Daniel Dercksen shares a few thought with writer-director Stefanie Sycholt
You are holding a torch for women filmmakers, do you agree that women filmmakers are coming into their own rights after a film like Hurt Locker and The World Unseen?
Internationally the film industry is still incredibly male dominated. But, hey, I guess that can be said for big business and the political world too. A few women have made it to the top in these fields. But by and large it is still men that are entrusted with job of leading countries, companies, film sets. Obviously therefore it is still an issue whether you are a man or a woman in this job, and sometimes I feel that as a woman you have to go just a little bit further, try just a little bit harder, to get accepted by the producers, the crew, the audiences. When I first took on the task of adapting and directing THEMBA, I was often confronted by the question: How can a woman make a film about soccer? Now nobody would have asked a male director that question, even if the man had never touched a soccer ball in his life, he would have been considered competent to direct a film with soccer scenes in it. So, I was thoroughly delighted when the editor of Kick Off magazine told me that THEMBA has some of the best and most believable soccer sequences that he's seen in films.
It was absolutely fantastic that Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for best director this year. But, you know, it did shock me that she was the first woman ever to do this. I mean, just think how long movies and the Oscars have been around. And the first woman won this award in 2010. Incredible actually. Because there are some incredibly talented and skilled women out there making films.
Obviously, I hope that one day nobody will even notice whether a director is a man or a woman. Or maybe they'll start genetic testing like they do in sport … and the whole issue of what gender you are as a director will become incredibly complex. I hope that is not the future.
Tell me about Themba: what can audiences expect from the film?
I think audiences can expect to be entertained, to be moved, to shed a tear or two, to laugh and to applaud the courage of a boy who stands up for who and what he is and is not prepared to give up his dreams and his hopes because life has not placed a silver spoon in his mouth.
I think it's a film that looks at the dark side of South Africa, at the same time as providing hope and a positive outlook. I've heard people say after the screenings, thank god this is not another film about crime and gangsters in South Africa, as though that was all there was going on in this country at the moment.
It is a strong film about family, about the power of love and holding together against all odds. It really is a film that touches on a number of issues which are relevant to South Africa today - issues like HIV/AIDS, child rape, the effects of poverty and unemployment, the brutal results of the migrant labour system, but it also raises the concepts of taking responsibility for your own destiny, of standing up for yourself and being responsible, of having the courage to flow against the main stream, of following your dreams no matter what, of never giving up hope. It is a film that also reflects the power of sport, especially soccer in helping to better the quality of your life, to build a sense of community and joint purpose, to practice discipline and dedication, to strive for excellence. These are valuable lessons for any life.
What was it about Lutz van Dijk's novel, CROSSING THE LINE that inspired you to adapt it for the big screen?
The novel CROSSING THE LINE - now called THEMBA: A BOY CALLED HOPE - inspired me to adapt it for the big screen because it combines so successfully the parallel themes of hopelessness and hopefulness - which to me are simply both sides of the central theme of hope. It was not a story about HIV/AIDS that was just bleak and dismal, but there really was the potential in there to create a film that was essentially positive and uplifting in its approach, despite dealing with such ahard-hitting, real subject matter.
Was it difficult obtaining the rights?
Lutz van Dijk luckily had really liked my last South African movie, MALUNDE, and hence it was quite easy to convince him to allow us to option the rights.
Tell me about writing the script… was it difficult to translate it to a visual medium and did you follow a specific process?
The novel is written in the first person, we are continually inside the head of the main character and this is not easy to translate to the big screen, because you need to find visual images for intellectual thoughts. Also in the novel form you can jump around continuously in the past and the present. In film you have to tell a story far more continuously. Because the novel is written from Themba's perspective, it is Ok that he thinks Uncle Luthando is the bad guy right from the beginning, but in film each character is fully present in their own right and to make them believable they have to be multi-dimensional. All these elements were added into the screenplay. The novel was written a number of years back when ARVs were not yet fully accessible in South Africa and at the end of the novel, Themba's mother is still very ill and about to die. I thought it would have a far stronger effect if we allowed the mother to survive, to experience the almost miracle-like effects that ARVs can have on a person's life. I know this from my own experience, I have a friend who was just about to die of AIDS. In fact he had received the last rites already. But a doctor tried just once more to see if the ARVS would take. And like a miracle they did. And he is now living a full and active life again. There are some characters in the novel, that have been excluded from the film. And some characters in the film that have received a larger, more prominent position than in the novel. In the end, it is important to see that the novel and the film are two separate entities. And a film has to work as a film, while remaining true to the spirit of the novel, it cannot translate one to one to the big screen. That would make for a very boring and sometimes even incomprehensible film.
Tell me about your transition from writing the script to directing the film? It must have been difficult?
