Coming of age and loss of innocence in a 1960s Durban railway community has been
brought to the big screen in a new Afrikaans period film that will be released nationwide
Roepman (Call Man), based on a Jan van Tonder novel of the same title, is described as
an epic dramatic tale told from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy called Timus (Paul
Loots) and is set in the weeks leading up to a defining moment in South African history.
Executive producer Piet de Jager knew the author and read the book when it was first
published. He recommended it to his family of film lovers who became interested in
turning the book into a film. According to his son, Salmon de Jager, they thought it was
“by far the best story available’.
The film became very much a family project, with the De Jagers producing the film as
Bosbok Ses Films in collaboration with Film Factory. Salmon produced the film (with
Danie Bester from Film Factory) and his brother Dawie de Jager wrote the original score.
The adaptation process was started in 2008 by Piet and Salmon de Jager in cooperation
with Roepman author Jan van Tonder and with help from Dutch filmmaker Walter
“All films that really tell a story well can be traced back to a scriptwriter who respects
literature,’ says Piet about their approach. Their job was made easier by the book which
has been described as “the most filmic Afrikaans novel’.
It took two years of workshopping and restructuring the script before the team were
happy with the result in January 2010.
The film stars Afrikaans talent including John-Henry Opperman as Joon (the roepman),
Deon Lotz, Rika Sennett, Andrew Thompson, Lida Botha, Altus Theart and Ivan Botha.
Actor Paul Eilers came on board as a first-time director. According to Piet there was
already a lot of technical know-how among the crew including director of photography
Tom Marais, so they decided to use a director, who as an actor, would know how to tell
a story through the actors.
The film was shot in August 2010 on location in Linden, Springs, Pretoria and Durban on
a Canon 5D Mark II.
Capturing the 1960s
Piet says that it was absolutely critical for them to stay true to the period of the story
they were telling. They found a row of typical red brick railway houses in Blom Street in
Springs, east of Johannesburg, but the houses were dilapidated, had unpainted roofs
and decaying fences. In the three weeks leading up to production six houses on each
side of the road were given a face-lift to fit the look of a Durban railway community in
The filmmakers went to great lengths to stay true to the period – in every detail from
the music playing in the background to the refrigerators in the interior scenes.
According to Eilers planning was everything. “Accolades must go to production designer
Waldemar Coetzee and his team. They did their research extensively and nothing was
left to chance. Francois Coetzee (props master) and Marle Drotsky (costume design) did
a fantastic job in bringing the 1960s to the screen in a very believable way.’
The story also called for a train from the era as an important part of the film. Although
Durban Harbour was recently modernised, they were lucky to find the exact train they
needed in the harbour.
Within the definitive clothing style of the period they also use different colours to depict
certain themes important to the story. Light blue, for example, depicts a state of
innocence and the ability to dream, while red symbolises danger. According to Salmon
the colour references are: “in your face and consistent’ in Roepman, “otherwise the
audience won’t respond’.
While the film features a few subtle special effect shots, the last shot of the film is
almost entirely a special effect. The special effects were done by Quin Lubbe and Vincent
The film was financed through the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) rebate and
three private investors with a budget of between R4 and R5m.
A part of the budget that the producers take very seriously is money spent on
marketing. “When targeting an educated audience, big and effective marketing is
absolutely essential to make a film stand out among the clutter,’ explains Salmon.
Therefore the filmmakers approached Roepman marketing in a mathematical way.
According to their research 4 to 5% of people exposed to repetitive advertising will go
and see a film. This means that approximately five million people have to see their
marketing to attract an audience of 100 000 to 300 000.
Since the target audience for the film is Afrikaans speakers between the ages of 25 and
55, they approached the newspaper and magazine that reach the largest number of
readers in their target market. They managed to get Rapport and Rooi Rose on board
as media partners. An ad campaign on Jacaranda 94.2 (the largest radio station for their
target audience) is also planned plus four billboards – three in Gauteng and one in Cape
While the team target a specific audience they hope to attract viewers from a much
wider age and cultural spectrum.
The film is sub-titled to make it accessible to other language groups and they believe the
themes such as “innocence’ and “believing in something’ are universal. The importance of
the period of South African history may also attract interest.
According to Eilers the story takes places in the weeks leading up to the assassination
of former South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd. “It was the beginning of
change and the kids of that era are the very same people who voted yes for
transformation in the 1992 referendum. The film gives a window into where that
generation came from and why they were ready for change,’ he explains.
“While it is not a blatant anti-apartheid film, it does tell about the life of the Afrikaner in
a way that is unknown to youth today and also to most of the black community,’ says
Piet. He explains that the film tells the story of Afrikaner women and children subjected
to the structural violence of the time by the state and the church. “It shows what you
do to children when you subject them to dogma.’
Roepman is distributed by Ster-Kinekor and will be released across South Africa on 20
May 2011 on 36 digital prints.