Scripting the human condition


Multiple award winning Deon Opperman is today one of South Africa’s foremost TV and stage producers, dramatists and writers, who also finds and shapes talented young people in the entertainment industry.

Opperman is especially known for TV series that could be described as productions of epic proportions – Donkerland, Hartland, Kruispad and recently Bloedbroers.

His purpose, he explains, is to offer an intepretation of the socio-evolutionary process of the period from 1838 to the modern day, which brought the Afrikaner peoples to where they find themselves today.

“By definition a story that sets out to do something like that will be epic in nature, simply because it arcs over more than a century and a half of history. So I do not have a preference for epic/historical dramas per se. The subject matter of those narratives called for an epic treatment. My most recent 13-hour drama series for kykNET, Fluiters, is anything but epic. The entire story plays out over a period of about three weeks.”

Opperman is regularly criticised for the way he portrays the Afrikaner in his works. A letter by a reader recently appeared in an Afrikaans newspaper stating that he “rips the guts out of the Afrikaner.”

He responds with: “I have frequently been criticised by a segment of Afrikaners for ‘showing the Afrikaner in a bad light. But this is nonsense. In these narratives I depicted actions by various characters that actually happened historically. Also, as much as I portrayed the evil misdeeds of the Afrikaner in some characters, in others I portrayed the goodness and courage that also characterises the history of the Afrikaner, for which, ironically, I was labelled an ‘Afrikaner apologist’ by neo-Liberals. Once again, these good and courageous deeds were also historically accurate. So it’s a ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ situation.  Personally I don’t pay attention to any of that. I try to tell the stories as truthfully as possible and with respect for the recorded history.”

A drama series, Getroud met Rugby, had TV viewers riveted to their screens. Now the series has been revived, but this time as a soapie. In the entertainment industry there are views that soapies are inferior to series or feature films, but Opperman disagrees.

“I am on record as a writer who disdains the false dichotomy embedded in the ‘art vs. commercial’ debate.  For me the issue is about how accessible or inaccessible your treatment is of the problems with which the characters grapple. This is what determines the size of your audience. I could take the same narrative premise and write it in such a way that a smaller audience would find it accessible, or I could write it so that a very large audience ‘gets it’. So when you are writing a soapie you have to deal with problems of the human condition in such a way that a large audience gets what you’re on about.”

Throughout his career, Opperman has had a deep involvement in training and education, having co-founded the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance (AFDA).

“I have always believed in training and education. I wouldn’t have been a founding director of AFDA if I didn’t. So I always try to find opportunities for training the next generation of writers, directors and producers wherever I can. Sterlopers is a case in point; I created it with a group of young writers, producers and actors specifically as a vehicle for them to acquire the skills required for manufacturing a drama series. That project is now completely in the hands of the people who trained on the show. Mission accomplished.”

Although he makes cameo appearances in some of his productions he has never been inclined to dabble in directing.

“As a producer I am not a micromanager. My philosophy is: appoint a director that you trust and believe has the skills to bring the narrative to screen, and then support that director with all your resources and influence.  My director of choice is Jozua Malherbe. Recently I also worked with Renee van Rooyen who did outstanding work for me.  I look forward to working with her more often in the future.”

When probed to find out what he would perceive to be the highlight of his illustrious career, he says, “Each of my projects over the last 30 years has its own highlights. But if I had to choose something that gave me great pleasure, it would be the fact that Donkerland, which was first staged as a five hour stage play in 1996, subsequently found re-expression as a 13-hour television drama series, and finally as a novel, which was also published in Dutch in the Netherlands.

“I am also very proud to have been a founding director of AFDA. It has achieved and surpassed all the dreams we had for it when we began, and has become an integral part of the fabric of the South African film, television and theatre industries.”

Opperman has to date not produced a feature film, but that is about to change. “Many years ago, after completing my Masters in Film at Northwestern University in Chicago, I told myself that I would turn my attention to features after I had turned 50. Well, I turned 54 this year and am now planning a feature film.  I have co-written a few feature films with Sean Else, but never produced one.”

He is very clear on what he still wants to achieve – “I’m going to take a shot at winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Film with an Afrikaans film. You never know!”


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