Sunday, December 17, 2006

All I Want for Christmas.

As Christmas approaches like a fake snow avalanche, I can’t help thinking what is this Christmas-thing all about? Is it about the religious ritual which seems to becoming more and more marginalized? Is it about being with family even though these occasions can end in acrimonious recriminations as festive cheer and beer loosen all inhibitions about past resentments? Or is it just about the presents?

The latter seems to have become the most dominant aspect of this annual regurgitation of cash as shops seethe with people ready to bare their teeth and fight to the death to get that life-altering bar of soap/aftershave lotion for Aunt/Uncle/Mother/Father. I must say that watching such blatant consumerism isn’t my favourite aspect of the human race, and I try to avoid being part of the manic crowd for as long as I can possibly hold out.

So this year I thought of giving presents which are not bought in the usual shopping malls. Now I’m not talking about the abstract nouns sprouted forth by beauty queens at pageants. You know the stuff: World Peace; Elimination of Poverty; Cures for Aids, a new wig for Donald Trump. You know that sort of thing. Those would be nice, of course. But I’m thinking along the lines of virtual presents: presents I could give to whomever I wanted if the only limitation was my imagination.

Let me give you an idea of what I’m talking about. If I could give anyone in the world anything I’d like, I go for a sort of Wizard of Oz theme to make it simpler. Firstly, let’s look at the scarecrow and imagine that we’re looking for someone who needs a brain. Oh yes, there are multiple contenders. Just think about George “It’s not about the Oil” Bush? Or Manto “Bring me my Garlic” Thsabalala? And the all-time classic, Jacob “I’ll just pop into the shower” Zuma? We are spoilt for choice. But the ultimate contender has to be the Government Department Official in charge of paying people whom I phoned earlier this year after not having been paid four months. She had no idea who I was when I asked her to look up my invoice. Finally she asked to which organization I belonged. I told her I was not part of an organization but worked as an individual. She asked how one spelt that. Not quite believing my ears, I spelt out each letter slowly but carefully: “I… N… D… I… V…I…” When I’d finished she waited a few seconds before pronouncing that she definitely didn’t have anyone by that name on her computer. Bless her. I am now thinking of having a pseudonym: “I. M. Individual.” It has a certain ring about it, don’t you think? No, there’s no doubt. She’s a definite shoe-in for the “Get a Brain” present.

Next I thought about the tin man and his lack of a heart. There were a million contenders for this one too. All three candidates above come in closely with their own personal heartlessness, most notably Manto “Let them eat Beetroot” Thsabalala and her callous lack of concern about the ARV roll-out. But the real contenders in this category must be the abominable child rapists, the reckless drivers who wipe out innocent people and then the criminals who’d kill anyone from a gentle housewife to a policeman on duty at his very own police station. Their callous disregard for everything once considered sacred makes them sorely in need of a heart. But I’m trying to be light-hearted this Christmas (pardon the pun). So this leads me to think that the best candidate for the person who needs a heart must be Tom Cruise. Remember how he thought his wife-to-be would be just peachy giving birth to their child without being able to utter a sound. A silent birth? Not even a single scream allowed from mother-to-be? Is he mentally deranged? No. I think he’s just the most heartless candidate. Especially after he’d said that post-natal depression does not exist. Umm. Perhaps he needs a large dose of female hormones instead of a heart? Well, in my virtual world I’ll give him both.

Lastly, the lion without courage award goes to me. I can think of other contenders, such as Thabo Mbeki about to address a rally with Zuma supporters. And also the Bafana Bafana team trying to make some sort of effort to reach our own world cup in 2010. But, selfishly I’m keeping this one for me. I need a huge dose of courage just to face the daily trails of life with all the above idiots in the world around me! Well, I can only dream, can’t I? After all, it is Christmas.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Life. Who Needs It?

I’ve been attending an Intensive Journaling workshop recently. It’s a method pioneered by Dr Ira Progoff, a Jungian psychologist who died in 1998. His method of journalling encourages one to examine one’s whole life history using a carefully designed procedure to make one aware of the importance of certain milestones and patterns in one’s life. The point of this method is to make one more mindful – a Buddhist term applied by the course coordinator – of one’s life and the decisions one makes or has made along the way. The reason I mention this workshop is that I had a blinding insight about life during this most revealing process.

