“Writing something so close to home, yet fictional, was an interesting new challenge,” says screenwriter Gabe Gabriel who wrote and stars in Runs in the Family, directed by his father Ian Gabriel. “While based on my own complex, but positive relationship with my father as a young trans man coming into his own in South Africa, the story had to eventually separate itself from us and become its own magical thing in order to really take off.”
Gabe Gabriel took anecdotes from his life and his real father’s life and the qualities of their relationship. “I infused them into these fictional characters in order to both humanise them and make them interesting and specific and kind of quirky. One of my main goals was to represent something I have in real life but have never seen before in tv and film – a positive father-and-trans son relationship.”
“Runs in the Family marks my first serious acting role since I came out as trans in 2019,” says Gabe. “The first thing I’ll say is what a relief it is to spend all my energy on acting rather than half on the character and half on performing a gender that never felt like it fit me. It was also extremely rewarding to play my first trans role – to portray a trans experience in all of its very specific and beautiful, nuanced complexities.”
“It’s been a joy building ‘Runs in the Family’ as a father-son team, as a director working with my son, Gabe Gabriel (writer, lead actor and second unit director), says Ian Gabriel.
“So far, we’ve never yet seen a representation of a relationship like ours, on film,” says Ian Gabriel. “So we decided to create one. A positive one. A familiar yet untold heartfelt father-son family road trip comedy. Every time you decide to make a film, it’s something new, a rebirth. That is the most promising aspect for any discussion of the filmmaker’s vision: that something new and not seen before will be given the chance to evolve. The magic of film offers up hope for opportunities. We hand the film over to the audience and invite them to see – and hopefully recognise – some of the memories and thoughts of their own life, reimagined, binding us all together in the democratic dreamworld of cinema.”
Runs in the Family is a modern family dramedy with a distinctly human touch that will play as very relevant in today’s social and political landscape where issues of identity, representation and belonging are prevalent topics of discussion across the globe.
The film, which Netflix bills as “warm-hearted” and “irreverent” stars seasoned UK actor Ace Bhatti (Bohemian Rhapsody, East Enders) opposite the writer-actor, Gabe Gabriel, who are joined by household names Diaan Lawrenson (7de Laan, Semi-Soet) and Rob van Vuuren (Ludik, The Umbrella Men), enigmatic newcomer Cleo Wesley, and a handful of familiar film, stage, and TV faces like Khadija Heeger, Faniswa Yisa, Loren Loubser, and Kathleen Stephens.
Apart from the fictional international queen, “Her Vagesty”, played by West-End musical theatre actor Earl Gregory, all the drag artists featured in the film’s climactic drag show can be seen regularly on Cape Town’s popular drag circuit. Notably, one of the country’s top drag talents, Manila von Teez – SA’s Got Talent runner-up, many-time pageant winner, and Haus of Vjorn fashion designer – served not only as a supporting cast member but also as a consultant on all things drag across the film, collaborating with department heads on makeup, hair, wardrobe, performance, and dialogue. The bevvy of local queer icons who grace the screen include the likes of drag queens Ina Propriette and Maxine Wild, pioneering legendary ballroom house, The House of Le Cap, and performance artist, DJ Queezy.
A modest tailor and single Indian dad, Varun (Ace Bhatti) and his transmasculine son, River (Gabe Gabriel) take a road trip across South Africa to break River’s estranged mother, Monica (Diaan Lawrenson), out of a rehab clinic. Father and son bond as Varun recounts his days grifting with Monica and his former best friend Stan (Rob van Vuuren). They climb the border fence into eSwatini and hitch a ride with a kind and fiery stranger, Shaunice (Loren Loubser) who reunites them with Monica. Tensions are high as the dysfunctional new family unit adjusts on their way back home where River is set to compete with his best friend, Ollie (Cleo Wesley), in a drag competition that could win him his gender-affirming surgery. In River’s absence, however, Ollie breaks their leg, dashing their hopes for victory. Monica suggests that Varun take their place as River’s drag partner, and father and son take up the challenge with River training Varun in the ways of drag. But as the competition ramps up, Varun, Stan, and Monica’s shady past catches up with them.
Writing something so close to home yet fictional
“Finding the action of our story and discovering the fictional mother character, Monica, as well as the other weird and wonderful South African characters they meet along the way was where my imagination could really run rampant,” says Gabe. “I think one of the highlights for me of the entire process was watching all of our fantastic actors take their characters to places I never would’ve imagined. Even the drag artists, many of whom I’ve seen perform a hundred times, really elevated their own acts beyond anything I’ve ever seen for the sake of the film and for that I’ll be forever grateful.
