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Brett Michael Innes on ‘Daryn’s Gym’ and Why South African Comedy Is Flexing its Mockumentary Muscle

Laugh all you want but the success of filmmaker Brett Michael Innes’ first foray into mockumentary territory with “Daryn’s Gym” is part of a growing South African slate flexing its muscles within a comedy genre no longer considered “too refined” for local audiences’ taste.

The Nostalgia Productions mockumentary feature – a David and Goliath battle between the hapless owner of a family gym squaring off against the ruthless owner of a multinational fitness center plotting a takeover – is included in the film lineup currently on show at the 5th Joburg Film Festival with Innes, who served as writer and director, attending.

Made for eVOD, the nascent streamer of the commercial South African broadcaster, Innes tells Variety that on a financing level “Daryn’s Gym” was “one of the easiest things to do” since the gym-set tale was a full commission from eVOD.

“They told us to be bold and risqué, something that excited me as a creative, and working with our commissioning editor, Thabang Phetla, was one of my greatest joys.”

“The main thing we had to fight for was maintaining the tone of the piece, something that we had to push back on when some voices felt the comedy wasn’t evident enough. Fortunately, the team behind this bought into the creative vision and we were able to protect the voice of the film,” Innes says.

Following in the wake of the “Tali’s Diary” mockumentary series produced by Showmax, the streamer of the pan-African pay-TV player MultiChoice, “Daryn’s Gym” helps lift the weight as a growing number of South African viewers who are seeking out comedy content is also looking for more variety within the genre.

Historically South Africa has gravitated toward slapstick when it comes to comedy but if we look at the U.S. and U.K. content that does really well here, mockumentaries like “Parks & Rec,” “The Office” and “Modern Family” are always on top, Innes explains.

“Thabang has the mantra that ‘if you make it, they will come’, something he would always say when people argue that mockumentary comedy is ‘too refined’ for local audiences. All we have to do is point to the wildly popular ‘Tali’s Diary’ as proof that South Africans have a much more varied palate than they are given credit for by the powers that be.”

Innes says eVOD bosses instructed him to go for it and push the envelope, “telling me not to be conservative when it came to the humor and what was shown.”

“South Africans have a filthy sense of humor, so, even with all the pearl-clutching from those who don’t, the proof is found in the fact that people are tuning in to enjoy a naughty joke.”

Innes adds: “Even though the sex and nudity were positioned for comedy, it was important to us that everyone from the cast to the crew, regardless of gender, felt respected and safe, which is why we made use of an intimacy coordinator. This is a very new position in the supply chain, there to help craft sex and nude scenes while also providing accountability and safety for all involved.

“In an industry that has had a terrible track record with abuse when it comes to these things, this is a non-negotiable for me. I encourage all cast, crew and agents to demand that there is one on any set they work on, if not to protect them, then to protect those more vulnerable,” he says.

“The South African film industry is a tricky place – one of incredible opportunity but also incredible challenges. Opportunity-wise, we have some of the best cast and crews in the world and are embracing genres and narratives that go beyond the typical heavy political drama we have grown tired of seeing.”

“Consider films like ‘Fried Barry,’ ‘Gaia,’ ‘Indemnity,’ ‘The Umbrella Men’ and ‘Good Madam’ and imagine them existing 10 years ago. We really have made great strides.”

“Challenge-wise, we have Covid, shrinking budgets, international competition, streaming wars, a decline in cinema attendance and poorly run government institutions designed to support the film industry, all making it more difficult to entertain South Africans and the world.”

On Clifford Joshua Young cast as naïve gym owner, Daryn Jnr., Innes says he gave “an incredibly nuanced dramatic performance.”

“We wanted to ‘play to truth, not a punch line,’ allowing the comedy to exist around the actor and not because they pulled funny-face.”

“This was his first time doing anything at this level so it was really funny to see him at the end of his second day on set where he looked like he’d been slapped in the face. He was not used to the speed at which a film set runs and once he realized he would be sprinting for four weeks, he put on his trainers and owned his space like a boss.”

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