Previously I’d spent days trying to avoid writing down ten important “stepping stones” on my path because most of these moments in my life were traumatic and almost all were not of my choosing. For example, the examples of the most outrageous fortune described by my stepping stones were firstly my parents’ divorce, then my hero-worshipped older brother having a breakdown after being sent to the army; next his subsequent ordeal in an appalling mental home; then his enforced return to the border and unsurprisingly his death which followed a few days later. That following year my father died. And a few years later my younger brother was killed in a freak accident. These were just some of the worst moments on a fairly bleak path. It was a bit of a shock to find that only one step came about purely through my own choice. I couldn’t help feeling that life had been truly awful so far and I wanted to shout, “Life? Who needs it?”

When I reached the point where I had to think about the one overarching image to describe my here and now, I remembered a moment from my childhood. I must have been about five or six. I was standing at the edge of the sea, facing probably either one or both of my parents, smiling happily at them. Being born and bred inland meant that my dad’s sudden impulses to wake us up at 2am and tell us we were going to the sea were the highlights of my childhood. Anyway. There I was paddling happily at the water’s edge, smiling blissfully at whomever, when WHAM! An almighty wave came up behind me and knocked me flat on my face. Now you wouldn’t think that I’d be surprised. Surely, even at the age of six, I should have realised that the sea has waves. But to say I was taken unawares is an understatement. I was mortified, horrified and extremely angry that the sea had snuck up on me in that way. Surely I deserved more respect, my six year old self thought. My pride was deeply wounded, and I don’t think I’ve ever recovered fully from that shock.

Now the reason I refer to this image is that it describes succinctly the way I’ve viewed my life since then. For some reason I’m still outraged and angered by the audacity of life’s waves to knock me over. And yes, I have been known to moan a little about the poundings I’ve taken. But the interesting thing about this method of journaling is that it requires that you engage with the image and explore it a little further. When I did this, I realized that I’ve been pretty damn stupid not to expect waves from the sea. Okay, life, if you insist. After all, only fairy stories promise a “happily ever after.” Yes, I’ve had more than my fair share of knocks. In fact, sometimes they’ve been devastating body blows. But I kept living my life waiting for the time when things would be just peachy and nothing would ever go wrong again. How naïve can one get?

So. A large learning curve has taken place. Almost as large as some of those waves. And what I’ve taken out of this workshop is that a) I have to learn to surf, and b) I have to keep my eyes wide open to watch that infinitely treacherous sea.

Hopefully by the time the next wave comes along I will be like Shaun Thomson facing a tsunami: looking forward to the opportunity of having an almighty ride… and perhaps learning a few lessons for future reference on the side. One can only hope, can’t one?

Meeting the Mentor.

“The second time I watched the movie, I tried to imagine a man who was maybe 6 ft 2 inches, nice-looking, graying hair, delivering the lines almost the same way and I realized there would be absolutely nothing offensive. Women are expected to wrap their request in a special package. On film sets male directors don’t have to do that. Female directors do. It’s the secret misogyny of our society.”

So says Meryl Streep in a recent interview about her role in the film, The Devil Wears Prada. Streep plays the role of Miranda Priestley, allegedly based on real-life editor of Vogue US, Anna Wintour. Watching the film before I read the interview quoted above, I was struck mostly by how demanding it is to be a woman boss, or mentor. I wondered whether some version of Streep/Priestley/Wintour’s approach might not be the right one to adopt.

Lecturing in scriptwriting part-time and working with students, I’ve experienced the phenomenon of being a mentor often. When the projects are big, such as a production to take to a festival, or a film to prepare for an MNet competition, the demands on the mentor are enormous. Not for the reasons one might imagine though. Working hard isn’t part of the problem and goes with the territory. But being a female mentor has inevitable pitfalls which I’ve discovered while manoevouring through this new – for me - territory. To get people to work with you, I’ve found one has to adopt a gentle, cajoling approach, much as Streep mentions the female directors doing above. If a woman is heavy-handed in her approach, she runs the risk of being branded a hard-hearted bitch. On the other hand, if she is too gentle, she runs the risk of creating a new step in The Hero’s Journey, which is not mentioned by Joseph Cambell and Chris Vogler, who documented this wonderful blueprint for storytelling - and for life, itself. This step follows quite closely behind the one Vogler calls ‘The Meeting of the Mentor’. It is reserved mostly for women and is called ‘The Kicking the Mentor up the A***’ step. Male mentors usually don’t have to deal with this stage as their natural authority, passed down through genetic evolution it seems, makes them automatically exempt somehow. But I wonder if I’m being naïve? I’m not sure. One thing I do know is that fairly soon after I have passed on pearls of wisdom and encouraged said mentor-ee to feel confident enough to spread his/her wings for a fledgling flight, ‘The Kick the Mentor up the A***’ step kicks in.

