Love, sweat and tears

2010-08-04 00:00

THEMBA has recently won two awards (the Golden Dhow for Best Feature Film at the Zanzibar International Film Festival and the Unicef Award). What kind of feedback have you had generally and has it been different in Europe and Africa, and especially South Africa?

We’ve had a great response to the film in South Africa. Which is a huge relief. It’s always a bit nerve-racking to see how you get received on home turf. South Africans are quite unforgiving about their own culture. I think there might be an initial reluctance among people to go to the cinema to see a South African film that appears to be a “problem” film. But actually all audiences I have witnessed in South Africa have been incredibly moved by it, but also buoyed. They come out feeling not depressed, but hopeful.

It’s only just beginning to go on circuit in Germany, so I’m not sure yet how audiences here will respond to it. We have won the two major prizes at the Emden Film Fest in Germany, which is the biggest audience festival here and the responses by political organisations and writers have been great.


In this movie you work with people who’ve never acted before. People praise you for your ability to get strong performances out of raw actors, especially children. How do you do this?

I work very emotionally with the kids and take a good chunk of time during the rehearsal period to build relationships between them and myself, and between them and the other actors. We play a lot of games that centre around trust and working as a group and doing it all together. Games that seem simple at first but really only work on trust — like running around a garden blindfolded at top speed and relying on the other actors to catch and steer you. At first everyone starts off very hesitant, but by the end of the rehearsal period every­one is running around like mad, totally trusting that the other will be there to catch them.

And this is how the acting works too. My maxim is you can only be as good as your partner allows you to be, so I encourage them really to connect with each other, physically and emotionally. It’s important to understand how kids operate emotionally, but then also in the context of the film to treat them like professional colleagues, to spur on their sense of achievement and to realise how competitiveness works between kids and to use this. For example, I insist all the emotions are real ones. So if the kids have to cry in a scene, their tears will be real tears. And everyone had a scene in the film where this was the case, so it was like a challenge to them, nobody wanted to let themselves, me or the entire ensemble down. And the other thing is, I go through the emotions with the actors, so when I talk them through it, I am often crying too. And only when we are in the emotions, do I give a silent sign behind my back and the cameras start rolling.


What were the biggest challenges in making this movie?

Oh, there were lots of challenges. I think that is the nature of making a movie — it’s challenges all the way. It all costs so much money, the funding is always difficult to secure, and when you finally have it together, you think now this is great, the movie is as good as made. But that’s when the real problems start. You have to shoot in very little time to make sure you stick within the budget, then you never know whether the actors you have cast and the crew you have selected are actually going to crack it together and find an emotional connection so that they can sustain this intense work for the six weeks of shooting, six days a week, a minimum of 12 hours a day. It’s bloody intense. It is quite a challenge to keep this army of 50 to 70 people you have working together at any one moment moving in the same direction, following the same vision. It’s particularly difficult with children, who cannot work such long hours and who often don’t see the point of working after a while.

Then there is the problem of the locations you shoot in. Port St Johns was beautiful, but hell in some ways. No real infrastructure, cellphones, Internet didn’t work, dirt roads that camera trucks got stuck on, and then the ticks … countless crew members got tickbite fever. We had a medic on set who would spray us every morning from top to bottom to stop the little blighters biting us. But still people got sick.

Then sometimes you have a very emotional scene to shoot and the sun is going down. Like the scene where Mandisa tells her children she has lost her job. I sat with Simphiwe helping to get her to the point where she is crying, the crew was standing around nervously, the director of photography was biting his nails, taking light measurement, because he saw the sun was going and we had 10 minutes … and I had to stay calm and do the emotional work that is required right there, otherwise there would be no scene at all. Then finally I gave a sigh, rolled out of the way and we shot the whole scene in one take. Those are the moments too when making a film is just fantastic.


The cast and crew must have made quite an impact on Port St Johns. How many people were involved and what was the extent of the operation that had to be set up there?

We pretty much took over the whole town — a lot of guest houses were occupied by us. The head office was in one of the central guest houses and restaurants. And a lot of the local community were a part of the film. They were extras in the scenes. Or they helped work with the crew, they were drivers, runners or helped with casting.


