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Richard Finn Gregory on 'The Boers at the End of the World'


The Boers at the End of the World is an eye-opening South African documentary that traveled to document a community in Patagonia, where the offspring of several boer families reside, hanging onto the last remnants of a language and tradition on the verge of dilution. The award-winning film has continued to accumulate accolades, having just won Best Documentary Feature at the Indie Karoo Film Festival this past weekend. It's now available on VOD across Africa, which means you can own or rent it on HD via Vimeo on Demand.

Boers at the End of the World Film

We interviewed Richard Finn Gregory, the documentary film-maker at the heart of this award-winning doccie, about the making of this cathartic documentary and the impact its had on audiences so far.

When did you learn of the "Boer" community in Patagonia? Did you envisage it as a doccie to begin with?

As with many good stories, I first heard about them around a braai. A friend of mine mentioned this community that he had heard about while growing up, but didn’t have a whole lot more information than that. As a documentary filmmaker, I'm always keeping my ears open for a great story, and this one immediately made me go, "Wow. Somebody needs to make a documentary about that." It's a piece of South African history that many people hadn't heard about, but more importantly, it's also a contemporary story. When I found out that nobody had done any documentary work with the community for some decades, I knew that we had to start working on it soon, because the community that still speaks Afrikaans in that part of the world is getting smaller by the year.

You directed 'The Last Boers of Patagonia'... was this documentary short created in order to prime the feature-length doccie?

Yes, exactly. After our initial research, before I did my first trip there, we already had a strong feeling that this would make a great feature-length film, but until we had created a proof of concept, it was always going to be difficult to find the kind of money we needed to make a full-length movie. So we raised enough money through a crowdfunding campaign for me to go over there for a week, to meet the community and start filming in order to create a teaser.

It turned out that the community was really welcoming and the stories were incredible, so our teaser turned into a documentary short. It did a lot better than we expected, actually - the initial teaser quickly went viral and the short film was selected for Encounters Documentary Festival, Durban International Film Festival and the Jozi Film Festival. Because of all of the buzz that this created, we were approached by a lot of interested parties, and this paved the way to start working on the feature.

How did you obtain the funding to make this film possible?

We ran two crowdfunding campaigns, at different stages of the production process, which accounted for less than 10% of the budget. A big portion of the budget came about from a pre-sale with a distributor, and the rest we funded ourselves through our production company, GOOD WORK. We quickly realised that this story was too important to go undocumented, so we committed ourselves fully to it, no matter whether we recouped our expenses or not.

What was the biggest challenge in translating their story to screen for you as a filmmaker?

The biggest challenge was that we were working with a community - and it's very difficult to make a compelling film with too many people in it. As audiences, we naturally want to get deeper insight into a fewer number of people, so that we connect with their stories. So we had to choose only a few people to feature prominently, even though the stories of the various families in Patagonia are all so diverse and interesting. It was also important, though, that we made it clear that it's impossible to have just a few people represent an entire community - no matter what community we're talking about.

So we needed to establish the circumstances in broad strokes, but then focus on the stories that we found most fascinating - and we hope we got that balance right. As it turns out, the Dickason family was the very first that I connected with in Patagonia, and they - especially Oom Ty Dickason - are such warm, funny, passionate people that there was no doubt that we had to focus on them, and the particular longing that this family feels for South Africa.

How long did it take to get what you needed and just how much footage did you take to the editing room?

I did four trips to Patagonia over the course of just over a year, in the different seasons. The first trips I did by myself, and then as the production scaled up, I travelled with my producer Kelly Scott and two other crew members from Spain - friends I had made at film school in Barcelona some years before. So we spent about two months in Patagonia in total, and then another month filming in South Africa with a local crew. I'm not sure exactly how much footage it was all in all, as we were editing all through the process, but it was a lot! Once everything was shot, legendary editor Ronelle Loots and I immersed ourselves in the edit for a solid two months to get it all into shape, with a few weeks of tweaks, colour grading and sound mixing after that.

Has the doccie been screened at any festivals yet?

Yes, it premiered at the Silwerskermfees towards the end of last year, where it got an incredible reception - the venue was so packed that they brought in extra chairs and lots of audience members were willing to stand for the whole time to see it. Since then, it's been at the RapidLion International Film Festival, it was at the Indie Karoo Film Festival, and then at the Jozi Film Festival a little later in the year. We premiered too late in the year to be eligible for Encounters and DIFF.

Internationally, it's going to be at the Melgaço International Documentary Festival in Portugal in August. We’re still waiting to hear back from some more international festivals, and it's looking good. The biggest accolades, though, came from the South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTAs) in March. We won all three awards that we were nominated for, more than any other documentary feature this year. That felt pretty good.

It's obviously a film that resonates with Afrikaans-speaking audiences, how have international audiences received it?