I realized about two large projects/journeys ago that necessity demanded yet another addition to The Hero’s Journey. Shall I call this step ‘The Mentor Asserts Her Own Bony (wishful thinking) Little A***’? Watching Meryl Streep’s performance made me think about this issue again. I realize how I’ve had to assert myself as a mentor to remind said fledgling that he/she can make it on his/her own but the truth is that he/she is not quite flying solo just yet. And the velvet-clad whip – as my latest mentor-ee and I jokingly call it – has to be implemented just a little, though with perhaps less force than that Devil wearing designer shoes. This approach seems to be working for me, and once that very important commodity – respect - is re-established, the mentor can again enjoy encouraging her fledgling’s wings to grow to full strength. In fact it won’t be long before she is able to watch with satisfaction as the fledgling takes his/her first solo flight across the barren desert of the real world.

But Streep is completely on the mark in her statement above. There are few women who can get away with being hard-hearted and ruthless for long. Thank goodness not many women in positions of power have granite hearts. But I assure you, sometimes - just sometimes – a woman will have to pull that whip out of its velvet bag and crack it. Just to prove that she can, if she so chooses. And only then will she be taken seriously.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


I am sitting in my writing shed, watching the mother of pearl bead curtain, do its mermaid dance in the gentle wind. Its tinkling reflections echo the notes of the Chopin nocturne playing on my CD player. I look around me, entranced by the beauty of my shed. I soak up the solid wooden walls and the paintings of women reading which adorn two of them. I’d saved an especially beautiful calendar I’d bought a while ago hoping that I would finally have ‘my study’ in which to place the prints. Fortunately they didn’t have a sell-by date. Two other walls are covered by posters of my plays. The pine desk blends into its wooden background, and all my favourite books are encased in a solid pine bookcase. Vases are filled with flowers and I revel in the fact that only MY things are in this room. You see, this is the first time, since beginning my path as a fulltime writer ten years ago, that I have had a room of my own.

Virginia Woolf was asked to speak about women and fiction at Newnham and the Odtaa (One Damn Think After Another) Society in Girton in 1928. She started her address by talking instead on an apparently unrelated topic. She spoke about the need for a woman to have a room of one’s own. She could not talk in general about the very few women writers who have been honoured by the opinions of society, she said, without stressing that “a woman must have fifty pounds a year (that was big money in those days) and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

How heartily I agree with her, almost a century later. I would go on to add that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write ANYTHING of value! All the time I have been a writer I have worked from my communal bedroom, in the midst of children’s homework, husband’s socks, cats’ paw-prints, leftover breakfasts, musical instruments, someone else’s books, dirty washing and various other examples of domesticity. At some point some of these accoutrements adorned my so-called working space. Add a few heated arguments and the blaring of televisions and you have the full picture. My levels of frustration rose regularly as I’d clear my desk once again, and attempt to clear my room of people. My cries of “just imagine someone coming into your office/bedroom and holding a tea party on top of your desk while you are supposed to work,” are met by profound deafness. I wondered why I was surprised that it took so long to regain focus when I’d begin work each day. This work was of course interrupted often when people would drop in to chat and have a cup of tea. Working from home is an oxymoron in most people’s minds. “You don’t work, do you? You’re at home all day,” they’d say smugly. The fact that I have to earn enough to bankroll a number of schools, or feed a small third world country – the amounts are about the same – are not even considered.

And while I’m on the subject of working from home, it’s strange how one is considered very rude for turning down invitations to boozy lunches and for not doing your bit for the tuck shop gals because you work at home. I live with constant black looks being directed at me around the school car parks as I fetch my children between deadlines. I’m not considered one of those useful mums who ‘really contributes to the ethos of the school.’

