Jenna Bass’s Flatland explores what it means to be a woman in South Africa today

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Still from Flatland.

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

Female-led contemporary western Flatland sees three different but equally desperate South African women undertake a journey of self-discovery in the Karoo semi-desert.

When Natalie’s catastrophic wedding night leads to an accidental killing, she runs away from her husband and her small, rural town in South Africa’s Karoo region. Reuniting with her rebellious, heavily-pregnant best friend Poppie, the two young women escape together on horseback across the vast winter landscape. Lonely policewoman Captain Beauty Cuba, intent on proving the innocence of her long-lost fiancé who has been framed for Natalie’s crimes, is hot on their trail. The fate of these three desperate South African women will eventually converge “as they ride towards self-discovery in the face of the ever-present threat of violence – psychological as well as physical.”

A Female western

Flatland writer and director Jenna Cato Bass – director of the films Love the One You Love and High Fantasy, and co-writer of Rafiki – says that the desire to craft a female western grew out of her complicated long-time love of these films. Though she loved the genre, Bass says something was always missing for her: “My dad really loves westerns, and I watched a lot of them with him when I was getting into cinema. I started to really love them too, but at the same time I always felt something was missing. I later realised it was the lack of female characters – the John Waynes and Clint Eastwoods were just so far removed from me as a person.

“Women  have  just  as  much  right to be in the saddle, and I was sure  that  women  audiences  had  the same desires I had, as well as the spirit to act them out,” Bass continues. “If I wanted to make a western, I’d have to take a long, hard look at the western and ask myself what is it about this frequently racist, misogynistic genre that I want to hold onto? Maybe the same things that make South Africa such a perfect setting for the western are exactly what makes it so problematic. How different is our present from our colonial past? Maybe the rules of the western itself need to be broken. For me, the starting-point was three different women, on their own terms: a lovelorn policewoman, a pregnant teenager and a naive young bride, all of whom are trapped by circumstances, their environment and by their own misconceptions of what they must be.”

Nicole Fortuin, Faith Baloyi and Izel Bezuidenhout deliver strong, moving performances as the three lead characters – Natalie, Beauty and Poppie, respectively. Fortuin was the first cast member on board – “she stuck with us through years of financing and development,” says Bass. “I’d seen Izel Bezuidenhout in Dis Ek, Anna and was so impressed with her. She is magical on screen… And Faith was one of the last people we cast after quite a search to find Beauty and she’s also awesome. She has made the role totally her own in a way I’d always hoped.”

Financing

A real labour of love, Flatland has been a long time in the making. It all started in 2009 when Bass had the idea of setting a western in the Karoo. “At the time, I thought that would be relatively straightforward, but the more I worked on it, and added inspiration from my own life, and trips to Beaufort West, it grew into something totally different… and better, I think.”

The film was first introduced to the market at the 2012 Durban FilmMart (at treatment stage), where it picked up three of the five development awards on offer – “which helped kick-start active development on the project,” says Flatland producer David Horler of Proper Film.

In late-2012, development funding support was secured from the National Film & Video Foundation (NFVF) of South Africa, alongside a grant from the Worldview Broadcast Media Scheme. In 2014, Horler concluded a co-production deal with Iranian/German producer Roshanak Behesht Nedjad (who is known for her co-productions with underrepresented territories). “Later that year, the project was the recipient of a commitment to financing from Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund and secured intent for world-sales from The Match Factory,” he adds.

The year 2016 saw additional production support secured from the NFVF and the commencement of final casting and location scouting. In early 2017, intent was secured from the ZDF Das Kleine Fernsehspiel Co-production and Licensing scheme, and a world sales agreement was concluded with The Match Factory. In 2017, the film won support from the Hubert Bals Fund and Film Fund Luxembourg, as well as the attachment of Deal Productions and Unafilm as co-producers, “which enabled us to close financing and green-light the film for production in 2018,” says Horler.

Having completed its active development phase in 2014, Horler says that financing Flatland was “the single greatest reason it took so long to bring the film to life.”

“In many ways it was an unavoidable rollercoaster of success and disappointment… In the end though, it couldn’t have worked out better: having been backed by some of the leading film institutions worldwide with very few hard-equity stakeholders, enabling a simpler and unoppressive revenue recoupment stream once the film is distributed. We also created a solid distribution foundation through our partnership with industry-leading sales agency The Match Factory and our collaboration with Europe’s broadcasting giant, ZDF/Arte.”