The responses have been great. People are very moved by the human element of the story, even if the history isn't familiar to them. It's why we were very pleased to be invited to screen in competition at Melgaço in Portugal - even though there is no cultural link to Portugal, the festival's theme this year is “Identity, Memory and the Border" - and they felt that this story embodied these themes.

What's been the strangest reaction to date?

Well, I have a lot of strangers contact me - usually it's to give words of congratulations, or to tell me how much they were moved by the film, or to say that they've discovered a family link to Patagonia through the film, all of which are really great responses to get and I make sure to respond to everyone. But there was one guy who managed to get a radio station to give him my cell number after I had done an interview, and he called me up to say that he had seen one of the production stills from the film where a man is holding his sheep shears while there is a skinned, slaughtered sheep hanging in the barn behind him.

He was very curious about this - he wanted to know all about how the wool is sheared, do they shear a sheep after it has been slaughtered, what kind of wool it is - and I had to confess to him that I know nothing at all about sheep farming, I'm a filmmaker! I hated to disappoint him. As it turns out, one of the perks of my job is that I pick up all sorts of odd bits of knowledge, and I can now confirm to him that yes, they do actually shear the skins of the sheep, after they have been slaughtered and skinned, and the hides are burnt afterwards. Hopefully he reads this!

Do you think your film may result in some South Africans relocating to Patagonia?

I don't know about relocating, but certainly a number of people have already visited the community there after watching the film. That's been a really wonderful response - to see that the cultural ties between the communities in South Africa and Argentina are being strengthened, and we helped to contribute to that. As for relocating... well, one of the community leaders told me that every few years, a South African will go over there to settle down and start farming.

He said that none of them have stayed in that region though - it's just too tough. The land is harsh, it's also very expensive compared to South Africa, wool prices aren't great, and it's very difficult to get by unless you speak Spanish. I know there are some small groups of South Africans who have started farming in Argentina, but it's generally further north, where there are better pastures for cattle and life is a little easier.

Did you take inspiration from other documentaries in determining a format, if so which ones in particular?

Well, it's more a matter of knowing which style of documentary I don't particularly like, and I avoided those. For example, one route we could have gone with this film was to make it historically-heavy, like Ken Burns has done with some of his classic films. While I’m sure there are some people who are directly connected to the history who would have liked to have seen more of this side of things, for my taste that's a little too didactic, and I wanted a wider audience to be able to connect with the contemporary, human side of the story.

I also don’t like to put narration in my films. The goal is to get the people on screen to tell their story in their own words, and then my job is to weave that all together. Filmmakers like Werner Herzog use narration to good effect, but in his case, it's usually because he's inserting himself into the story. I didn’t feel that was appropriate for this film.

The film's got a Western feel to it with the outback landscapes, horses and bandanas. Was this a deliberate theme?

Yes, but only because it draws from the style of the community. There's a really strong gaucho (cowboy) culture in this part of Patagonia - they are proud of their horsemanship, rodeos are very popular, everyone carries a knife on their belt, and they often pull out a guitar at an asado (braai) to sing a milonga (folk song). It's a proud, distinctive style that I wanted to portray. I was also inspired by the landscape cinematography in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas and how he married that with a Ry Cooder soundtrack, so this was a reference as well.

Our composers for the soundtrack were Louis Nel and Rian Zietsman - their company is Sticky Music for Media. They’re better known as some of the musicians behind the rock bands Taxi Violence and Beast. It was important to me to have Afrikaans musicians who would be able to bring some of the traditional sounds to the film, but they also had to be willing to learn about Argentine music and be able to fuse that with Western influences. They totally got it - the soundtrack is one of the things I'm happiest with in the film.

What's next, are you sticking with documentary film-making or are you looking to branch into feature films too?

At GOOD WORK, we’ve got two more mid-length documentaries in development at the moment, but also a narrative feature film in its early stages. I did my Masters in narrative scriptwriting and directing, so that’s actually how I’m trained - documentaries became an accidental passion - so I'm looking forward to sinking my teeth into a feature as well.

 
The Craft Opinion Brewery (T.C.O.B.) #12 by Leonidas Michael


A Visit to the Republic of Salò*

(*A paraphrastic way of saying that we are going to look at Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom – for adults only.)

Those familiar with T.C.O.B. have probably understood the method it uses to rate films by now. It’s very simple. The more times we watch a film – of our own free will – the higher we rate it.

To put it in finite numbers, a film watched three times or more is considered great. If we’re pleased to watch a film from beginning to end a second time, it’s good. Most films get one viewing: entertaining but not memorable or mediocre without being egregious, they are worth a couple of hours of one’s time and the price of a cinema ticket or a rental, but definitely not more. And there’s a not insignificant number of films that we’re reluctant even to discuss – the kind we stop watching even before they end.