Anyway, now that I finally have my own space I wonder how on earth I managed to make a living in such an inclement environment for so long. But there is still just one small problem. How will I manage to multiply those fifty pounds a year - especially in today’s inflation-ridden climate?

First published in The Sunday Independent, 1 October 2006.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Hero’s Journey

In my scriptwriting classes at UKZN I encourage students to cast their eye over one of the most used blueprints by US scriptwriters: Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey. I encourage them to use it as a tool when they are stuck with their scripts but not to let it hamper their creativity in any way. Vogler based his theory on the book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, written by Joseph Cambell, the first person to identify that most good story-tellers throughout time followed the path of a hero or heroine – someone who overcomes the odds. The Hero’s Journey came to mind very strongly when I took my play, A Matter of Time, to Grahamstown this July. Taking a play to the festival is always an adventure along the lines of Homer’s Illiad and Oddysey. This one though, laden with a cast of seven, a stage manager, a designer, an itinerant director, and a script that had been through more renovations than the White House, was an epic undertaking from the start.

The first stage in Act One of The Hero’s Journey is to establish the Ordinary World. In this journey it’s home, where it’s warm and cosy now winter has set in and where lots of television and dvd’s can be watched and lots of chocolate eaten. The second stage of the journey is the Call to Adventure. The call is the Grahamstown Festival. Now this is the moment that a hero/heroine has to make an active decision to either answer or refuse the call. The decision to take yet another play to the festival is never made lightly. There is so much anguish putting one’s work on the line and trying to make one’s inner vision become a reality on stage that most sensible people would rush to College Road and book a month’s supply of their best movies. But then hero/heroine never chooses the sensible route. So application forms are sent to the festival and to the National Arts Council for funding yet again. The call is answered.

The next stage is the Meeting of the Mentor. A director whose vision coincides it seems with the writer’s own is chosen and a highly talented designer is booked to visualize the piece as a moving work of art. Two mentors should be more than enough.

Then it is time to Cross the First Threshold. This is the part when excitement sets in. The National Arts Council (blessed be they forever) provide a grant of R30 000.00. This should cover the cost of accommodation and travel to Grahamstown more or less. And more grants will be applied for as time passes to cover the costs of paying for large cast and crew. Next step is to cast the play and start rehearsals. This is still the easy part.

The next stage is when all hell breaks loose. Tests, Allies and Enemies is the step which begins the Second Act. All seems to be going so well, and producer/writer/Poppie is lulled into a sense of false calm. Suddenly every application for more funding is turned down. Then the dimensions of the stage in which to perform in Grahamstown arrive. The designer and producer/writer/Poppie sit down and shake their heads sadly. All those wonderful, creative ideas to actualize this script have to be scupperred. It’s down to basics. Furniture and clothes only. But this was not going to hamper anyone! Not at all. The formidable director arrives in fits and starts and blows everyone away with his strong approach. Everyone licks their wounds after his work calls him away yet again and, in spite of it all, everyone feels stronger as actors. He brings out aspects of themselves they never knew they had.

The next test is the trip to Grahamstown. Armed with hopes and great expectation the cast and crew fill three cars. The drive to Grahamstown takes twelve hours but the motley crew is full of excitement to perform the first show. But first they go out for supper and play a game similar to that in the play – a version of Truth and Consequences – and drink lots of whiskey. On a high in more ways than one, they troop out at 1 am to find a car that will not start. Suddenly every drunk in town surrounds them, offering their services as mechanics. Then they threaten to steal everything and even possibly hurt everyone. Fortunately, the brave male actors rescue the females from a number of reprobates who could come straight out of the play. In the play two women break down and are at the mercy of an unscrupulous mechanic. The cast and crew marvel at how life imitates art, and lurch home to sleep a few hours before the first performance.

In the morning more trials await. The car is dead again, they still have to get all the furniture from a second hand shop that doesn’t charge a year’s salary for the hire of a few sad bits of furniture, props have to be bought and empty alcohol bottles found. A technical rehearsal is scheduled before 2 when the first show starts. Suffice to say that many hours are spent in the garage. The valiant stage manager and the producer/writer/Poppie find all the props with just an hour to spare. They arrive at the venue to find that the sound system isn’t working. Much of the small grant has been spent on original music for the play. The producer/writer/Poppie is forced to resort to her inner demons to threaten to sue the Grahamstown Foundation if a sound system isn’t found in the few short minutes before the play starts. Ten minutes before “curtain up” – there were only a few flats to hide behind, never mind a curtain – a brand new sound system arrives, with price tag still attached. They give their first performance. A remarkable one in spite of all that could have gone wrong. Not much did. They feel more or less pleased with themselves.