One of Gabe’s main goals in creating this story was to represent something in real life but have never seen before in tv and film, “A positive father-and-trans son relationship. I wanted to do that because I know from experience how scary it can be to have to come out to family members who have only seen the sensationalised hardship and trauma of trans life in media. My own parents were immediately fearful that I’d get hurt, rejected, isolated. When in reality my experience has been the opposite. If my parents had ever seen a positive depiction of trans life reflected in the media, they wouldn’t have been so frightened and in turn nor would I have been. So my hope is that other trans people and other family members of trans people will watch this odd-ball yet sentimental, funny yet dramatic father-son love story, and see an opportunity for them to love and support and celebrate each other at every turn, rather than hold each other back because of fear and lack of understanding.”
On acting in Runs In The Family, Gabe says: “What a relief it is to spend all my energy on acting rather than half on the character and half on performing a gender that never felt like it fit me. It was also extremely rewarding to play my first trans role – to portray a trans experience in all of its very specific and beautiful, nuanced complexities – as so often in the past, trans roles have gone to cisgender people (people whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth) which always results in one-dimensional and damaging portrayals of trans experience. In the same vein, I’m really happy to report that all of the queer characters in the film are played by queer actors.”
“Being directed by my father, Ian Gabriel – who has always been an actor’s director – was a dream, especially because of how close this story is to our own relationship. His sensitivity and instinct when it comes to performance is what gets unique and emotional moments out of each scene. Another highlight was playing opposite seasoned South African actors who were so generous in their sense of play and took such great care to contribute to this unique story with utmost consideration. And of course sharing a screen-dad with Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury is certainly one for the books!”
“Every time you decide to make a film, it’s something new, a rebirth,” says Ian Gabriel. “That is the most promising aspect for any discussion of the filmmaker’s vision: that something new and not seen before will be given the chance to evolve. The magic of film offers up hope for opportunities. We hand the film over to the audience and invite them to see – and hopefully recognise – some of the memories and thoughts of their own life, reimagined, binding us all together in the democratic dreamworld of cinema.”
“It is extra special that the announcement of our upcoming worldwide Netflix release comes during Trans Awareness week, when we honour this beautiful and diverse community around the globe. We hope that our father-son road-meets-drag movie is a joyous balm for anyone being persecuted for who they are, and a reminder to all that across seas, borders, and cultures, it is our sameness and humanity that define us, not our differences.”
Runs in the Family is one of 6 micro budget projects supported through a joint film-fund by Netflix and the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) of South Africa, as part of a push to promote diversity, representation, and growth in South African filmmaking.
Ian Gabriel is a South African director of colour whose extensive experience in film and theatre performance began at Dorkay House, Johannesburg’s famous anti apartheid theatre venue, where he worked with many of South Africa’s legendary jazz and theatre greats. His feature film, Four Corners, was the South African Official Submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, was awarded Best International Feature and Best Feature (USA) at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, won 6 Golden Horn South African Film and Television Awards. Ian’s film also received the Best Picture Award.
Ian has directed the Netflix family crime series Ludik, released in the spring of 2022. This project saw Ian direct actor Arnold Vosloo, reprising the director – actor relationship the two established when Ian directed Forgiveness, which won the Best South African Film Award and the Best African Film Award, was a Golden Leopard nominee at the 2004 Locarno Film Festival, and won the Locarno Youth Jury Best Film Award. In 2023 Ian directed Death Of a Whistleblower – a true events thriller about the funding for profit of biological warfare in Africa and the Middle East, and will follow this outing with a director collaboration with Gabe Gabriel focusing on an apartheid era disco resistance heroine Granny Lee, based on a true story.
Gabe Gabriel is a queer South African writer, director, and actor based between Cape Town and Los Angeles. He’s a theatre-trained actor whose habit of writing his own roles is what catapulted him into the screenwriting industry. Before that, however, Gabe was nominated for two Fleur du Cap acting awards fresh out of drama school, toured Edinburgh Fringe Fest, Dublin International Gay & Lesbian Fest, and Makhanda’s National Arts Fest among others with two acclaimed theatre productions. He then took off to Los Angeles for 5 years where he landed his first studio film role in Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower.
He has penned commissioned feature-length works for Canada’s Fae Pictures and SA’s Nagvlug Films (CAA) and his TV-writing experience spans Sabela Gold, with Danny Glover’s Louverture Films spearheading development, Mother City, under head writer Christiaan Olwagen for MNET, and Yash Raj Films’ The Mandala Murders, currently in production in India. In 2021, Gabe made his directorial debut with No Hiding Here, SA’s first gay romcom for Showmax, and in 2022, his original screenplay for Runs In The Family was awarded funding from Netflix, the NFVF, and Indigenous Films, and also features Gabe in the lead role. Over the years, Gabe’s original works have placed him as a semi-finalist at the Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay Competition, the Final Draft Big Break Contest, the 5th annual Screencraft Fellowship, and the CBS Writers Mentorship programme, and in 2023, Gabe will join the Realness Institute for their Episodic Lab produced in partnership with Netflix.