Producer on Shaleen Surtie-Richards' final time on film

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  • The never-before-seen documentary Shaleen Surtie-Richards: I Am Who I Am will premiere on M-Net (DStv 101) tonight at 19:30.
  • Producer Diana Lucas describes it as less of a documentary film and more "an intimate talk with a woman who was an amazing person".
  • Shaleen Surtie-Richards died on Monday at the age of 66.

It's pure Shaleen Surtie-Richards as you've never seen her before - through the eyes and the stories of her friends who loved her and knew her best, says producer Diana Lucas, the woman behind the biographical docufilm Shaleen: I Am Who I Am.

Diana Lucas Productions completed work and was putting the finishing touches on the months' long docufilm – an intimate insiders' perspective on the iconic South African actor – just as news broke on Monday morning of the untimely death of Shaleen Surtie-Richards (66).

READ MORE | The final curtain falls on the life of Shaleen Surtie-Richards: A tribute to a South African icon

Diana describes Shaleen: I Am Who I Am as less of a documentary film and more "an intimate talk with a woman who was an amazing person".

In this Q&A, we learn more about the film and how Shaleen as the subject is brought out in the film through interviews and anecdotes. Diana also reveals how the filmmaker and the actor – through the process (and lot and lots of photos) – became friends.

When did you start to work on Shaleen Surtie-Richards: I Am Who I Am as a documentary film?

M-Net gave me the project before the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, and then suddenly, lockdown happened. I've never met Shaleen, but obviously, I've heard about her and her role as Fiela and as Nenna in Egoli.

I spent a lot of time during lockdown phoning her, and she wasn't totally keen about doing it initially - she just had so many things happening. And then we slowly started talking. Around August, early September, she said, when I met her okay, she'd do this. So that's really when it began.

And why a documentary about Shaleen specifically, what was the impetus for her as the subject?

M-Net wanted to do several documentaries about people; I know there's one about Derek Watts of Carte Blanche, there's one about Mark Shuttleworth. I think M-Net has chosen around eight people that they thought worthy of biography-type stories.

What were you busy with when you heard about Shaleen Surtie-Richards' death on Monday?

Oh jeez, you know, I mean. I got such a shock. I was at home. And someone from M-Net was calling me, and she called me again, and I just had this terrible feeling because she doesn't call me that often.

It was a terrible shock. I didn't know Shaleen, but I went through a whole list of people talking about her and her career and her acting. The most amazing thing was that not a single person that I asked – from Pieter-Dirk Uys to Marc Lottering to anyone – each and everyone said: "If it's for Shaleen, I'll do it." And I don't think you often get that reaction.

Everyone said: "For Shaleen – whatever. Whatever time, whatever this, for Shaleen – absolutely." It was like my own discovery of all of these incredible stories that Shaleen Surtie-Richards had in her life - many that she told me obviously, but others that just came out as people like Pedro Kruger spoke about her – just these amazing, intimate pieces about Shaleen's life.

Shaleen Surtie-Richards documentary.
The documentary in its final stages of post-production when the news of her death was annouced.

How far to completion were you with this docufilm before she died on Monday?

We're just completing it now, today (Tuesday). We had sort of completed it; it was just some of the final things. You know, the most wonderful thing is that I've actually showed it to her. And Shaleen loved it.

Just before the completion, about a month ago, she came in. And you know often people don't... and she just came in and said she loved it. Even maybe some of the things that are - not critical but showing who is the real Shaleen and stuff - and she just said: "I love it". I feel that in that way - you know, she had a healthy ego – I feel that I've made her happy.

And we'd sit, and I'd found some stills and photographs in her house. I'd say: "Shaleen, I'm coming for tea," and I'd bring the cameraman, and we'd sit there, and she had tons – so many pictures and newspaper cuttings, and she had album after album of her work and life. She was incredibly orderly, actually. You couldn't choose, and she'd just sit there and tell stories, and it's in that weird time that I started to feel that Shaleen is my friend.

I'm just struck by the "divine intervention" of this documentary being made and just being ready to celebrate her life just as she died.

I know! The one thing is that I got to show it to her because that would have been my worst thing ever for her never to have seen it, but she loved it, and also I feel she was excited to see it. Her friends were going to give her a big "talk" or event. We were going to go to Cape Town and watch it with her friends.

How many hours of filming or how much footage did you amass for this film?

Weirdly enough, her interview took just a day. She came, and we did the makeup and that, and it didn't take more than one interview.

But all of Shaleen Surtie-Richards' friends – I interviewed them for ages. At least I would say an hour each, maybe sometimes more, and about ten people in the documentary that she considered close friends or people she'd worked with.

What surprised you from the content and the interviews or Shaleen herself during this process?

Actually, there's one thing that she is who she is - she's got no pretences, which is one thing she always said. But you never think that's really true. But Shaleen Surtie-Richards really was like that. She really would just say it like it is. Specifically sitting, she'd just tell you – and I'd think wow, a bit of a shock!

But what was also funny is you see that "stage" thing. She'd be sitting looking quite "small" in the interview because she had lost quite a lot of weight. And then she'd do this dramatic sort of pose. And you'd think: "Ah, the actor." Clearly, Shaleen had that mixture of being somebody who really did relate to anyone, and said it like it was.

Shaleen Surtie-Richards did know her own worth. And she did know that she was good. And she liked to talk. She liked to talk and chat, and she's really funny. I think that's what surprised me – her funniness. She's funny.

Why should people make sure they watch it?

You know why? Because I've done lots of interviews, and even before I started this, I searched every interview of Shaleen. But in Shaleen Surtie-Richards: I Am Who I Am, this is a Shaleen where some of the stories, some of her fans may have heard, but it's got an amazing intimacy.

It's a feeling, it's stories, and it moves quite quickly. It's not too angst-filled – it's pure Shaleen. You're sitting down, and you're talking to her, and it's "blerrie" this and that, and I think that it's something that you'll start watching and wonder: "Can I watch 90 minutes?"

Then, because you engage with her, you watch it all. And it's her friends telling all of these lovely stories, and they're all in showbiz as well, so it's like an insiders' view.

And you want to see the pictures – young Shaleen and some pictures where sometimes I said to myself: "My goodness, is that really Shaleen?" She has a very strange way that she could look quite old when she was younger, and when she was older, she could look much younger. She has a very interesting face, and there are so many photos, and she could look totally different in each one.

It's not a "clever" documentary – it's more an intimate talk with a woman who was an amazing person.

Shaleen Surtie-Richards: I Am Who I Am premieres on M-Net (DStv 101) on Wednesday 9 June at 19:30 and will become available on Showmax on Thursday 10 June 2021. It will be shown again as a simulcast on kykNET (DStv 144) and kykNET & Kie (DStv 145) on Sunday 13 June at 20:00.

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