Film History: ‘Bitter Spears’

2008-04-18 00:00

Bitter Spears was a sound remake of the earlier Siliva the Zulu (1927) that was made by Italian film maker Attilio Gatti together with the anthropologist Aldo Cipriani.

Gatti subsequently became an adventurer, film maker and author, publishing a slew of titles like Tom Toms in the Mist, Here is Africa, The Wrath of Moto, South of the Sahara, Africa is Adventure and Sangoma.

The latter book, published in 1962, chronicles Gatti’s return to South Africa to make a “talking version” of Siliva the Zulu called Bitter Spears.

As the title of the book suggests, a key character in Bitter Spears is a sangoma and Gatti notes that he “badly wanted a witchdoctor of snakes”. Through the good offices of Harry Lugg, Chief Native Commissioner of Natal, Gatti was able to cast Zizwezonke “Khekhekhe” Mthethwa, famed for his affinity with snakes.

According to Lugg, writing in A Natal Family Looks Back, Mthethwa was employed to film stunts with his snakes. “One of these was to suspend a number of snakes by holding their heads between his teeth and to do a sort of fandango dance.”

Mthethwa, who died in 2006, was a lineal descendant of Dingiswayo and consulted at his homestead at Gilubuhle in the Thukela valley, south of Eshowe.

Mthethwa is featured in many books on Zulu culture, including Paul Faber’s Group Portrait South Africa — Nine Family Histories, in which he is described as “KwaZulu-Natal’s pre-eminent traditional healer”.

Bitter Spears was broadcast on Italian television as a three-part series but today only exists in a few fragments held by the Gatti family.

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