Comatose brings the global euthanasia debate home

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From production house 1Take Media comes Comatose, an Afro-futurism feature film set for theatrical release in early 2017. The film presents an African perspective on the euthanasia debate…

Director Mickey Madoda Dube – co-founder of 1Take Media with producer Fabian Adeoye Lojede – says that after being left entirely moved by the power of the original play by Nigerian/Canadian Playwright Jude Idada, he and Lojede decided they wanted to turn it into a film for the big screen. “This was four years ago around 2012, so it’s been a bit of a journey, 14 drafts and many challenges trying to raise financing and trying to get an international cast on board.”

Comatose follows the battle between two siblings over the life of their ailing mother, who is in a coma. One wants to pull the plug. The other wants to keep her alive. Through it all, the comatose mother can hear everything. In a battle of wills, dark family secrets come to light, relationships are shattered and the true meaning of love is revealed.

The doctors have told Nana’s daughter Omowunmi that she will never wake up from the coma. Struggling with piling medical bills, Omowunmi has resigned herself to pulling the plug. Segun – her brother, who has lived in the USA for the past 16 years and never once come back to visit his sickly mother – returns home and refuses to allow his sister to pull the plug. A set of highly charged conflicts occur as Omowunmi and Segun battle for the life and death of their mother.

Dube highlights several reasons he and Lojede wanted to tell this story, the first being its unusual narrative “with a pithy subject matter” he says. Euthanasia as a global human dilemma has become increasingly more topical lately with many countries tabling it in parliament as a matter of importance. “Euthanasia and assisted suicide are only permitted in very few countries in the world, yet it is something that affects millions of people daily as their loved ones remain stuck in comas for long periods and some eventually come out of comas, but many do not… There isn’t a conclusive stand on the issue, and as such it needs lots of discussion and engagement. This interests me as it delves deep into what life means, what death means… I wanted to make a film so rich and layered yet moving and mysterious all at once, throbbing with the energy and talent at our disposal, tackling an issue that is universal but spoken through our voice,” comments Dube.

When it came to developing the script for the motion picture version of Comatose, Jude Idada wrote the first two drafts of the screenplay. Thereafter Dube and Lojede went on to write another 12 drafts, tweaking the narrative components until they were satisfied that it would translate well on the silver screen. The story is essentially still the same says Dube, but now that it is no longer a theatre piece, the filmmakers wanted to make sure that it “graduated to being cinematic.” Comments Dube: “We wanted it to be layered. In the play the whole story occurs inside the ward where Nana lies in the coma. While we kept a significant part of the story in the ward, we opened up the world of the film by introducing new characters…This device allowed us to make the film even more universal.”

Additionally, the film differs from the play in that the world of the coma that the mother is trapped in is visualised for the audience. “In this world, she moves, she speaks, she reveals things to us that her warring kids will never know. In her world time stands still and simultaneously hurtles at breakneck speed. Matter shifts and transforms. Reality confronts us with its own fallibility, and we start wondering if what we are watching is real time or delayed, is it material or echoed. Sometimes Nana’s world breaks the wall into ours, affects ours.”

Casting for Comatose proved to be a challenge as well as an opportunity according to Dube. From the beginning, the goal was to attach an international cast to the project in an attempt to its chance of reaching international audiences. After negotiations with esteemed international actors including Sean Bean, Rupert Everett, Brendan Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent and Giancarlo Esposito fell through due to budget constraints, Dube and Lojede decided to select a cast from the diverse talent in South Africa. Isidingo’s Robert Whitehead, veteran performer Mary Thwala, Jacob’s Cross’ Fabian Lojede, Nigerian actress Bimbo Akintola, France’s Aissa Maiga and the seasoned Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Pirates of the Caribbean, Black Sails, 24, Lost) all joined the Comatose cast.

The overall driving concept of the film is based on a binary world where reality questions itself: What is and what isn’t. Directorially, creating these dual worlds and a distinction between the two was the driving force for Dube throughout the shooting process.

DOP Tai Krige shot the film on the Arri Alexa, occasionally using the Blackmagic as a second camera particularly for Steadicam shots. Dube says that while the Alexa is superior due to its sensor and image quality, it is also superior in its delivery of incredible dynamic range and colour reproduction “and this fits perfectly with our juxtapositions of acute visual dynamism and the monochromatic.”

He expands: “What was also going to be very useful for Comatose, over and above the image quality, was the Alexa’s ability for shallow depth of field coupled with its sensitive separation of foreground and background, factors that fit it perfectly with our concept of dual worlds. The camera allowed us to decide more effectively where to direct the audience’s gaze, and given our probing moving style, this was critical. The Blackmagic also comes close to these qualities and we chose it because it often matches well with the Alexa in these characteristics and in the grade they talk to each other. The Blackmagic also allowed us easier movement due its size and weight where the Alexa could not.” Additionally, these two cameras were selected because the team knew that a high quality image would be crucial for the visual effects needed when creating the comatose world of the mother. “We had shot most of the scenes of Nana in her comatose world in green screen and we would need to create that world around her through compositing and CGI,” adds Dube.

Filmed over five weeks in Durban, South Africa as well as in Lagos, Nigeria, Comatose is currently in post-production ahead of its early 2017 release. The film is funded by 1Take Media, the DTI, South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation, and the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission as well as a few investors from Nigeria and the UK. Comatose is set to be distributed by UIP in South Africa, by La Vingt-Cinquieme Heure in France and French-speaking territories, and by Film One in Nigeria.

The team at 1Take Media is feeling very positive regarding the impending success of the film and the way in which it will contribute to the global euthanasia debate from a pan-African perspective. “I hope the audience takes away the idea that as Africans we can make ambitious films that tell unusual stories in unexpected ways and still be moved emotionally. I hope audiences will engage more with the idea that it is important to demand legislation around issues of euthanasia so that each individual and family are protected against making decisions that will compromise them,” Dube concludes.

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Chanelle Ellaya
Chanelle Ellaya is the editor of Screen Africa. She completed her BA Journalism degree at the University of Johannesburg in 2011. While writing is her passion, she has a keen interest in the media in various capacities. Chanelle is an avid social media networker and a firm believer in the power of social and online networking. Between writing and tweeting, she finds time to feed her love for live music.

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