INSPIRED by the work of Quentin Tarantino, Jason Staggie wrote his first full-feature screenplay when he was a 16-year-old schoolboy at Groote Schuur High School in Newlands, Cape Town. He didn’t show it to anyone, not even the "great" English teacher who recognised his talent for writing and repeatedly urged him to make more of it.
"I didn’t know how to go about writing a screenplay; how to set it out or structure it. So the play was really just handwritten dialogue with lots of dashes, colons and semi-colons," Staggie says. "But I knew I wanted to write and make movies. I wanted to be Tarantino."
Thirteen years on, Staggie’s dream remains largely intact. Sure, he’s outgrown the fantasy of "being Tarantino", but having studied directing and screen-writing at the Prague Film School in the Czech Republic, he’s as determined as ever to make movies. And, with a full-length documentary Hard Livings, which tells the story of his twin uncles, Rashaad and Rashied Staggie about a quarter done, he’s well on his way. Rashaad was shot and burnt by Pagad (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs) in 1996 and Rashied will be released on parole on September 24, having been found guilty of arranging the kidnapping and rape of a teenage girl in 2003.
What Staggie didn’t imagine as a teenager, however, was that he’d one day also be a novelist; Risk was published earlier this year. He’s already almost one-third into the second one, called Epic, and has mapped out plans for a third, which he hopes to write next year. And he’s done all this while teaching English every night, and working towards an honours degree in psychology part time.
"In fact, all I ever wanted to do was make movies," he says, having described the many things he’s achieved in 29 years. "But my family didn’t take me seriously. They thought making movies was something ‘other people’ do. My parents wanted me to get a degree. I began studying law at the University of Cape Town (UCT) but, halfway into my first year, changed to psychology. I never imagined practising as a psychologist but I find the subject interesting and reasoned that it would help me create better characters when I began making movies."
After completing his degree in 2005, Staggie went to Ireland, where he helped raise funds for Oxfam for a while. While there, he met some filmmakers who’d studied at the Prague Film School and spoke highly of the courses offered.
"It’s a pretty exclusive school and the fees are high but I liked how focused and practical its approach is. I came back to South Africa, did a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) course, and headed off to South Korea to teach English and save until I could afford to attend film school."
Saving wasn’t as easy as he’d hoped but Staggie had a contingency plan. While in Korea, he wrote several screenplays, one of which he sent to Prague along with an application for a scholarship. His determination paid off and he was granted a bursary to study directing and screenwriting.
"It was then, when I knew I had a place at the school that I began working on Risk. I had a few months to kill before the course began and I’d had the idea of the game (featured in the book) while at university. I discussed my thoughts with my girlfriend at the time and she encouraged me to start writing."
The first draft — written in long hand — was complete within about three months. Staggie found the process of writing something unhampered by the three-act structure discipline required by screen-writing wonderfully freeing.
Set in and around UCT, Risk is a fast-paced transgressive novel about a young man called Nelson and his group of debauched friends who, drunk and drugged to the eyeballs, play a real-life game of risk. Transgressive fiction is a genre in which characters express their frustrations with the expectations and norms of society. Popular authors in this category include Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange).
At first the game involves "missions" such as sleeping with prostitutes without protection and navigating ganglands without a phone or money. Eventually it evolves into something of a social movement, which extends across the continent. "I wanted to comment on what it is like living in Africa in an extreme, transgressive way. I wasn’t being subtle. The characters, like many young Africans, are confused and bored. I felt that as a student, so yes, some of it is autobiographical. Youngsters want to make a difference but don’t know how to go about it. I wanted to ask real questions; questions which don’t really have answers yet," says Staggie.
He dedicated Risk to his mother, Cheryl, a teacher, who removed him and his siblings from the drama surrounding his uncles and focused on getting them educated. Solomon, Staggie’s father, is serving time for kidnapping and murder: "Ja, I didn’t have the best male role models but my mother did an incredible job."
Having edited the manuscript, he sent it to several agents in the US — "I wrote it with an international readership in mind" — while still in South Korea. Nothing came of his submissions and it was only when he returned to South Africa after having completed his studies in Prague that Staggie gave the manuscript to a local publisher.
"Umuzi got it immediately. I loved working with the team there. It was a collaborative effort to edit the book for SA and, although I’d still love to see an international version published, it’s exciting to have it out. I’m also pleased it has helped draw attention to my documentary, which is something of a challenge to finance."
With film school behind him, Staggie was pleased to find that his family finally took his ambitions to be a filmmaker seriously and agreed to work with him on the Hard Livings project. It’s been difficult though, with Rashied in prison, to finalise the movie, which has the backing of the National Film and Video Foundation. Up until now, he’s worked closely with another uncle, Achmat Staggie, on the project.
"I wasn’t expecting my uncle (Rashied) to be let out on parole so soon and it means my focus is going to change now. I’m planning to end my teaching contract (with EF Englishtown, which provides English lessons to students across the world via Skype) in November and focus on the documentary, which will look at what is happening in Cape Town regarding the gangs and then track back to where my uncles came from.
"I expect to include snapshots of my uncle (Rashied) coming out of prison, and interacting with society and trying to work against gangster-ism. Then I will track the documentary back to my original idea of the portrait of their lives as they grew up and how everything happened. I think the project is going to be even better with him coming out and finally, I will make my movie."