Then an apparent ally arrives. Someone wants to do a profile on producer/writer/Poppie for Cue newspaper. Many ticket sales would ensue from this they think. A lovely man interviews producer/writer/Poppie and it seems as if this is a turn for the good. A positive review is found in the Cue too, encouraging people to see the show. It all looks very good. But not for long.

The day after the profile is published the positive review is changed to a most damning one – something that has never been done at the festival before. That is also about the time that the now completely broke producer/writer/Poppie finds out her last hope of a final grant has not come through. And it’s at the same time as she sees that the sales for the next performance have peaked at the mind-boggling total of nine. This is time for her to reach for her shadow self again. Producer/writer/Poppie’s inner warrior rages off to the Cue offices to confront the said interviewer/critic who has done the profile, seen the play and changed the review. Much is said while many cigarettes (mostly his) and lots of frustrated tears (mostly hers) are shared. They form a deep bond in the way only an honest critic and a strong but humble criticizee can, and he agrees to modify the crit to a slightly less brutal one. She vows to live up to the phrase he has tagged to her in his profile – that she has a spine of steel. And the next stage is reached: the Approach to the Innermost Cave.

Introspection was required. As was quite a lot of whiskey. But producer/writer/Poppie emerges from the cave fortified by the presence of the valiant cast and crew. And of course, the whiskey. Together they vow to show the world how strong they really are. Each performance grows stronger and stronger. Actors blow themselves away with the strength of their performances. Louise Buchler, James Aitchison and Nathan Mitchell give the performances of their lives. The old hand, professional Thomie Holtzhausen, is his pitch-perfect self throughout. And the two complete first-timers, Dante Kemp and Amandla Maphalala develop a love for the stage which they won’t lose easily. All this is monitored by the sanguine stage manager, Johann Hyman. Producer/writer/Poppie accesses her latent love of acting and has a ball as a woman who knows how to sort out an inconvenient problem such as a dead body. This approach allows them to enjoy the climax of the Second Act: the Reward. They enjoy their performances. And many audiences members do too. Most of these are young and accepting of new faces playing leading roles and they also happen to love the schlock-horror genre.

The beginning of Act Three is called the Road Back. Of course this coincides with the trip back home. Just before the final performance the night before they leave, producer/writer/Poppie has a moment when she cries long and hard. None of her expectations have been met. She is in debt to the tune of around R30 000.00 and there is no hope of ever making up the money through the shows. There’s also been no real critical acclaim. And there was a realization that perhaps her expectations had been the wrong ones. And these trials allow them all to reach the next stage in the Hero’s Journey: the Return Home with the Elixir. The elixir in this case is the knowledge that for an artist the main achievement is the work itself. Acclaim and money should never be an artist’s primary desire. Granted, these would be very nice thank you very much. But the lesson for this journey is that the work itself is the very thing itself, as King Lear said.

They leave Grahamstown feeling very good about their performances and the play, full of tales of the mishaps, on stage and off, which are the only things which make a play worth talking about really.

But as in all good scripts, there is always a final twist. The arrival back home is greeted not with welcome and approbation. There are more trials to face: more slings and arrows of outraged critics. Rejections from all corners fly as the play does not fulfill the desires of those who saw it. And once again producer/writer/Poppie is reduced to Retreating to the Innermost Cave. Luckily she catches the bottle with the elixir just as it falls towards the ground as she collapses. She squeezes a few drops from the mouth of the vessel and drinks them. The magical drops remind her that even failure can be noble. As William James, a philosopher in the mid-nineteenth century, said: “With no attempt there can be no failure and with no failure no humiliation. So our self esteem in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and to do.” Producer/writer/Poppie reminds herself that her duty as an artist is to produce her work. The success or failure of the work depends on the opinions of others, and that this is the worst possible measure to have of self worth. She and the cast and crew all live to fight another day. And producer/writer/Poppie begins to plan her next journey.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


By Janet van Eeden
Directed by Ian Roberts
Designed by Peter Mitchell

The only person you can trust with a secret is a dead one.