I actually love directing stories that I have written, because by the time you get to direct the film you know everything about the story, you have been living, breathing, thinking this story for two or so years already. And you know a lot of the answers already - because that is what you need when you are directing. You always need to have answers at your finger tips, for the questions of the director of photography, of the actors, the costume designer, the art director, the sound engineer, the make -up artist, the assistant director, the stunt people, the producers. The only questions you don't have to answer are those posed by the caterer - you just go two or three times a day and enjoy their glorious meals and put on weight. So, you have a vision when you are writing. And then one day you finish writing and the directing process begins, you put on your director's cap and you start to make that vision become a reality, you start to enthuse others with your vision and your ideals.
What is your connection to South Africa…how did you come to tell this South African story?
I'm a South African, born and bred , I was involved in student politics in the 1980s and was the National Media Officer for NUSAS in 1986, the year white student leadership were smuggled out of the country to go to visit the ANC in exile. This country, its politics, its stories have always fundamentally moved me. Even when I was a student at the film school in Munich I would scrape together money, beg tickets from SAA or Lufthansa, smuggle back equipment and shoot my student movies here. I spent two months in Colesberg following a number of families around during the period of the first free elections in 1994. When I finally had a 10-hour version of the film, I called in a German editor to help me. He watched the 10 hours totally fascinated and said at the end. So what do you want me to edit? This is just great. I have just understood South Africa for the first time. We finally did cut a 2 and a half hour version though.
When I was doing my first feature directing scenes at film school, our directing coach, a famous former GDR film director came to me and said, Stefanie, I appreciate your love of democracy and that you come from a political background, but let me just give you some advice, here you are the dictator. You decide what you want, and you can't spend all your time asking everyone their opinion.
Well, that came as a bit of a shock. But I think that maybe that's where a little bit of difference might lie between male and female directors. Maybe women directors allow the rest of the crew to be included more in the process of making the film.
For many years I have been trying to find a way to make a film about children and HIV/AIDS because it is a subject that really does move me very deeply.
Is Themba a South African film or a co-production?
THEMBA is a South African-German co-production, like so many big South African films are these days. It is also the first film where I too have been involved in the production process, raising a lot of the funds for this film. But, despite the fact that it is a German-SA co-production it really is such a South African film - based in the country, telling an all-South African story, with an all South African cast, except for Jens Lehmann, the german national goalkeeper, shot in 65 % Xhosa and 35% English. The only German person on set was the director of photography and his apprentice.
Was it a difficult film to make?
It wasn't an easy film to make. Firstly, raising the money for such a film is truly difficult. Then it was shot largely in the rural eastern cape, where there is very little infrastructure for the film industry, and in a township near Cape Town, which is notoriously difficult to manage in terms of crowd control etc. Then the story spans a time period of about 6 years, which means we needed two sets of actors to play each of the children. So not only did we have to find a lot of talented newcomers, who could also play soccer, they had to look like each other, too. It is difficult enough directing one non-professional actor, but in this case we had a whole lot of really new talent. Including Simphiwe Dana in her first ever acting role. Yes, it was difficult, but it was also incredibly exhilarating and rewarding.
Is the film being distributed worldwide?
At the moment it is being released in the cinemas first in South Africa, then in Germany and we are hoping that we will then get a world-wide release, too.
Are you satisfied with how the film turned out?
When did you first know that you were going to be a filmmaker?
As a child I attended the German school in Johannesburg for my first two years, before going on to an English school. We had a young hippie art teacher who sat us down on the floor and he would tell stories while we painted pictures. And I really think from then on I have loved the combination of pictures and stories and I guess it was only natural that I eventually found my way to filmmaking.
After making this film, do you regard yourself as a writer or director?
I think I am both a writer and a director. In Germany where I trained at the film school in Munich, there are very many filmmakers who combine these two things, so I don't really see that there is a problem with being both things or that it is in any way unusual. One of my colleagues at the film school, where I also worked for a while, is a screenwriter, director, short story writer, novelist and opera director of note. And truly she has won top prizes in all the different categories.
Your views on the film industry in South Africa?
I think the South African film industry is really super professional and I believe in terms of the skills here, we are in no way behind any other nation, even the great filmmaking countries. But, there is still some way to go till South African films can be fully financed in this country, can be supported by local audiences, can be distributed in such a way that they get to all South Africans, and till local stories and culture get supported the way they are for example by the German state or the French state, where subsidies are purposefully set aside to keep alive a local film culture that does not bow to Hollywood's standards. Where independent filmmaking is supported, where grants are issued, but no attempts are made to change the content and the type of story that is being told.
Any comments you would like to share?
There is life with HIV/AIDS. Denialism and shame stand in the way of your dreams and living a full beautiful life. They can create so much hardship, even death. And the time has come to realize that in South Africa.
Your future plans.
To write, to direct, to make a lot more South African films, to help my son grow up to be a beautiful, responsible adult, to have an empathetic and sympathetic ear for my fellow human beings, to spend as much time as I can in my beautiful home country. I have a number of projects in development and hope that in the next few years I will be bale to shoot one of these stories.
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Copyright © 2010 Daniel Dercksen