schuster.
He has delivered one blockbuster after another without an ounce of CGI, or
international input, and heís made a mint while doing it. Letís put things in
perspective. Schusterís most recent film, Schuks Tshabalala's Survival Guide to
(2010), made a whopping R37.4-million at the box office.
It continued a trend that started in 2001 with his monster hit Mr Bones
movies are so popular that they have even out-grossed mainstream Hollywood
franchises Harry Potter
and James Bond
'Give the people what they want'
Like pioneering comedy auteur Jamie Uys, Schusterís philosophy is simple: give the
people what they want. So he has perfected a brand of comedy that is slapstick in
nature and candid camera at heart.
He started with the
You Must Be Joking
films of the 1980s and went on to
develop a broad burlesque style typified in later films like Panic Mechanic
(1997) and Millennium Menace
With distinctive stereotyping and hi-octane pranks, he has consistently poked fun at
South Africans regardless of class or race.
His relentless social commentary has probed our national identity, relative culture
and disparate heritage, and this with the wholesome impunity of a medieval court
But more than this, keeping it simple has meant an ear to the ground for his
audienceís tastes and desires: arresting situations, lovable stock characters, un-PC
shenanigans and ridiculous romps.
This magic touch has been with Schuster since childhood.
Schuster was drawn to filmmaking as a boy when he and his brother would film
practical jokes played on friends and family with a home movie camera.
it was pranks and dress up, and strictly just for a laugh. From family
lounge to national stage, it was simply a matter of scale, and time. As he has grown,
so has his audience. Whatís more, they are loyal to a fault.
Schuster is clear about the reasons behind his success. "I think itís a matter of
knowing your audience. I donít deal with high and mighty people," he says with
"Iím chommies with the okes who tell stories in pubs. Those are the people of this
world, the ordinary oke walking the streets of Gauteng or the Free State and my
rugby chommies with whom I grew up in Bloemfontein. Those okes tell me what they
From pub to page, his brand of filmmaking is a business, not an art. And like any
thriving business, it is defined and sustained by a ready market.
'Making the issues easier to talk about'
It would be true to say that his fans (until fairly recently) have been white and
Afrikaans. But this is
the sociopolitical landscape into which he was born and in
which he grew to professional maturity, so his comedy is designed to their
What more can one expect from a court jester? In talking to his audience on their
level, he makes the issues easier to talk about Ė for them and for us.
If one were to remove the sociopolitical dimension, Schuster might sit comfortably
alongside irreverent social commentators like Franceís Coluche or the Italian Lino
Banfi, beyond more obvious comparisons to the lowbrow Farrelly brothers (Thereís
Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber
) or the likes of Adam Sandler and
But Schuster has not held a mirror to ordinary (white, Afrikaans) folk. He has also
been custodian to their fears and dreams. In fact, he takes this as an injunction to
entertain, and he has been doing this consistently, if not consciously.
There's a Zulu on My Stoep
Letís roll back the
clock a little. "I ventured into something that was very
risky with Thereís a Zulu on My Stoep
(1993), with characters who didnít like
each other because of apartheid history," he says.
Released on the cusp of South Africaís transition to democracy, Thereís a Zulu on
was an astute examination of racist attitudes of the time.
Ironically, it might not sit as easily with us now in these dark days of self-righteous
opprobrium. But remember for a moment that Chris Hani was assassinated in 1993.
The country was in no way resolved about its future as many of us may have
forgotten in the rainbow haze.
With Thereís a Zulu on My Stoep
, Schuster broke with his past. He found
traction with black audiences. They attend his film in droves now, but then it was
new, and what he wanted.
"My biggest reward is not an award, it has been sitting in movie
theatres where I see mixed audiences Ė black kids, white kids, black
mamas, people Ė all together," he says. "
"Itís a matter of unifying the nation on a very small scale. To get different
demographic groups together in one theatre is a very satisfying prize and Mad
Buddies is tuned in that direction."
"Again," one might add. So he seems to be attempting to move the (white) masses
along despite pervading suspicion and fear. And what better tool to use than comedy
where only the fictional people get hurt?
So is Mad Buddies
a departure? Perhaps.
The story is about two larger-than-life characters, Boetie (Schuster) and Beast
(Kenneth Nkosi), both dedicated anti-poaching officers. The backstory is a botched
mission where they cause each other physical harm and become mortal foes.
Years later, Boetie encounters Beast at the wedding of the daughter of the minister
of tourism, Mda (Alfred Ntombela), and they expunge their mutual anger, only to ruin
the wedding. Of course!
To save face and prevent a media frenzy over a 'racial incident', the minister
instructs the wretched duo to walk across the country. This will be an exemplary
feat of racial harmony.
