KZN link to drama

2008-01-24 00:00

“We really put our all into it,” is how producer Julie Frederikse describes the new South African mini-series, Land of Thirst, set for broadcast at 7.30 pm on January 29, February 5 and February 12 on SABC2.

Although set in the Karoo in 1913, the work has strong KZN connections as the production company is Durban-based Vuleka Productions, headed by Frederikse and Madoda Ncayiyana, who also takes a role in the work.

Land of Thirst features popular SA television star Hlomla Dandala as Khanyiso Phalo and Nina Lucy Wylde as Margaret Harding. Wylde is currently based in the UK, but grew up in South Africa and came back specifically to take the lead female role. There are a number of other well-known local faces in the cast — Ian Roberts, Terry Norton, Lesley Mongezi and Susan Danford among them.

The mini-series, and the made-for-TV feature film that was shot at the same time and is due for release later in the year, are based on Perceval Gibbon’s 1911 novel, Margaret Harding. Probably his best-known work, it deals with an English woman suffering from tuberculosis who comes to South Africa in search of a cure. She meets and falls in love with a black doctor, the son of a Xhosa chief. He was taken to England as an adolescent after his father was imprisoned on Robben Island by the colonial authorities.

While in England, Khanyiso trained as a doctor and, at the time of the action, has returned to South Africa to find his roots and his role in society after his father’s death. He is faced with the racism prevalent in the country on the eve of the passage of the infamous Native Land Act of 1913, and the only white who treats him with anything other than contempt is Margaret. But their love affair is doomed in the South Africa of the time.

The project has taken almost three years to come to the screen. It began when Frederikse and Ncayiyana heard that the SABC was looking for literary adaptations of South African stories. They already knew writer/director Meg Rickard, who had been working on an adaptation of Gibbon’s novel while working at the Binger Film Lab in Amsterdam, and they all agreed that Vuleka would pitch the idea to the SABC.

“The script changed a lot in the two years we all worked on it,” says Frederikse. “We worked with Meg to make it Khanyiso’s story, rather than Margaret’s. And we needed to shift the early 20th century novel to a 21st century viewer’s perspective.”

It was vital to ensure that Khanyiso was not a “white black man”, a figure of colonial fiction. In the book, he was taken to England as a child, but for the film he only went there after he had gone through his Xhosa initiation. This means that when he returns he has an Englishness, but from a Xhosa perspective he is a man. “Otherwise, people wouldn’t buy it if they know anything about Xhosa culture,” says Frederikse. “We had to make it make sense for a modern audience.”

Interviewed by Frederikse during the filming, Dandala explains that his own circumcision taught him about where he had come from, and also meant that when serious family issues are discussed, he is there and making a contribution. Like his character, he has lived in England, but he says he still thinks and dreams in Xhosa. He can understand Khanyiso, caught in a No-Man’s Land, not accepted fully by black people because of the way he speaks, but not accepted by whites either. “He has to reclaim himself, to prove he is Xhosa,” is how he puts it.

Frederikse sees this angle striking a chord with many South Africans who have returned from exile and are having to rediscover their roots. “I hope that will resonate, along with the historic angle and the Africanness of the story. The music has African themes and the setting is that strange, eerie Karoo.” Filming there was a change for Vuleka, most of whose work is done in KZN.

Frederikse and Ncayiyana as producers and Rickard as director — who during the six-week shoot last year was still breastfeeding her baby — are all delighted with the results and the performances of their cast.

The SABC has signed a deal with a UK distributor, which is a real feather in Vuleka’s cap. Their name is already well known for the short film, The Sky in Her Eyes, which won a best African film award at Cannes and was seen widely here as the short preceding the New Zealand feature film, Whale Rider.

But the release of Land of Thirst is an exciting development for the company: successful prime-time drama is a great way to get your name out there.

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