Roberta Durrant on the making of her new feature Krotoa

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Director Roberta Durrant and Armand Aucamp as Jan van Riebeeck (Photos by Uwe Jansch)

Roberta Durrant is a celebrated director and producer, and the founder of Penguin Films. Following the success of 2013’s Felix – a heart-warming story about a young saxophonist who dreams of making it as a jazz musician – her latest feature, Krotoa, is a rich historical epic that depicts prominent figures from South Africa’s early colonial history. Centred around the story of Krotoa – a young Khoi woman who worked as a translator for Jan Van Riebeeck – the film promises to be a stylish and significant contribution to South African cinema, collecting no fewer than eight international film awards in the lead-up to its local release.

Screen Africa caught up with Roberta to chat about researching Krotoa’s story, the challenges of recreating a late-1600s aesthetic and what audiences should expect from her sweeping new feature…

Where did the idea for a film about Krotoa come from?

We pitched to the SABC several years back for a documentary series called Hidden Histories, and one of the stories that we pitched to them was the story of Krotoa – because she is very much part of the hidden history of this country. Kaye Ann Williams, who wrote the script for the feature together with Margaret Goldsmid, made the documentary – and from this process, it was quite clear that there was a strong narrative quality to Krotoa’s life story. So, basically, we created a narrative drama inspired by the facts. So, although we stayed as true to the facts and the timeline of her life as possible, we also took dramatic licence – and this dramatic licence was more around deductions made by various historians. Because even at the time people believed different things and drew different conclusions about her life. So from all of that information, a feature film script was developed.

And what is it about the character that you found so special?

I think her story is quite relevant now, because it has to do with identity. First of all, she was a visionary: she believed there was a middle way between the two cultures, the Dutch – a culture which she was assimilated into at the age of 11 – and the Khoi San, with whom she never lost her ties. And so she spent her life between these two cultures, and she believed that a middle way was possible – though, of course, we know that it took another 300 years to materialise. And her experience was unique, because at a very young age she was taken into Van Riebeeck’s fort and then at 16 became one of his interpreters, and she played an important role in negotiating between the Dutch and the Khoi. And then, finally, her marriage to Pieter Van Meerhof – who was the fort doctor at the time – was the first mixed-race marriage in the new colony, at least the first that was written down and recorded as such. So she’s a very interesting, unique kind of figure – and there haven’t been many stories that focus on women like Krotoa, even though they were such significant figures of their time.

The film was produced by Penguin Films, your own company. How did you manage to finance the project, and what were the biggest challenges you encountered?

We made it with the support from the National Film and Video Foundation, the Department of Trade and Industry and Kyk Net. In terms of challenges, we had to be very careful how we made it because we didn’t have a lot of money and obviously we were doing a ‘period’ piece. We had to keep it quite contained, so – first of all – we had to find an area where there was nothing around. We shot out near Agulhas, partly in the Reserve and partly on private farms, areas where you can still find untouched and undeveloped fynbos – like it might have looked in 1652. And then we had to recreate Van Riebeeck’s original fort, which was built from wood and turf and mud – all quite primitive. With these constraints and the fact we didn’t have a huge budget, we had to confine the story and personalise it, really tell it from Krotoa’s point of view.

Any other cinematographic features viewers should keep an eye out for?

Because the area we shot it in was so beautiful, the team (Greg Heimann, SASC/DOP; Edward Liebenberg, art director; Emma Moss, wardrobe) tried to incorporate a sense of the place with sweeping vistas and attention to the natural elements of each shot. We also took great pains in terms of art direction to differentiate between the palette of the Khoi settlement and the Dutch fort, which had its own contrasting colour palette to the natural surroundings.

You must be delighted by the international response to the film?

Yes, it’s been picked up for distribution as well as featuring strongly at many competitions. We tested the waters quite carefully at the beginning, we went to smaller festivals like INDIEfest – and then we won Best Show there, and that gave us encouragement to go further. Because our team is so female-driven – from the director to the writers to the lead character, of course – we’ve selected our festivals accordingly. We’ve just been selected for the Female Eye Film Festival in June. And of course we were very pleased to win Best Film at the Harlem International Film Festival. From here, we’ll see how it goes. But the film has had a great response internationally so far: other than at Nashville, wherever it’s been seen, it’s won.

Do you think South African audiences will be as receptive?

I think it will be an interesting film for South Africans to go to. It’s not short! It’s two hours long. When you go, you must go expecting to be taken on a journey – to give two hours to having an experience. It’s always a challenge when making a film about someone’s life, trying to stick to the facts and the chronology of it, and Krotoa’s life had such a natural rise and fall that we needed to include all of it. We couldn’t just focus on her relationship with Van Riebeeck or Van Meerhof, or just her relationship with the Khoi San – it all had to be in there, to paint the picture as accurately as possible.

Finally, now that Krotoa is gearing up for its local release and you’ve gained a bit of distance from the project, what in your opinion is the film’s most enduring quality?

I think what carries the film very strongly are the extraordinary performances. I have to say that Crystal Donna Roberts was excellent as Krotoa – she threw herself into that part and she lived it, and she’s extraordinary in the film. And once you’re grabbed by her, you go on that journey with her because she’s so powerful and compelling. And I think, for me, that is the driving force of the film: once you’ve grasped onto Krotoa’s story – it takes hold of you – it’s an emotional experience, and I think that is the strength of the film.

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