They duly trek from KwaZulu-Natal to Gauteng with endless mishaps. What Boetie
and the Beast donít know is that the trip is being filmed as a TV reality show by a
conniving producer (Tanit Phoenix) and that the whole of South Africa is in on the
joke. When they discover theyíve been conned they join forces to
So the question begs: Do we need to see exercises in racial harmony 18 years into
democracy? Schuster clearly believes we do. Knowing that he has his finger on the
pub and grub pulse, he may well be right.
Schuster as himself
There is another interesting shift. Audiences will know Schuster best 'in character' Ė
as a prophesying white sangoma in Mr Bones
or in black drag in Mama
In Mad Buddies
he plays a real person, sans dress up. As a foil to his real
Boetie, Schuster has found a new comedy partner in Kenneth Nkosi, best known for
his hilarious role in White Wedding
(2009) Ė and for serious roles in
Gazílam, Tsotsi, Jerusalema
and District 9
Schuster consigns long-time co-star and diminutive funny man Alfred
Ntombela to the supporting cast, as the stereotypical minister, thus leaving the
space open for a 'real' relationship with Nkosi.
Incidentally, Schuster and Ntombela's pairing spans seven years, including Oh
Schuks Iím Gatvol
(2004) and Mama Jack
(2005), since their first film
together, Oh Shucks! Here Comes Untag (1989).
Schuster is moving with the times, and moving his audience along with him: Ntombela
to Nkosi, stereotypes make way for real characters; broader perspective means
broader appeal. Itís a clever move any way you view
Inspired by Jamie Uys
The inspiration for Mad Buddies
comes from a similar character-pairing.
Hans en die Rooinek
(1961) is an early comedy by Jamie Uys (The Gods
Must be Crazy
) and features a Boer and Brit at loggerheads.
White society then was still coming to terms with the awkward marriage of English
and Afrikaner under apartheid, even if politically there was a greater struggle
emerging between black and white. So this is history repeating itself and Schuster
has made the link.
"Iíve been a great fan of Jamie Uys my whole life and started following his films when
I was six years old, and Hans en die Rooinek
made a particular impact on me,"
"Itís about an Englishman and a 'Boertjie' who couldnít get along and as
punishment they had to walk from Johannesburg to Cape Town and were forced to
bond, but no way could they.
'True to South Africans'
I brought that idea into the new South Africa and a
rainbow nation. The audience will wonder whether or not these guys will ever be
friends," Schuster says.
"They really hate each other Ö but there are moments in the movie when they
inadvertently get close; they are alone on the road, so who can they talk to? As
they get closer and closer the audience will think, 'Come on, please shake hands, itís
high time already.' Then bam, something happens and they are off on a tangent."
Does this not sound unbearably familiar? Are we not confronted with this narrative
daily, in life, in the media, in our hearts? The court jester, at work.
Nkosi picks up on this: "As South Africans we can all see ourselves in this movie
because it is true to us. Iím a black South African and Boetieís a white South African
and we have our differences, but in this movie itís a case of how do you use those
differences to get together instead of using them to
Schuster first noticed Nkosi's comedic abilities in what he calls "the great local brew
movie" White Wedding
"I observed the way he can play with his face, and get aggro, so there wasnít even
another actor in my mind. We didnít audition anyone, and we gave the part to
Kenneth cold," he says.
"When you write your own script you already see the person, maybe not the face,
but you know that he has to have a fat gut, be bulky, and have a funny face."
What Schuster is not saying is that Nkosi also has a vulnerable streak. This is a
healthy quality for any enduring (and endearing) clown, but it is also a must for any
real character of depth.
Most surprising is Mad Buddies'
link to Disney. The international studio has
acquired the rights to distribute the film worldwide, under the Touchstone Pictures
banner. It is the first distribution rights
acquisition of a South African film for Disney.
Producer Helena Spring knew that Schuster was a solid commercial brand when she
was looking for film financing.
"Disney is about family entertainment and so is Schuster, and we were offering a
project to which they could relate, with solid comedic and commercial audience
appeal," she says.
This is something that Schuster never dreamed of. "I still donít know exactly how it
happened," he recalls.
"When Helena said that there was a possibility that Disney might come on board I
nearly fell on my back! It was like a dream come true but she said, ĎNo, donít get
excited - letís wait and see what happens.í They asked for DVD copies of my four
recent movies, and the Mad Buddies
script, and then they came back and
said they will join us."
Whether all of this keeps Schuster at the top of his game remains to be seen. But
when one considers his creative acumen, and decades of getting it
seems destined to do exactly that. As well as add to his fortunes as the most reputable film brand in South Africa.
Anton Burggraaf is an executive producer at Ochre Moving Pictures and lover of all things good. He writes in his personal capacity.
This article was first published by the Gauteng Film Commission. Republished here with kind permission.