We all have a story to tell; the truth is defined merely by our perspective. Paying homage to the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, South African filmmaker Nosipho Dumisa dives headfirst into the crime thriller genre with her arresting debut feature, Number 37.
A tale of desperation, love, and greed, Number 37 follows Randal (Irshaad Ally) a criminal confined to his apartment after a drug deal leaves him crippled. Terrified and unable to pay back a vicious loan shark named Emmie (Danny Ross), Randal’s sole salvation is his girlfriend Pam (Monique Rockman) and the pair of binoculars she gifts him. Desperate to come up with the money to pay back Emmie, Randal hatches a deadly plan that puts himself, Pam, and everyone else in his Cape Town housing project at risk. Ahead of the film's premiere at SXSW, I chatted with Dumisa about bringing her magnificent story to the big screen.
For Dumisa, Hitchcock's 1954 classic Rear Window and the government housing projects sprinkled across Cape Town sparked the idea of Number 37. "I just knew that this was the perfect area to reimagine one of my favorite films," she explained. “[In Number 37] Randal is not an innocent photographer. Randal is the architect of his own problems, and he’s stuck in a world that has sought to define him by his background. Therefore, he feels locked in and without options, but we always have options."
Dumisa has always been attracted to imperfect characters. "They feel more dynamic and tangible," she explained. "They also set the perfect foundation for a redemptive story. As an outsider to this world myself, I wanted to see things from Randal’s perspective. He’s a man who has carved out a path of survival because he had to, but he knows there’s something better -- he just can’t access it."
While she conceived her characters, Dumisa was careful not to criticize them, no matter what decisions they chose to make. "I do not judge Randal Hendricks nor do I believe that he is making good choices," she said. “He is simply making the choices that he knows are available to him. I am frustrated with him, but I care and root for him and his girlfriend, Pam, to make it out alive!"
Though the film moves at a rapid pace, bringing Number 37 to life was a long journey for Dumisa. "One of the story creators, Daryne Joshua had this concept in his bag of tricks for many years," she said. “I first made it as a short film back in 2014. That was the beginning of working on the script. After completing the short film, I began to work on the feature film script. So, I suppose I worked on it for three years, but it was many years of mulling it over in our minds."
Casting the film correctly was vital for Dumisa. She wanted to be sure her actors could step into Number 37’s gritty tone. "Irshaad Ally (Randal) was actually part of the short film," she revealed. "He had starred in a very popular local film called Four Corners and had quite the following locally. I was audacious enough to ask him to audition for the short film. It’s a credit to his humility that he did it and when he wasn’t actually cast as Randal, the character he wanted, still wanted to work with me and my team. Fast forward to a few years later when his celebrity status had grown, and it came time to make the feature film; I asked him to re-audition again. I knew that there was nothing that he wouldn’t do to truly create a multi-layered Randal. He wasn’t going to be afraid of playing an imperfect and at times, unlikeable protagonist."
Dumisa continued, "As for Monique Rockman (Pam), she came on board at the very last minute and was truly sent from the heavens. The role had been filled for some time and I’d seen Monique come in for other roles, which just weren’t right for her. Fatefully, the role of Pam opened up about a month before production had to start. I thought of Monique and when she came in to audition for Pam, she had me at hello. There’s equal strength and vulnerability in her that I knew would work for Pam. Her natural chemistry with Irshaad was so palpable in the audition room, and as production went on, it just strengthened."
Pam, in particular, is such an important character. Though she’s Randal’s girlfriend, she has agency and her own motives – Dumisa doesn’t let her flounder in the background. "Of all the characters I was creating, Pam on screen is exactly what I wanted her to be," she said thoughtfully. "In the film, she is Randal’s conscience and the only thing he loves more than his plans and dreams for glory. She loves beyond what most people could comprehend and gives all of herself. I knew that this is who this character needed to be – in a way she is a compilation of so many women in my life whom I respect and love, but whose grace I’m not sure I could ever emulate."
A striking film, Dumisa refused to shy away from the brutalities that come with crime and poverty without oversaturating her story with blood and gore. "This was difficult because I actually think we’ve become so desensitized to violence on screen," she stated. “I was aware of this and wanted to only ever show gore when absolutely necessary. The world in which this narrative is set has wonderful communities, but it is also riddled with gang violence. It required sensitivity, especially because we were filming on location. We had to balance the weight of people’s expectations and hopes, with authenticity. There are maybe only four acts of violence that we witness, beyond the odd punches and collar grabbing – each at a very crucial point of the film. However, their impact is powerful. I don’t believe in using gore and violence for the sake of it, each time it’s used it must mean something or else it loses its impact. For me, it’s imperative to tell stories about real people in extraordinary circumstances. Through genre films, I’m able to entertain and thrill while hopefully exploring important themes that confront us as a society today."
As Randal sits in his wheelchair peering out on the Cape Flats neighborhood through his binoculars the audience sees the world through his perspective – not an easy task for cinematographer Zenn van Zyl. "Zenn and I knew we wanted to feel like we were seeing everything from Randal’s perspective," Dumisa revealed. "There were times when I would block out an entire sequence and have to communicate with the actors from outside. We can’t hear what’s being said so it was crucial that we understood the narrative purely based on what we could see. It was like a lot of mini-theatre pieces. The art department was marvelous, and Zenn is very intuitive as a cinematographer. He literally handled the camera as though it was a pair of binoculars."
The decision to make Number 37 in Afrikaans was not an easy choice for Dumisa, but it felt most genuine to the story she was trying to tell. "I am actually Zulu, and the Afrikaans language carries some very negative connotations for my people due to historical oppression," she expressed. "This was not a simple decision for me. The film was originally written in English but the more my creative partners at Gambit Films and I worked on it, the more we knew that English was the wrong choice – the subculture portrayed is predominantly Afrikaans speaking and some things just can’t be translated properly to English. Even the Afrikaans used is unique to this particular area of Cape Town. I wanted authenticity above all."
As a young Black female filmmaker, Dumisa certainty had her work cut out for her as she was bringing Number 37 to life. "I was essentially an outsider to the world being portrayed," she stressed. "Perhaps had I been making a romantic comedy or drama some people would not have struggled with my role as much. People assumed that one of my male partners would be directing the film, despite the fact that I had written the script, co-directed the short film, and pitched the treatment that they all loved. Even directing on set was a challenge. I worked with one or two crew members who struggled with my authority and felt no shame in repeatedly comparing me to my male counterparts. I’m pretty tough though, and I believed in my vision wholeheartedly. It also helped tremendously that my producers and business partners always had my back. My Director of Photography and other crew whom I’ve worked with for years were incredible! As a woman in this industry, you have to work a little harder to be viewed as equal -- it’s unfortunate."
Number 37 premieres March 10, 2018, at SXSW.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami