the writing studio


Beat the Drum - Sounding loud and clear after a two year absence
By Daniel E. Dercksen

Daniel E. Dercksen shares a few thought with David McBrayer, who wrote the screenplay and produced Beat The Drum

It has taken two years for the locally made independent film Beat The Drum to reach our screens. It is here at last and sure to make a lot of noise.

"Independent films always seem to take a backseat to studio pictures regardless of their quality and it's difficult to get on the theater schedule," says producer David McBrayer, who also wrote the screenplay.   "It's been difficult but NuMetro has been a champion of Beat the Drum so audiences have an opportunity to see it."

During the two years Beat the Drum has waited for its release date in its country of origin, the rest of the world has applauded the film, with more than 29 International Awards. The film also received two special awards at this year's Apollo Film Festival.

McBrayer feels proud of the response Beat The Drum has received, and relieved that it has eventually reached our cinemas.

"The audience response has been extraordinary. I have had people say that the film has changed them in a profound way. As a writer, it's what you hope for."

He wanted to write Beat The Drum to "help give a voice to the voiceless", particularly "the innocent children in South Africa -- who for no cause of their own were orphaned and homeless. I simply wanted to be an honest witness to the plight of these kids."

Watching Beat the Drum is an incredibly emotional experience, what Mc Brayer refers to as "a mixture of feelings -- sadness, joy, frustration, compassion, and hope."

"A filmmaker once said that the more local you make the story the more universal it becomes," he says.

"I always took that to mean that once you get past the cultural differences you realize that we are all part of the human fabric, the human family. If there is a tear in the fabric we should all feel it.   Once the audience accepts Musa as the innocent child that he is, well, if they have a heart they should feel it. I know I did."

Mc Brayer's inspiration to write Beat The Drum happened when he visited South Africa and Kenya, working on the SABC television series "Hope for Africa," a powerful hard-hitting series highlighting the AIDS epidemic in Africa

"I heard hundreds of people tell their personal story about how AIDS had affected their lives and their families.  At night I would see the street kids huddled to stay warm and during the day I would see them wash car windows or sell fruit for small change. I remember one night I was waiting in traffic and a small boy came up to my window out of nowhere. At first I was startled but our eyes met and I could see and feel his sadness and desperation. I realized that this small boy, the little Musa of my story could be my own child or my neighbour's child."

From that moment on, the story flowed.

"It was unusual for me but for some reason it just did," he says.

"I wanted to tell the story of the boy who came up to me on the street, I felt some connection to him which I can't explain."

"It became so clear to me," says McBrayer, "that telling a story about AIDS seen through a child's eyes allows you to highlight issues that normally are tough to handle head on. You are not inhibited by politics and you can get a point across without offending people."

Holed up in his native city of Atlanta for four to five months, McBrayer perfected the script. Once the script was completed the filmmakers connected with line producer Lance Samuels at New African Media Films (NAM) at Sasani Film Studios in Johannesburg to assist with preparations.

Mc Brayer also approached South African literary treasure Zakes Mda, who was kind enough to review the script to make sure that everything was culturally accurate and true to life.  

Beat the Drum delivers a very important and potent message and view on the AIDS epidemic.

"As a writer I felt that I could help tell the story of these children and in some small way help bring compassion and maybe some understanding to a world audience. The film doesn't offer a solution but it does have a point of view -- to a large extent this emerged as I struggled to tell an honest story."

One of the most remarkable aspects of Beat The Drum, is the incredible performance by Junior Singo, who was 12-years old when he starred in the film.

"Junior Singo is an amazing young actor and Beat the Drum was his first film. We had auditioned hundreds of boys for the main role and we couldn't find our Musa.  We were even considering cancelling the production.   A friend in South Africa suggested Junior Singo who wasn't a professional actor at the time, in fact he had never acted before. Junior was able to exactly portray the boy I had envisioned when I wrote the story --  Junior Singo was Musa.    His timing, his natural ability, his honesty and vulnerability was more than I could have hoped for --  the relationship between Junior and Owen Sajaki who played Nobe was one of the most touching I have ever seen."

Mc Brayer, who lives in Atlanta, finds that South Africa has "an excellent film industry at all levels, " and feels strongly that future films be made in South Africa and that stories originate here.    

"Africa as a whole has a rich story telling heritage unmatched anywhere. I felt privileged to have been a part of this film, to work with all the talented people in the cast and crew, to have had the opportunity to help tell this story.  Everyone worked tirelessly in some difficult conditions to make the movie."

Has he always wanted to be a screenwriter?

"I've been a writer and creative person for many years but Beat the Drum was my first film," he says.

"It's been a dream of mine to make a movie and to make one that might make a difference in some way.   I grew up watching the old movies on t.v. --  I think film is the most powerful medium and art form in the world and that the audience wants to be affected by what they experience in the theater."

He hopes that South Africans watching the film will realise that "we're all part of the human family and we're all part of the solution -- that individuals can make a difference -- there's hope."

Is he happy with how his words translated into film?

"Everyone on the team made sure that the dialogue followed the flow of the language while staying true to the script.   It was a challenge, language is an art in itself, but we were pleased with the result.   Our script continuity person was Zulu, and this helped immensely.  The cast and crew was entirely South Africa -- they went to extra mile to make we kept it real."

Other than writing the screenplay, McBrayer was involved as producer and oversaw the production and postproduction.

"There's an old saying that the writer should be  "seen but not heard".  If you can hear the dialogue, the writing, then the writer hasn't done his job. Musa and Nobe, Lettie, all seem very real to me and I hope the audience feels that way too."

Shot on Super 35mm, Beat The Drum was filmed on locations all over South Africa, including Johannesburg, downtown, Soweto, KwaZulu Natal, Drakensburg Mountains with a complete South African cast and crew that captured the stunning landscapes and wildness to create a vivid and authentic backdrop.

The production began its 26 days of principal photography at the notorious Muti Market, a haven for the homeless kids chosen to depict the real flavor and ambience. Located underneath the freeway under pass in downtown Johannesburg, the eclectic Muti market emits odors unimaginable from the array of unthinkable products on sale including dead animals and human body parts for the range of concoctions used by native medicine men for curing various diseases.

"I'm told that it's rare for the writer to be involved in the actual production but I think that it's important to capture the writer's vision for the picture and that involvement, at least at some level, is vital."

Any final words?

"Because Beat the Drum is an independent film it was a struggle to get the picture made but the audience's reaction to the movie has made it all worthwhile."

Copyright © Daniel E. Dercksen
Published with permission in the Weekend Argus, November 5, 2006
Published with permission in the Sunday Tribune, November 6, 2006

Read more about Beat The Drum