We think it’s a pretty useful system. Though we’re far from claiming it’s perfect. We made a point of saying we watch films of our own free will. This is all important. In the absence of free will, a T.C.O.B. rating would suffer severe distortion. In certain geo-political contexts, for example, in the People’s Republic of Korea, it would be completely unworkable.

There’s another limitation to our method that, paradoxically, arises from the exercise of free will itself. As we’ve just mentioned, there are films which one does not watch to the end. Implied is that one has the freedom to stop the affliction to one’s senses caused by bad cinema. But what if there’s affliction and the film is not bad for as much? What if the story is riveting, the acting compelling, the dialogue poetic, the underlying themes thought-provoking and the filming masterful yet, nonetheless, the overall effect on the senses is revulsion. This is the case with Pasolini’s Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom. Here at T.C.O.B. we would like to proclaim it a great film. But then we would not be true to our rating system, for we have only managed to watch the film twice.

Truth be told, Salò is a revolting film. Examined separately, its facets shine with a rare brilliance. Seen as a whole, it exudes filth. The viewer who tolerates it ends up witnessing a graphic two-hour description of four sadists’ fantasies made real by means of eighteen young people. The use of the last prepositional phrase is not fortuitous. The young people – nine male, nine female – are stripped of every vestige of their free will. They are objects whose quality consists solely of their ability to express physical and psychological agony. As we said already, the acting is brilliant. The screams, contortions, pleas for mercy that arise from scenes of rape, battery, torture and other degradations are convincing.

The absence of morality adds another dimension to the horror. Humanity is seen in terms of a relationship of power: what happens when the powerful seek to extract gratification from the powerless. Normally, one would imagine that human instinct sets a limit to what a human being is capable of doing to his fellow. Salò shows it is otherwise. The four sadists’ desire to inflict suffering is limited only by the death of their victims. Brilliant acting, brilliant dialogue, brilliant filming leaves us in no doubt that the sadists are having lots of fun. Of course there is no retribution for their crimes. Why should there be? They are powerful, their victims powerless.

The victims are not even allowed the solace of being victims. Sentenced to die, they ask, “Why? What have we done? The reply: “We cannot tell you. But you can be certain that it is for something very serious.” So it’s the victims who are guilty. And they cannot hope for pardon – neither in this life nor in the one hereafter, it seems. Just before the orgy of torture which climaxes in the executions, begins, one of the victims cries, “God, why have you forsaken us?” The delivery is brilliant. The shot is brilliant. The feeling of despair it provokes is absolute – in Salò there is no resurrection.

We hope we shall be pardoned for not giving a conclusive rating for Salò. Our feeling is that it is a great film, but we haven’t notched up enough viewings to confirm it. We just haven’t been able to do it. It’s really a problem inherent to film ratings and other attempts to quantify the value of a film: feeling disrupts calculation. Perhaps it should become standard practice to remind people of this by attaching a question mark (?) directly after every rating.

But why in fact do we feel the need to afflict our senses by watching Salò again and again? It has something to do with a passage from another film: “It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.”

In Salò we are shown the face of horror… But let’s speak more about it and the other film in next month’s instalment of T.C.O.B. Right now we need a drink.

Long Beach Brewery was forged by two guys with a passion to create crisp, refreshing handmade craft beers with the finest ingredients. The brewery is named after the famous Cape Town surf and horse-riding destination and situated in Cape Town's beautiful, Noordhoek valley. Their craft beer selection includes: Bomb Shell, a Belgium style Blonde ale, Green Room, an Indian pale ale or Deep Water, their dark ale and stout Porter. They say only a surfer knows the feeling... Long Beach Brewery's aim is to make it possible for everyone to "know the feeling". Buy Now

 
Movie Review: The Endless River


Oliver Hermanus is the writer-director behind Shirley Adams, Skoonheid and now The Endless River. Each of his films have been set in South Africa, have resonated with him personally, been shaped independently and broach social themes that inform international audiences by means of a character portrait.

The Endless River is set in its Afrikaans namesake, Riviersonderend, and grapples with the emotional turmoil that follows two violent incidents. Gilles, a Frenchman, is still trying to acclimatise to a de-sensitised South Africa, where extreme violence is met with unapologetic apathy. He's lost everything he knew to be true and begins a downward spiral, mourning his loss with the bottle and channeling all his rage into finding the culprits.

In his state, he befriends sweet petrol station restaurant waitress, Tiny. The petite, pretty local woman has her own struggles with her "reformed" husband re-emerging after serving a few years in prison. Together, Gilles and Tiny forge an emotional connection that binds their grief as they fumble their way into an uncertain future.

