The white stuff

2010-01-30 00:00

A DREAM that has been some 14 years in the making is how Janet van Eeden describes getting the job of writing the script for White Lion, the South African feature film she co-wrote and which is due for release nationwide on February 19.

“I had a dream when I left the UK that I should go into films,” Van Eeden says, “and, after that, I had lots of little encouragements but no big breakthrough. Then I saw a call for scripts to be submitted for White Lion.

“They say white lions are messengers of the gods, and I think that throughout this process they were my protectors.”

Van Eeden submitted a treatment for the film and was soon on a shortlist of 10, which became three, and then a head-to-head contest with her friend, Roy Blumenthal, before she was finally chosen to write the script.

“When they asked us why we should get the job, I said: ‘Because I love lions’. I thought I’d blown it, but I think what I said touched Kevin [Richardson, the producer],” she added.

That was five years ago. “People thought I was lying for the last five years when I said I scripted a film,” Van Eeden says with a wry smile. “What people don’t realise is that making a film is incredibly long term. If you’re not a little crazy and passionate about film, you wouldn’t go into this industry.”

White Lion tells the story of a rare white lion cub which rises above many challenges to become one of the most powerful lions in all of Africa. The film has been nominated for several South African Film and Television Awards (Saftas), including best cinematography, best music score and best sound engineering — vindicating executive producer Rodney Fuhr’s commitment to making a quality film.

A wildlife fanatic, who has been deeply involved in sponsoring lion research since the late 1970s, Fuhr has reportedly spent over R45 million bringing the film to life, making it one of the most expensive movies ever made in South Africa.

“White Lion has been a long time coming and was Rodney’s vision, dating back to the early eighties,” Richardson said. “His original idea was to follow a tawny male lion cub from infancy to adulthood. Since then, it has obviously progressed to the stage where we are following a white lion and his journey.

“For me, the beauty of this film is its reality component and inherent simplicity. I love the fact that Rodney’s story never allowed it to become too complicated and was always anchored in the realms of what could happen in the wilds of Africa. So although White Lion is a fictional feature film, and we have taken licence on some issues, it is not beyond the scope of what could take place in the wild. The reality of what this little white lion endures is quite real.”

The filmmakers used around 60 tawny and white lions of all ages to depict the phases the film’s four-legged characters go through. Filmed by Michael Swan, who also directs, and with music by Philip Miller, White Lion has been compared with Jean Jacques-Annaud’s acclaimed film, The Bear, and those involved with it hope it will enjoy the same success.

Asked how she felt seeing the final film, Van Eeden said: “I saw it at a private screening in July last year with the producers and guests in Johannesburg, and I just smiled and cried the whole time. It’s quite something to write something on paper and then see the lion enacting it. I feel really honoured to have played even a small part in making it.”

The film, which is narrated by legendary South African actor John Kani is aimed at families.

“It’s a very simple story,” Van Eeden explained. “It’s not a [Quentin] Tarantino. Rather it’s the kind of story you can take children of all ages to see. It’s like Born Free, a make-you-fall-in-love-with-animals kind of film.”

She added: “I saw Born Free when I was five or six and I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve had an absolute passion for lions ever since. And I hope White Lion does the same thing for a new generation of children.”

ACCORDING to the legend of the Shangaan, white lions are the messengers of the gods, but it has been years since one has been seen in their remote African valley. When a white lion, Letsatsi, is born into that valley, a young Shangaan named Gisani feels destined to protect this rare and magnificent creature at all costs.

Letsatsi’s journey is far from easy. He witnesses another cub being killed by a snake and is then cast out of his pride when another male takes over. Ill-equipped for survival and close to starvation, Letsatsi befriends Nkulu, an ol­der lion, and together they learn how to survive in the harsh African wilderness.

When Nkulu is killed by a farmer, Letsatsi is forced once again to survive on his own and after many trials and tribulations, he finally learns to hunt by himself and grows into a magnificent adult. But before he can take over a pride of his own, he and Gisani must face their greatest enemy — a trophy hunter.

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