Hollywood wedding movies are about as predictable as a white dress: Take two pretty young people, throw in a few wacky family members, and cap everything off with a big dance party.
But change the film's setting to Cape Town and Johannesburg, and cast it with all the colors of the South African rainbow, and familiar film tropes take on new shades of meaning.
That's what Jann Turner and Kenneth Nkosi do in their film White Wedding, which premiered in South Africa last year and opens in the U.S. this September. The pair co-wrote the movie, along with Rapulana Seiphemo; Turner directed, while Nkosi and Seiphemo co-starred respectively as Elvis, the groom-to-be, and his best friend and best man, Tumi.
Elvis and Tumi spend much of the movie racing to Cape Town, where Elvis is scheduled to marry his sweetheart, Ayanda (Zandie Msutwana). Along the way, they pick up a British tourist named Rose (Jodie Whittaker), who has come to South Africa to forget about a broken engagement.
Two black men driving across South Africa with a white woman in tow raises a few eyebrows. But according to Nkosi, not all South Africans would have the same reaction to this sight.
"Things are different in different provinces," he tells NPR's Michele Norris. In Johannesburg, for example, he could easily "walk around here holding hands with Jann, black and white, no problems. But you get deeper [into] rural South Africa, and people look at you very strangely."
Nkosi and his partners didn't want to sugarcoat this reality: "We thought to ourselves, we have a problem like this in South Africa. It is there. And we want to make it part of this movie." The trick, though, was incorporating racial conflict into White Wedding "without having to [make] it preachy, and talk about apartheid and how horrible it is," Nkosi says.
The film examines other sorts of tension as well. Ayanda and her mother, for example, disagree about her marriage ceremony: Ayanda wants a sophisticated modern wedding in a high-end Cape Town neighborhood, while her mother wishes she would stick to their culture's traditions and throw a daylong township event.
These scenes ring especially true for Nkosi, who knows a thing or two about the generational divide.
"I just got married recently, all right? And I had to have this traditional wedding," complete with hundreds of guests and a cow that made its entrance under its own power but soon became a central part of the menu. But after the traditional ceremony, Nkosi says, he and his wife had their own, contemporary-style "white wedding" -- a term that refers both to the bridal dress and to the Eurocentric norms that influenced it.
"You've got to be able to cater for everybody," he explains. "But it is true, it is real; there's always going to be the older and the younger conflict in terms of stuff like that."
'The Real South Africa'
The filmmakers chose to focus their story on "ordinary people struggling with ordinary issues," Turner says, "rather than with huge political issues and huge social issues" like the legacy of apartheid and the economic divides in contemporary South Africa. Those grander problems do make supporting appearances in White Wedding. "But it's much more about ordinary people trying to navigate ... within that and through that."
As Nkosi says, "We wanted to show South Africa, the real South Africa, and how it is right now."
First and foremost, that meant making sure their characters speak like real South Africans, shifting fluidly back and forth -- mid-sentence, sometimes even mid-phrase -- among the panoply of languages spoken by its wildly diverse populace.
"One of the first decisions we made, kind of categorically, was that there was no way we were going to have everybody in this film speak English, because it simply wouldn't reflect how South Africans talk to one another," Turner explains.
"We've got 11 official languages," Nkosi notes.
Which is why English, French, Afrikaans, Xhosa and more make appearances in White Wedding. And while many of the characters have many of them in common, there's not always one lingua franca.
"South Africans use language to include and exclude each other," Turner continues. "Translation jokes and misunderstandings are part of our day-to-day, and so they're very much there in the film."
The choice wasn't merely about authentic representation; it was also about authentic performances. Some of South Africa's best actors speak multiple languages, Turner notes -- but English isn't necessarily their first. And "you don't get a performance out of an actor who's speaking in their third language like you get out of them if they're speaking in their first language," the director says.
'My Mother Would've Killed Me'
Members of the White Wedding team drew upon their own experiences to give their film authenticity. Before making the movie, Turner, Nkosi, and Rapulana Seiphemo took a road trip together. At one point, Seiphemo went to use the bathroom at a rural rest stop -- only to find that the restroom still had a "Whites Only" sign on its door.
Something similar happens to Elvis, Tumi and Rose in the film when they stop at a roadside tavern far removed from the urban melting pots of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Though the lingering reality it depicts is ugly, Nkosi believes shooting that scene may have been cathartic -- especially for the small-town residents who appear in it as extras.
"We helped them talk, and those people started chatting and talking about this whole situation of race," he says.
And simply discussing racial issues can still be surprisingly hard for many individual South Africans, despite all the public grappling the nation has done with its past. Nkosi was born in Soweto in the early 1970s -- and "back then," he recalls, "my mother would've killed me if I'd actually even said anything about stuff like that."
Now, he and his partners have made it their mission to tell the world about 21st-century South Africa -- and to say a little something, too, about the virtues of openness.
"Me," Nkosi says, "I'm thinking White Wedding says, 'Look at them, meet them -- you might just like them.' "