ESCAPE WITH HITCHHIKER
By Daniel Dercksen
Celebrating 40 years in the South African film and television industries, Chris du Toit, who was one of South Africa's first poster boys and teenage heartthrobs, now wears the hat of producer-writer-and director of the latest local film Hitchhiker, a nostalgic journey into his youth.
For du Toit, who is well-know as a director for the classic Afrikaans feature Elsa Se Geheim and the TV serial 'Matshitaba', and acted in many films and soaps, Hitchhiker is a dream come true, and the first of other dream projects.
"It is a dream come true," says du Toit, "and in hindsight, I wish I could do things over again, but our budget off course was the same as what the Americans would spend on the wardrobe of Meryl Streep."
Inspired by the lyrical Russian film Ballad of a Soldier, which Du Toit saw in the late 50s and had a great influence on his life, Hitchhiker is also semi-autobiographical.
"It is based on things that happened in my life," says du Toit, reminiscing about his childhood days on a "wind-swept, mealie farm" near Petrus Steyn in the Orange Free State where he attended a farm school, Molendraai, on horse back.
One of his fondest memories that initiated his awareness and love for the arts, and one that made him realise that he was indeed alive, was when he was introduced to classical music.
"My dear overwrought mother played Chopin and Beethoven on a Sunday afternoon," he fondly remembers. "I grew up with classical music, and in Hitchhiker, obviously, I have to use it very judiciously because I am considered old fashioned and passé."
"One has this little dream of putting on the screen, on paper, some experiences that are rather poignant and important in one's life," he says.
"When I was a young, penniless student I hitchhiked all over the place. I was once given a lift by an Englishman in a Jaguar; it was the most beautiful car I'd ever seen in my life and then, suddenly, for this Free State Afrikaans boy with a strong South African accent it was like I was given a lift by Laurence Olivier. It was frightfully grand."
In Hitchhiker young heartthrob Paul Gardyne, who makes his film debut and whom du Toit describes as our "very own Brad Pitt", plays the role of a love-sick young bushveld boy who hitch hikes across the breath of the country in pursuit of his true love.
English hunk, Lee Savage, adds an international flavour to the cast, playing the young English gentleman who drives his Rolls Royce across South Africa as part of a bet and picks up the hapless young hitchhiker.
The idea of making Hitchhiker became a reality when Du Toit read an article written by Barry Ronge, mentioning that instead of telling South African stories, we tend to project our political and social agendas.
"We wanted to provide a purely escapist movie, where audiences can watch a movie with a heart-warming story-line, attractive characters who wrestle with normal relationship problems, romantic and sexual intrigue - and loads of stunning scenery," says Du Toit. "It pointedly ignores racism (past and present) and inequality in our society."
"I don't think we South Africans, or everywhere else in the world wants to see political things anymore, and social issues that depress us," he says.
"If you pay R40 to go to the cinema you don't want to come away depressed, so it is flagrantly, blatantly an attempt at being escapist, feel good, and, obviously, hopefully, slightly commercial."
Du Toit's interest in film began when he was a little boy.
"I sat on my mother's lap watching Gone with the Wind in the 40s," he says. His interest wavered because "in those days, with my father being a realist Free State farmer, acting was not work," says du Toit, who then qualified as a teacher and studied in Europe and England, and then taught for quite a long time at Pretoria Boys High School and Tukkies."
"I was always dreaming of doing film work, and then I got an audition with Frans Marx,' he says.
"I was better looking in those days, and not all that talented. Frans Marx used to say that I had the looks but he had the talent," he laughs jokingly.
"My first role with him was in the early sixties for an Afrikaans movie called Sien Jou More, which was hugely popular and made millions for the producers because there was no television in those days."
From his experience in bringing Hitchhiker to our screens, Du Toit's advice for aspirant filmmakers is to "write their scripts, secure a distribution deal with local distributors, find money and follow winning recipes (like Leon Schuster)."
It wasn't easy for Du Toit to turn his dream project into reality and have Ster-Kinekor distribute the film.
"This sort of thing is very traumatic," he says. "If you want to make a successful movie, it is very, very hard, and risky work. One has such sort of ideals which are so unrealisable and in hindsight, I would have done so many things differently, but we don't have the American money to go and re-shoot, re-edit, re-record dialogue that is not clear. We had to shoot the movie in 7 weeks. It's a huge risk."
"One huge mistake I've made," he acknowledges, "was ending up with 30 hours of rushes, which I had to reduce to a 100 minutes."
"Somehow my storyline has suffered because all sorts of bits and pieces about character development that I had in the script originally, had to be cut out because we can't release a movie of two or three hours," he says.
Du Toit is pleased that in the end, the undertaking was definitely worth the effort and risk.
"I don't know what the critics will think of this movie," he laughs. "It is certainly not a Cinema Nouveau movie and it is not going to change anybody's philosophy of life."
"I feel that for 100 minutes people will forget about electricity cuts and all the horrors we humans do to each other," he concludes.
"As Ronge said in an article: 'movies are primarily mass entertainment'. Isn't that the ideal?"
READ MORE ABOUT HITCHHIKER
Copyright © 2008 Daniel Dercksen
Published with permission in the Weekend Argus - February 3, 2008