JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Late on a recent chilly autumn night, Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford faced a mob of black South African actors preparing to burn the Union Jack.
"OK," Beresford said, patiently imparting a few spare words of direction for the scene in his new comedy, "A Good Man in Africa." "You burn the flag and then you go on chanting."
But, to Beresford's surprise, one of the South African extras objected. "No, sir," he said, "when we burn flags, we always stamp and whistle."
"I didn't realize there was a protocol for this," the director said.
"Oh, yes," replied the extra. "You've got to get it right."
So the director of the Oscar-winning "Driving Miss Daisy" gracefully bowed to the wisdom of his extras, men who learned civil disobedience in South Africa's roiling townships and not in acting schools or on sound stages. "They just did what they always did," Beresford said later, chuckling at the memory. "It's great having a mob that knows what to do."
Working on location in South Africa certainly has its advantages. But it also has posed a few problems for "A Good Man in Africa," the first major international film to be shot here since the cultural boycott of Pretoria ended two years ago.
The $20-million film, to be distributed by Universal's Gramercy Pictures, is based on William Boyd's novel of the same name. It stars Australian actor Colin Friels as Morgan Leafy, a hapless British diplomat, and features an ensemble cast that includes Sean Connery as a Scottish doctor, John Lithgow as a British ambassador, Louis Gossett Jr. as a corrupt African foreign minister and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as his wife.
During the three-month shoot, which is about to wrap, producers have had to grapple with a few unexpected obstacles. National political protest strikes shut down the set for two days, causing division between black crew members who wanted to join the strike and white South Africans who wanted to keep working.
"Lloyd's (of London) was hysterical," said producer Mark Tarlov, who presented the insurance company with a $120,000 bill, which it eventually paid, for the lost time.
Then there were the lingering economic sanctions against South Africa, which forced producers to buy their Kodak film at premium prices through an intermediary, and 10 days of nationwide riots and protests that followed the April 10 assassination of black leader Chris Hani by a white man.
"It's all been a bit of a worry," Beresford admitted. "It might've been better, with all the tension here, to have shot the film elsewhere."
During the early days of shooting, three black robbers were killed by police at a grocery store next to the Sandton Sun, the luxury hotel in Johannesburg's northern suburbs where most of the crew is staying. And one black protest march, watched by armed white right-wing extremists, passed within a hundred yards of the house where lead actor Friels and his 5-year-old son, Jack, were staying.
Just reading the letters to the editor columns of the local paper was enough to curl Beresford's already curly hair. "I don't think I'd ever encountered real right-wingers," he said. "You read those letters and it's really quite scary. If I put that stuff into a script, nobody would believe it."
To be sure, South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world these days. The murder rate in Johannesburg is higher than in Washington. The level of political tension is high too, with township violence and the latest round of labored black-white negotiations creating a pervasive feeling of uncertainty.
Most of the political turmoil, though, is centered in the townships, far from the set. And, except for work stoppages and the morning headlines, the cast and crew have been isolated from the trouble, as are most white South Africans.
"We're not trying to teach anybody lessons about Africa," said Tarlov, who is producing the picture with his partner, John Fiedler, of their New York-based Polar Entertainment. "This film is not political. It's a comedy. But to come here and not be doing a movie about apartheid was something of a revelation to people here. Everybody comes here so dead-on serious."
Indeed, "A Good Man in Africa" is a comedy, adapted for the screen by Boyd from his sharply funny novel of post-colonial Africa. Friels plays Leafy, a hapless, hard-drinking 35-ish British diplomat stuck in Nkongsamba, capital of the fictional West African country of Kinjanja.
Leafy labors painfully under Arthur Fanshawe (Lithgow), the spineless British High Commissioner who despises Africa and Africans with rich colonial disdain and longs for a posting in Washington or Paris. Fanshawe's dream, though, depends on his ability to ingratiate himself to Sam Adekunle (Gossett), the suave Kinjanjan foreign minister.
Gossett's Adekunle, with his shaved head, dark sunglasses, Savile Row suits and gold Rolex watch, reeks of political power (not to mention ill-gotten gains) and the British are deeply intimidated by him.