Synopsis: Two women from the city break down in a small town where people are apparently naiíve. They stay the night with two brothers whose unhealthy relationship explodes during a drunken game of Truth and Consequences. The consequences revealed by the truth are more than anyone can handle: a body, a saw and bin bags on the pavement. The secrets of the past are beginning to smell. And the bin men are late... and the sun is getting hot... and the dogs are beginning to gather. It is only a matter of time…

Written in 1999, A Matter of Time was short-listed out of 1100 entries into the BBC World’s Write Around the World Radio Play Competition. It was then optioned as a film by two different film companies, and finally went into development with a UK producer. When the film script turned into something completely different, Van Eeden asked for the rights of A Matter of Time to revert to her. This stage play version is the first time the play will be produced.

The play is directed by Ian Roberts, one of South Africa’s best loved actors, who is also a writer and director. The set is designed by renowned director of the Hexagon Theatre, Peter Mitchell. Original music is composed by veteran Blues guitarist, Larry Amos. Original music also includes the work of Radio Kalahari Orkes, the renowned Joburg band which has been making a name for itself, fronted by Ian Roberts.

The large cast stars Thomie Holtzhausen, well-known as a professional actor in Durban, and whose one man show, Dawie’s Big Night In, was very successful at Grahamstown two years ago. He has just completed a run in KZN playing Gloucester in Garth Anderson’s highly praised production of King Lear. The cast also consists of Louise Buchler, last seen in Grahamstown in Van Eeden’s The Savage Sisters, and James Aitchison, who has appeared in numerous student productions at the festival. The cast also features Nathan Mitchell and newcomers Danté Kemp and Amandla Maphalala. Janet van Eeden plays a cameo role. Johann Hymann is the stage manager.

Janet van Eeden is a freelance journalist and script writer and occasional poet. She writes regular features for the Pietermaritzburg based The Witness and The Weekend Witness, although she continues to publish in most national print media, especially Screen Africa, as well as a few British magazines, including Scripwriter UK.
Van Eeden has written ten screenplays and one of them, No Going Back, is in development with a British production team. Her latest screenplay, White Lion, is currently being filmed in Gauteng. A rough cut of this film has just been to Cannes 2006 where it attracted much attention. She has written numerous stage plays, produced three and directed two for the Grahamstown Arts Festival with funding from the National Arts Council. Her third play in her Savage trilogy, The Savage Sisters, premiered in Grahamstown in June 2005. The contemporary South African murder mystery A Matter of Time premieres in Grahamstown 2006, again with funding from the National Arts Council.

Performances are at MASONIC ONE Thu 29 June 14:30; Fri 30 16:30; Sat 1 July 21:30; Sun 2 14:30; Mon 3 16:30; Wed 5 10:00; Thu 6 22:00; Fri 7 12:00; Sat 8 19:00.


Thursday, May 18, 2006

Website of interest - White Lion the Movie Poster

Dance for Four Women

In conception
In primordial

Before I am born

The path is traced
Through my foremothers
They map out the way

“Woman -
You will be
One of us


In the womb I struggle
Against the voices

In my sweet pool I dance
With dreams

I grow with promises
I grow with dreams

My being unfolding
Like newly formed wings

Harshly ejected
I hit the strictures

I hit the boundaries
To keep up with
The needs
Of being

A good girl

A sweet girl
One who does as she’s told

Who helps others

Who puts herself last

But the promises
That fluttered in the womb
Were real

I feel them
I feel the tentative wings
In the moments
Between dreams

I cannot forget them




But the foremothers say

“No! Women are caregivers
To others -
Not to selves!

“Women are the backdrop
For the lives of others -

“For the children

“For men

“For the greater good…”

But the dreams of the womb
Cannot leave me

The promise of dancing
To my own rhythm

Will not die

Not for me
To be only the
Docile one…
The applauded
Soother of brows

Not for me
To be only
The nurturer of others’ lives

Sometimes I find others
Who believe
As I do

We meet
We share
And then we have to part

So I can find
My own way again

I have to be the heroine
In my own stories

I want to become
The star I follow

I want to make memories

Snap shots



Of my own life

Sometimes as nurturer

Sometimes as friend

But always being
What the womb promised


My own steps

My own voice

My own dance
Taking flight


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Have You Heard the One About...?

