Ellen Pakkies quietly slipped out of film festival screening: 'It brings back painful memories'

2018-11-02 18:17
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She could feel a hornet’s nest of emotion buzzing around in her brain as she sat in the cinema. This wasn’t some made-up horror story that was about to play out on the big screen. It was her life and it was there for the whole world to see – the desperation that drove her to strangle her tik-addicted son.

As the enormity of it all hit home, Ellen Pakkies felt the tears trickle down her cheeks.

She was at the kykNET Silwerskerm Festival in Cape Town as a special guest for the South African premiere of the biographical film Ellen: Die Ellen Pakkies Storie (Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story) but as the room’s lights dimmed and the opening credits began rolling Ellen quietly slipped out of the cinema.

She couldn’t bring herself to stay and watch. Besides, she’d already seen the movie, which stars Jill Levenberg (40), of Afrikaans soapie Suidooster, in the title role and Cape Town actor Jarrid Geduld (28) as her drug addict son – once was enough for her.

“It brings back painful memories,” she says. “I cried through the whole film.”

By the end of the premiere much of the audience was also in tears as the horror of Ellen’s situation sunk in.

What would possess a mother to kill her own child? This was what people wondered in 2007 when the Cape Flats mom made world headlines after admitting to strangling her son to death in his tiny shack at the back of her home.

Ellen (56) hopes people will understand her better after seeing the film, which is now on circuit.

The movie earned three awards at the kykNET Silwerskerm Festival – best actress, best actor and best screenplay – and has been making waves internationally.

It was screened to great acclaim at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in the Netherlands earlier this year and competed at the 44th Seattle International Film Festival.

It’s not awards Ellen is after, however.

What she’s yearning for is more elusive and intangible.

“I hope if people watch it they’ll forgive me for what I did,” she tells DRUM in her first interview about the movie. “I know many still keep me in their hearts but I’m asking for forgiveness.”

Drugs stole her youngest child. For years she sat by helplessly as Adam, nicknamed Abie, transformed into a someone she didn't know. Before that he’d dreamt of becoming a dancer, she says wistfully.

“He was good at sports and always helped me at home. When I felt unwell, he’d make me breakfast,” Ellen recalls.

From the age of 14 everything changed with Abie. Her once loving child started abusing her, first verbally and later physically. As tik took over his life, he conducted a reign of terror at the family’s home in Lavender Hill, stealing from his own parents to support his drug habit.

Ellen tried to find help everywhere – the police, welfare services, the courts, rehabilitation centres, but to no avail.

After seven years of hell it all became too much for her. Ellen went into the small shack on their property where Abie (21) was sleeping to have it out with him.

In her confession, she said she took a rope with her – initially with the intention of using it to restrain him so she could talk to him – but she admitted that when he turned aggressive and threatening she decided to tighten the rope and end it all. She then handed herself over to the police.

She pleaded guilty but the magistrate’s court in Wynberg acquitted her of murder.

Magistrate Amanda van Leeve sentenced her to 280 hours of community service, saying the system failed Ellen.

She’s been doing community work ever since, as well as motivational talks countrywide to warn children against drugs.

Ellen says she still sees her son’s ghost every day on the Cape Flats.

“I miss Abie but I see him in other young people in my area who are destroying their lives and whose parents suffer the same pain I did,” she says.

She still lives in the two-bedroom home where her son died.

“I never want to move out of that house,” she says. “I feel he’s still in the house. I never go to his grave because I believe his spirit is at home.”
Sometimes when a door in the house opens seemingly by itself she’ll tell him to rest, she says, smiling wryly. “I’m still unhappy about what I did,” Ellen says.

She has two older sons [whom she doesn’t want to name] – one lives and works in Atlantis and another, like Abie, is a drug addict.

Her story’s been told on stage. Vinette Ebrahim, star of Afrikaans soapie 7de Laan, played her and Christo Davids portrayed Abie in the play My Naam Is Ellen Pakkies (My Name is Ellen Pakkies).

Four years ago, when she was told a biopic was to be made about her, she wasn’t sure how to react.

“I didn’t know how to be excited about it,” she says, but she felt a film about the tragedy was good. “If it changes just one person’s life, I’ll be grateful,” Ellen says.

A few scenes in the movie were filmed in her home in Lavender Hill.

“I could feel the house’s history – that home tells the story,” says director Daryne Joshua whose debut movie, Noem My Skollie (Call Me Thief), caused a major buzz in 2016.

 When Jill learnt she’d landed the role she was excited – but nervous. “I was scared,” she says. “It was my first lead role and it’s a story that deserves respect and so I wanted to do it right.”

The Cape Town actress had wanted to be a part of the project so badly that she’d emailed Daryne asking if she could have even a small part in the film.

“A few weeks later he let me know I was playing the lead. I went down on my knees and cried and prayed,” she says.

Ellen took her under her wing, spending time with her to help her prepare.

“We’re like old friends now,” Ellen says. When they first met, the two women realised they’d grown up in the same street in Kensington, Cape Town.

Ellen, who’s 16 years older than Jill, visited the set a few times. She moved in with neighbours while the film crew took over her home.

She says it made her happy to see Jarrid – who featured in the 2013 South African crime thriller Four Corners – in the role of her late son. “He told me it was as if Abie was there to guide him and show him how to do it,” Ellen tells us.

Tik is a huge problem on the Cape Flats, she adds.

“I recently started a painting project,” Ellen says. The project started when the film crew left some paint in her home.

“I took that paint and started painting other people’s homes in the area. I asked the kids to help – so they learn to work – and it brightens people’s homes and adds colour to their lives,” she tells us.

A recent large donation from a paint company has ensured Ellen can carry on with the project.

Her only source of income is the pension of her husband, Odneal (60), but her modest home is a haven for 10 people, including “blood relatives” and people she’s taken in. She’s happy and positive.

“Things are good. I’m grateful to the Lord for everyone he’s sent me. I was never a dreamer but now I know good things can happen.”

Read more on:    ellen pakkies  |  cape town  |  narcotics

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