Saturday, February 13, 2010

Into the Wild

As I get into the City Bug which will take me from Johannesburg to Nelspruit, the radio is playing my favourite song, Human by The Killers.

“Are we human? Or are dancers? My sign is vital. My hands are cold. And I’m on my knees looking for the answer – are we human? Or we dancers?”

As we drive further away from the city in the speedy minibus we pass an old white man trying to thumb a lift. He’s the unlikeliest hitchhiker I’ve ever seen. Signs warn: “Heavy vehicles: Wheels stolen!” We’re definitely heading into the wild.

We leave the order of towns for that of agricultural as we travel through pine forests and citrus farms. Almost five hours later we are deep in mountainous terrain.

Finally a car picks me up at Nelspruit and drives me to the office in the Mdluli Concession in the Kruger National Park. A Land Rover, complete with rugged Marlboro man collects me and takes me into the Nzikazi Wilderness Camp which is run by the Africa Adventure Specialists. The radio in the Land Rover blares:“Are we human? Or are we dancers?” What are the odds?

On the short drive through dongas we pass a dead rock monitor. It has been run over. Marlboro man stops to radio someone to clear the body from the road. Finally we arrive at the tented camp. A small, upside-down umbrella tent will be my home for the next three nights. I’ll shower shielded only by a sheet of canvas with views across the veldt. At night I’ll hear the sounds of wild animals echo in the bush around me. I’ve arrived.

I’m here to give two days’ of lectures to the Wildlife Film Academy students who have come to make their own short documentary wildlife film. My brief is to talk about turning a documentary into a story, using my experience writing the feature film script White Lion, a story based on the exploits of a real white lion.

Students have come from all over the world to spend a month at the camp. They are given lectures by a series of experts in each aspect of film-making from script writing, to editing, to camera expertise amongst others. For the first time, I’m starting off the process.

“The Wildlife Film Academy (WFA) was conceptualised at the very first Wild Talk Africa Film Festival held in 2005 in Durban,” explains director and founder of WFA and Wild Talk Africa Festival, Sophie Vartan. “A group of thirty dedicated individuals gathered together to shape the future of the industry. The initial members of this group included Dr Pallo Jordan, Minister of Arts and Culture; Eddie Mbalo, CEO of the National Film and Video Foundation; Marcel Golding, CEO; Mark Wild from Animal Planet and twenty wildlife filmmakers. The decision was taken that not only did Africa need to have its own wildlife film festival, but also that it should provide an opportunity for local South Africans to learn more about wildlife filmmaking with the idea of getting internships with production companies afterwards.”

The first WFA course started in February 2006. Vartan explains that the WFA has trained 164 students since it started. It moved to Kruger National Park this year and the students stay in the bush for a full month.

“This has proved so successful that we have a waiting list,” says Vartan.

Both WFA and Wild Talk Africa fall under the umbrella company, the Natural History Unit of Africa, (NHU Africa). NHU Africa is an independent company managed by Sophie Vartan.

“The WFA gives students from around the world the opportunity to live their dream by spending time in the African bush to learn how to produce their own five minute wildlife film,” Vartan explains. “Students are given a variety of skills essential to making original wildlife films. The month is divided into three parts which includes theory-based lectures, filming in the Kruger itself and, finally, post-production and editing.”

My first group of students is a motley collection from around Europe and South Africa. There’s Marilleke, an astrophysicist, who has been backpacking around the world and wants to explore her dream of becoming a wildlife filmmaker. Then there is Noa from Italy, whose love of wildlife reduces her to tears. Suzanne is a talented Dutch journalist. Catherine is a British student so moved by the story of elephant culling that she came to Africa to find out more. Rounding out the party are South Africans William, Gert and Sithembiso. All are avidly keen to become filmmakers.

My two days are sunrise to sunset lecturing. The women can’t decide on a topic but the men are assured of their subject matter early on. It’s hard work all round but the sense of enjoyment is palpable, inspired by the proximity of the African bushveld.

Soon my time is up but not before the students decide to give me an impromptu farewell party. Gert and William produce guitars which they play with great skill. The rest of us form percussion bands using everything at hand. Marlboro man joins us, playing his hide-covered drum. Suzanne is the conductor of the less rhythmic members of the choir. I haven’t laughed so much in years.

In the morning the students wave goodbye fondly as they leave for their first bush drive into the Kruger. I begin the long trek back to the city.

At the end of the month I meet up with them at the Wild Talk Festival in Durban. I’ve just finished another lecture and see Marilleke waving excitedly from the back of the audience.

The WFA students’ films are shown in the lunch break. I am moved by the beauty of some of the films they’ve made. I take heart in the fact that the students have learnt skills during their month at WFA to prove we are more than human. They, like dancers, have created works of beauty.

I lecture in script writing around the country and offer an online Script Writing Course: Cut To The Chase at


Jared said...

Thanks for giving us a glimpse of the inside. Peeking in from the outside makes me realise you certainly have a blessed life. Keep up the good work. x

PS. I love that photo of Kevin with Letsatsi. It's not often I feel like that about two fine looking men. :)

Janet van Eeden said...

Just seen this comment now Jared. And yes I've been blessed by this experience with White Lion which led to the lectures in the Wildlife Film Academy. This from someone whose family could never afford to go to the game parks when I was young! Sometimes Karma works. :)

And love your comment about the two fine looking men. Totally understandable!