Have you heard the joke about the blonde actress who went to Hollywood? She was so desperate to get a role in a movie that she slept with a scriptwriter. That’s the joke. In the film world the scriptwriter is usually the most powerless of all in the hierarchy of things. However, in my almost ten years of writing scripts for film and realizing the powerlessness of my role, I have had one glimmer of light. It has been the film called White Lion. This has been – as the African elders viewed the white lions themselves - a veritable gift from the gods. White Lion is currently being filmed in Gauteng by Nationwide Distributors and Chop Productions. From the time the producers chose me to write the script for them, this project has been remarkable for the respectful way I was treated by all concerned. Just one example of this was that my daughter and I were invited onto the set of the film for a night shoot a few weeks ago. Scriptwriters are not usually invited onto the set of a film.

I spoke to the producer, Kevin Richardson, after the night’s rain interrupted shoot to find out where and when the idea for this ambitious project was born. “The project originated back in the early eighties when Rodney Fuhr, a wildlife enthusiast and owner of the Lion Park, sponsored wildlife research in the bush,” Richardson replied. “Rodney always wanted to make a film which would follow the development of a lion cub from birth to maturity. He was trying to film this process in the wild but he soon realized as he went along that it was easier said than done. So for many reasons the making of the film was put on hold until recently when Rodney and I were in a better position - financially and with the right animals available - to make this film become a reality.”

With Fuhr’s backing, Nationwide set out to gather a team of professionals around them to make Fuhr’s dream become a reality. They brought Chop Productions, which comprises Sam Kelly and Ben Horowitz, on board to co-ordinate the production. Soon things began to move. Once a script was written that could develop what until then had been a straight documentary idea into something more of a narrative with a definite dramatic character arc for a lion in the wild, the project was greenlighted or given the go-ahead. Although there are only three human roles in this film and their contribution is minimal, the budget for the film started off at R6 million. The production wasn’t going to stint on the quality, and allowance has been made for a certain amount of blue screen filming as well as for a few animatronics animals too. For example, where it is too dangerous to have a lion and a hyena in the same shot, blue screen will be used to film them separately. And to get up close and personal with a savage hyena, the only way to do this was with the help of Richard Tickey and one teenage lion is being made by The Creature Shop. All other action will be filmed with real animals and live animals wherever possible.

Richardson discussed his role as the producer on the project. “It has been manifold,” he says. “As I had the most experience with the animals and a fair knowledge of the feature film industry (Richardson was the lion wrangler on the French film, Le Lion, amongst others) I was best able to shape the ideas which Rodney had in his head. Rodney and I had spent many years discussing what he wanted in this film. I suppose in a manner of speaking I've taken on the responsibility of realizing his dream as close as is humanly possible.”

Richardson has a rare gift with animals of all kinds. In one of our earlier script brainstorming sessions with the first phase director, Russell Underhill, and Chop Production’s Ben Horowitz at a coffee shop in Parkhurst, Richardson arrived with a small cardboard box which he placed on the table. He hoped that we wouldn’t mind if he fed his “baby” before we started talking. He’d rescued the tiniest bird from certain death, and was feeding it special bird food from a syringe. The bird didn’t mind sitting in on the meeting. For his remarkable way with animals, Richardson has been responsible for ensuring that the wranglers – Helga van der Merwe and Rodney Nombekana - and the animals are happy and able to do their work on the film. Richardson was also responsible for sourcing the best crew possible while overseeing that production costs would not exceed the budget. Even with a starting budget of R6 million, this was quite a task.

One of his biggest challenges was creating the story that Fuhr wanted, Richardson says, and ensuring that it had cinematic appeal. That, and the weather were the most difficult challenges. Director of Photography, Mike Swann, sat alongside me on set while we watched helplessly as it rained for a solid two hours. He said that the weather this past summer has been very unseasonable. “We’ve had the usual Highveld thunderstorms which go as quickly as they come,” Swann said. “But this drizzling rain which sets in for hours makes life impossible. We have lost thousands of rands on the production budget due to the rain. It’s very frustrating but we just wait and hope that it will stop and that we will be able to film at least something tonight.”

