Wanted: South African stories


Filmmakers should be brave enough to tell more truly South African stories says renowned movie critic, script writer, presenter and author Leon van Nierop. He tells Martie Bester about the state of film in our local industry, which he says is more than capable of delivering diverse and authentic material.

Over the past year, three South African movies have impressed Leon van Nierop in terms of script, character development and technical expertise. These are movies that each pulled at the heartstrings of local audiences in very different ways.

They are the feature films Verraaiers (Traitors), a drama with a strong narrative set during the Anglo Boer War (written by Sallas de Jager and directed by Paul Eilers); Die Wonderwerker (The Miracle Worker), a touching biographical period movie about the tumultuous and ingenuous life of Afrikaans poet and writer Eugene Marais (written by Chris Barnard and directed by Katinka Heyns), and Material, a comedy drama set in Fordsburg in Johannesburg, which reveals the intricate family politics of a strict Muslim family and their “wayward’ son (written by Ronnie Apteker and Craig Freimond and directed by Craig Freimond).

Local content

“These movies tell original South African stories which are very much based in a local context. In my opinion, there are too few locally made movies that tell our stories without using foreign influences as a crutch or depending on American or British formulas for their success. Or for that matter, that don’t copy other movies that have already been made in South Africa.’

Van Nierop says that it goes without saying that he is excited about the fledgling industry and because many more industry professionals are being employed on a more regular basis. However, South Africans could learn from the Australians regarding the sustainability of a successful local industry.

“The Australian film industry really flourished at one stage, because they made movies about themselves and didn’t copy other countries.’

Familiar vernacular

Van Nierop’s choices are not limited to the three films mentioned earlier. Other movies which depict South African narratives in an extraordinary way are Darrell James Roodt’s Little One, highly acclaimed Otelo Burning, and White Wedding and Jerusalema.

“I liked Semi-Soet too because it is very Afrikaans and it was the first Afrikaans romantic comedy without sex, without toilet humour. I simply don’t understand why sex always has to presented in Afrikaans movies as either “hilariously’ vulgar or absolutely horrible. What is funny about that? Of course a movie can contain vulgarity, such as in The Hangover franchise, but then you need to know exactly what you’re doing.’

With more than 40 years’ experience in the industry and the screenwriter of box-office hit Wolwedans in die Skemer, Van Nierop says not enough attention is given to script writing and development. The shortage of able script editors is a real concern, he says, one to which not enough attention is given.

“How can a movie be successful if it has poor characterisation and development and lacks engaging storytelling? It is up to the script editor to see that these things are adhered to, but in South Africa there are one or two people who step up to the plate at the moment in terms of script editing.’

He mentions Hanneke Schutte and Danie Bester as two script editors who treat writers with the respect they deserve. Alienating a writer during the script editing process can have devastating effects.

“I admire directors who have courage and who are brave enough to tackle issues that others are too afraid to address,’ continues Van Nierop.

In one of the most unforgettable scenes in Verraaiers, veteran actress Rika Sennett takes off all her clothes (sans soft lighting and other tricks of the trade) and staggers into the veld, naked and vulnerable, hopeless, distraught, destroyed, upon learning of her husband’s imminent execution.

“That scene overwhelmed me, I was overcome with grief. And the scene in which all the men but one are executed was brave. It was portrayed with so much raw emotion and respect. I was impressed with the valour I saw in Verraaiers. I think more respect should be shown in South African movies regarding the subject that is being addressed.’

Different culture

Material, which received four SAFTAs (South African Film and Television Awards) this year for Best Movie, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor is an excellent example of filmmakers who are aware of what is happening around them and build stories around that awareness says Van Nierop.

“Material brought a culture to me that I knew nothing about. A culture that introduced me to a certain thought process and the clash between old and new, how people react towards each other and the incredible love that exists between them. Material showed audiences that even if father and son are in conflict with one another the Biblical command that you should love your neighbour like yourself is applicable, you forgive, you reach a place of compromise,’ comments Van Nierop.

“To tell successful South African stories, we don’t have to go back into history, our present is rich for the taking. So where are the stories about why expatriates are coming back to the country, about the mine disasters, the striking workers, the disintegration of family life and farm murders? Would it be politically incorrect to make these movies? Are we afraid?’

Van Nierop continues: “There are also extremely funny things that happen in our country that Leon Schuster managed to capture in some of his previous movies such as Mama Jack. But the moment when we make comedy, it is vulgar or romantic, but it’s not really funny.

“However, a movie that touched on contentious issues and which worked was Fanie Fourie’s Lobola. And Die Wonderwerker was a phenomenal film, a directorial tour de force.’

Relevant and beneficial

Van Nierop says: “I would like to see South African productions such as The Hurt Locker being made, which question a man’s place in the world today as this is so relevant in our society.’

Van Nierop highlights the scene in which Jeremy Renner’s character, Sergeant First Class William James has returned from the war in Iraq where he disarmed bombs without as much as breaking a sweat. However, when he is confronted by rows and rows of breakfast cereal in a supermarket, he is frozen to the spot. Immobile, he regards this inconsequential situation and suddenly and overwhelmingly questions his reason for being.

Other international movies that made it onto Van Nierop’s radar recently were Silver Linings Playbook by David O. Russell and Life of Pi by Ang Lee.

“Everything about Silver Linings Playbook was refreshing because Russell did not shy away from presenting modern day issues in a provocative and entertaining fashion, while adhering to all the principles of excellent filmmaking, while Life of Pi was completely original in the way it presented this unusual story and honoured the voice of Yann Martel, the writer of the novel.

“At the end of the day, I think moviemakers should ask themselves why their movie is necessary to make? Why and how would a South African audience, first and foremost, benefit from this film?’ concludes Van Nierop.

By Martie Bester

screen africa magazine – june 2013


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