Male rape is a bit of a taboo subject here and people seldom acknowledge it. Have you encountered much resistance to this being part of the story?

Well, the hugest resistance was that I couldn’t get a South African actor to play this role initially. There is such a taboo around this and such a fear that audiences would see the actor as the real villain. I always wanted Patrick Mofokeng to play this role because he has this amazing ability to be gentle and vulnerable and charming and then to be such a villain, bursting with seething anger. I went to him on bended knees and he finally said: “You know if you believe something is wrong, and you can do something against it with the work you do, then you have to do it.” So he took on this role which was a huge challenge for him and really horrible in many ways. I remember the first rehearsals of the rape scene and all that hate, and we were all in tears by the end of that, Patrick, Nat Singo, myself.


You’ve been out of the country for a long time. You come back here fairly often but do you find it easy working here or do you have to adjust anything in your head when you start a new project?

Actually, I love shooting here. I much prefer it to working in Germany. I find the crews more collaborative here, more proud of the job they are doing and prepared really to master it. In Germany there is a sense that just about everyone wants to be a director. And some of the directors really use a harsh tone on their set. I hate that. I remember after the film I shot in Germany ended, one of the wardrobe women came to me with a huge bunch of flowers and thanked me, and said that these six weeks were the first time in 15 years that she hadn’t come to work scared. I was astounded.

Sometimes things work a little more slowly when you are in South Africa, but on set that is never the case.


You live and work in Germany but your heart is clearly still partly here. What’s the hardest part of bridging this divide?

The hardest part is accepting that my life will always be a little schizophrenic. It is like I have my parallel life in South Africa that has gone on here all the years that I have been based abroad. My friends, my family, the work I do here. And I come back and I slip back into it. And it is so easy, so familiar, and I am always really happy to be here. And then I have to go back to Germany. And I always feel this immense sense of loss. But then after a week I have shifted gears and I am operating in this world.


What do you like most about working in Germany and what do you miss most in South Africa?

Germans are very reliable about their word. If they say they are going to fund a project or give you a commission to write a script, then they will do that, even if it takes some time. That is definitely not the case in South Africa. I have had numerous promises made here that never came to anything. The German film and TV industry is large and flourishing. In South Africa I will always have to raise funds elsewhere if I want to make a big feature film here.

I miss the spirit in South Africa most, the can-do attitude, the sense that one can still do things and change things here. Germany is very set in its way. There is an ordered way of doing things and that is very reliable, but it can be a tad stifling too.


Are there any plans to ensure wider distribution of the film in SA — i.e. bey­ond the big cities?

Yes, we are working with Cinema for Peace and the United Nations to get this film out through NGOs into the rural areas, the areas without cinemas in Southern Africa. But also as far afield as Kenya, where there are desires to show the film in large refugee camps.

Who is Stephanie Sycholt?


BORN in Pretoria, Sycholt grew up in Amanzimtoti and did a BA at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, and studied film theory at the University of Cape Town. She was an active member of the anti-apartheid student movement and in 1986 she was media officer for the National Union of South African Students (Nusas). She coordinated AVA — an anti-apartheid video unit in Durban. In 1990, she travelled to Munich to study at the University of TV and Film. Her films include Rooibos With Milk, Tango Zu Dritt, Gwendolyn, The Bridal Gown, Whirlwind, Ausgesetz and Malunde which competed in 19 festivals around the world and won a string of awards.

About the movie

BASED on the novel Crossing the Line by Lutz van Dijk, Themba is about a boy, played by Nat “Junior” Singo, growing up in the Eastern Cape and facing all kinds of adversity, including poverty, HIV, a single-parent family and rape. Despite all these problems his tale is one of hope. Themba is a talented football player and his path to success on the field as well as his psychological journey through all his difficulties are the real point of the film. Themba’s mother is played by jazz diva Simphiwe Dana and international football stars Jens Lehmann and Doc Khumalo and film and television star Rapulana Seiphemo all make guest appearances.



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