We were lucky. In spite of a two hour rain delay, we were able to see some pivotal scenes being shot with the two heroes of the piece. The look on my daughter’s face when the two teenage lions ran down the road to “raid” the chicken coop is something I will never forget.

“It costs us R100 000.00 per day if we can’t film on a day when all the crew are called in for shooting,” affirms Line Producer, Sam Kelly. Kelly has had to step in and take over the production completely since her partner in Chop Productions, Horowitz, had a bad bike accident 6 weeks ago. It was a daunting task but a great learning curve for her. “Ben and I have always worked as a complimentary team. He is great at certain things and I am great at others. This was the first time that I had to take over the production side completely on my own. It was difficult but it taught me how much I can cope with. And production has continued without too much of a hitch. Apart from the weather,” she laughs ruefully.

“It has been extremely difficult to co-ordinate all the variables on this movie,” adds Richardson. “We were dealing with changeable weather, temperamental animals and people. But the most difficult of all to deal with were the people!”

With the second phase of shooting just completed, the film is being cut into a five minute promo to take to Cannes by a top editor from the States. The producers hope to garner interest from production companies overseas so that distribution, the bugbear of the industry, can be broadened to include Europe and the States and hopefully White Lion will be enjoyed by as many countries around the world as possible.

First Published in the Weekend Witness, April 15th 2006.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Women Should Not Live Past Thirty

It is the night of the Golden Globes Awards, 2006. The winner for the Best Actress in a Television Drama is announced. The award goes to Geena Davis for playing the President of the U.S. of A. in Commander in Chief. Davis stands up from her table. Glowing with understated pleasure, she hugs her entourage. She sashays majestically towards the stage wearing something red and gorgeous. Accepting the award with quiet grace, she then turns to her audience. With measured dignity she delivers her words: “As I stepped onto the red carpet tonight, a little girl tugged at my dress. She looked up at me and said ‘Because of you, I want to be president someday.’” As one, the audience emits a soulful “Awww!” Geena waits for a heartbeat. Then, without changing her tone, she says: “Well, that didn’t actually happen.” The audience’s emotions do an about-turn, somewhat stunned. Petulantly she adds: “But it could have!” Within three seconds she has wrapped the audience around her red-tipped fingers, making them, by turns, sympathetic, confused and wild with laughter. What a good way to celebrate your fiftieth birthday Geena, I thought!

Luckily Geena Davis hasn’t read about the decline of the female species after a certain age. Fortunately for her she doesn’t read the men’s magazines popular in our country. She might believe that women after the age of thirty-five are useless and should not be taken seriously. But perhaps I am maligning the editors of these prepubescent publications. Perhaps they have studied earnestly history of literature. Perhaps they have decided to take a leaf from the British critic, J.W. Croker. After all, he - in 1815 - denounced the work of a previously beloved author of the realm as the work of a ‘shriveled hag.’ The reason? “Novel and novelist alike have grown too old to delight discriminating male readers,” Croker squawked. “The vivacity, the bloom, the elegance, ‘the purple light of love’ are vanished,” he whined. Women should not write after they turn thirty, Coker implied. He must have been delighted to have Lord Merton on his side who believed that, not only should women not write after thirty; women should not live after thirty. These two crusties said – as they approached their eightieth years, “If a woman had anything of significance to say which was not ‘modest, delicate, wispy and delightful,’ they were past their best as writers and as women.”*

What a relief Geena didn’t study history of literature. Just think, she might have put herself out to pasture straight after her seminal role as Thelma in the 1991 classic Thelma and Louise. But how brave of her to fight on, even though her waist isn’t as slim now as that of her 1991 incarnation. I don’t know how she manages it. It’s unbelievable. She is witty and charming and – Gosh Darn It – pretty damn sexy in her ancient state. I wonder what this means. Is it possible that women past thirty might be able to knock an audience dead with the power of their being? Is it possible that women after the age of thirty don’t have to be euthanased. I’m not too sure. Perhaps we should consult Oprah. After all, she is only… Oh no! Not another one that has slipped through the cracks! Oh dear. I wonder if the men’s magazines have advice pages for questions like these. Or perhaps they, like internet dating sites, don’t take mail from women over thirty. Damn! Looks like I’m on my own with this one. Just me. And Geena.

* Celia Johnson, Jane Austen.