Principle Photography

The film was shot in just over four weeks in the second quarter of 2018, at twenty-six locations in South Africa’s Western Cape province. Although set in the Karoo semi-desert, Horler says that most of the film could have been shot exclusively in Cape Town, but – “despite oppressive costs and out of respect to the authenticity of the story, as well as Jenna’s direct inspiration from specific places when writing the script” – the crew elected to shoot the majority of the film on-location, in and around the towns of Beaufort West and Leeu Gamka, as well as in Cape Town.

“Our first shot on day one [of filming] was the iconic sequence where Natalie and Poppie ride on horseback through the Karoo semi-desert in slow-motion,” comments Horler. “It was a remote and challenging location that ended up being one of our longest shoot days, setting the precedent for a gruelling and unforgiving schedule.”

Cinematography

Bass says that she wanted the two parallel stories of Beauty, and then Natalie and Poppie, to have very different feels in order to heighten the contrast between the characters. This, she says, resulted in “very different shot design for the two stories”, as well as a different colour palette for each: “We wanted Beauty’s story to feel static and considered, and Natalie and Poppie’s story to feel fidgety and observational.” These choices were largely determined by the characters in collaboration with the camera department – led by director of photography, Sarah Cunningham – and the art department, led by production designer Sara Hartinger.

Flatland was shot on the Arri Alexa Mini, which Horler says was chosen for multiple reasons, including its ease of use for data management and post-production workflow, “and the fact that Jenna is known for highly intimate and fluid composition in her films, which was made easier and more efficient to achieve by the camera’s light weight and small footprint”.

A large portion of the film takes place on the open road, with various driving sequences in cars, trucks and on horseback “threading together the multiple storylines unfolding across the Karoo,” adds Horler. “We wanted to achieve as much as possible in-camera with a very low-tech approach to maximise both the authenticity of the actors being able to drive or ride and the efficiency of our demanding schedule.” Horler says that the grips department – headed up by Nasmie Majiet of Grip This – were the “technical heroes” of the film for flawlessly delivering smart and creative tracking and rigging solutions that translated to some impressive, immersive sequences on screen.

Post-Production

The post workflow was shared across several companies and individual technicians in order to spread the workload and have multiple elements being undertaken at once. Post-production supervisor Stephen Abbott crafted a minutely-detailed schedule and workflow. He worked very closely with Bass and editor Jacques de Villiers before handing over the film for audio, colouring, VFX and finishing. “Refinery Cape Town was our backbone throughout the delivery process. They went well above and beyond their call of duty and without them, it would have been impossible to finish the film on time,” comments Horler. “We owe Lauren van Rensburg, Peta Synnot-Marzetti, Kyle Stroebel and Armien Baradien an enormous debt of gratitude for everything they and their teams have done for us.”

Audio post was split between Sound & Motion Studios in Cape Town and Johannesburg, as well as Philophon – based in Luxembourg – who assembled the final mix. Horler commends Simon Ratcliffe of Sound & Motion Studios, who “juggled various overlapping mixing sessions between three cities and, as usual, delivered refined, evocative and first-class sound, which was complimented by our original composition by Berlin-based DJ, Bao-Tran Tran.” The subtle use of VFX was led by Refinery alongside several freelance effects artists.

A Story That Breaks the Rules

Impressively, Flatland opened the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama section in February this year. Horler says that it’s humbling to be recognised by Berlinale, who have been “incredibly supportive and nurturing of Jenna’s career over the years.”

“We hope to continue a successful festival run for the remainder of 2019, culminating in the film’s theatrical release and TV and digital broadcast later this year and in 2020,” he adds.

When asked about the film’s intended message, Bass says that – for her – there isn’t one specific message: “It’s more about offering people an experience that is different and surprising and from which they can take what they want.

“I hope people will fall in love with the characters, and be swept along by a story that breaks the rules and at the same time feels deeply familiar,” she concludes.

  • Chanelle Ellaya

Key Crew:

Director: Jenna Bass

Producer: David Horler

DoP: Sarah Cunningham

Production Designer: Sara Hartinger

Editor: Jacques de Villiers

Costume Designer: Chantell Lungiswa Joe

Casting: Belinda Kruger and Monique Murray du Plessis

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