The film opens like a western with broad landscapes and old Hollywood lettering, a stylistic choice that makes you think Hermanus is connecting The Endless River with the Old West. It's an interesting choice, which works for the title and gives a rather intimate small town crime drama, a sweeping context. His decision was probably motivated by the Wild West's sense of lawlessness, where the Sheriff had just as much clout as the outlaws. South Africa's violent setting echoes this sentiment, except the contrast isn't romanticised as we quickly discover in this intense, sometimes brutal film.

"So that's why they call you Tiny."

Nicolas Duvauchelle and Crystal-Donna Roberts, play the roles of Gilles and Tiny respectively. Duvauchelle's character and performance is raw, emotionally-charged and makes a fascinating contrast as a foreigner. His responses are measured against Roberts, whose unfettered performance shows a hardened young woman and jaded by-product of her culture and strained community. The clash of cultures adds tension as their paths converge and they find solace in each other in the one horse town.

Hermanus is an auteur, making the film he wanted to make. As such, it's a major break from conventional "South African" films. He's telling the story in his own time, allowing scenes time to soak up the desired emotion in order to wring out drama. As a portrait, The Endless River is much more concerned about exploring its central characters than generating excitement. The intensity of the emotion is there as a substitute, creating some scenes that are so raw that the word "maudlin" gets ingested by the complex and honest mix of anger and grief on display.

It's a meandering story, much like its title with emotion driving the story. Hermanus keeps us guessing as we try to do the detective work, leaving scenes out to allow our imagination to fill in the blanks. The unconventional and cinematic format will thrill art house audiences wanting something more substantial, while the social crime drama, pacing and challenging scenes will frustrate others. The third act serves as a break from the carefully calibrated "Riviersonderend" tone as the film branches into warmer climbs, which while a welcome relief, undo much of the film's inherent tension.

The Endless River leaves on an ellipsis, which while hopeful may frustrate those wanting some sort of closure. Perhaps this moment serves as a literal end to the river as it comes to the source, which may be complicated by the feeling that the characters have lost some purpose. Either way, it seems less surefooted than that which came before it and amounts to a bit of an anti-climax as the credits roll.

The bottom line: Heartwrenching


 
Christia Visser on 'Tess'


Tess Movie 2016Rising South African star, Christia Visser, recently played the lead role in Tess, a film adaptation of Tracey Farren's novel Whiplash. The challenging performance recently won her Best Actress, in addition to Tess winning best South African feature film and editing after its world premiere at the Durban International Film Festival.

The film follows the heartrending journey of a woman forced into prostitution and the difficulties she encounters on the streets of Cape Town. Having recently starred in the grueling true story drama, Alison, and South Africa's first zombie feature, Last Ones Out, Visser has become quite prolific... SPL!NG caught up with her in this exclusive interview.

How did you get involved with this project?

I got the audition script and was immediately drawn to the challenge of conveying such a message that is often eluded. When it came to committing myself to the project, however, I found myself declining out of fear... I thank Meg for not giving up on me, because I went on to have conversations about the film with my parents with regards to the very serious subject matter of the film. Abuse is something I feel very strongly about... so I had to do this film. And that was that.

The production has been renamed several times - can you tell us about the transition?

The film is based on Tracey Farren's novel called Whiplash, so that was the first choice for the film obviously... but after the award-winning film by the same name came out, we had no choice but to change it. We then decided on Shushh as that's exactly what people tend to do when it comes to abuse, they keep quiet about it.

It felt fitting, but unfortunately it wasn't exactly a marketable name as most people struggled to pronounce it and the meaning wasn't clear for some reason. It was only then that we decided on Tess, which actually seemed quite natural, since the story follows Tess's journey...

You’re playing a very challenging character with a difficult history, how did you prepare for the mental and physical demands of playing her?

As an actress you can not judge your character. As humans, we are inclined to judge things like sex work... I had the privilege of meeting some former sex workers, whose stories and hearts changed mine... The harsh reality of their lives and the fact that for them there was never a choice, broke my heart and it made me realize that you can be a good person thrown into an unbearable situation that makes you feel unworthy of anything good.

This was my first and probably most important step towards becoming Tess. I don't ever really have a recipe of preparation... I learn to understand my character, I trust my instincts and then I throw myself into every scene heart first... and then I trust that my director, cast, crew, family and friends will be there to catch me when I fall.

Has this role inspired you in any way?

Absolutely. It's made me want to stand up against abuse, now more than ever. It makes me want to tell more stories like this in Afrikaans, to push the boundaries and push past my fears as an actress.

What was it like working with Meg Rickards?

Meg has all the heart and passion a project like this needs. She is an incredibly supportive person. This was a difficult film to make, it's tiring and it hurts, so you have to treat it with a lot of sensitivity, she understood that.

What did you find most challenging about making this film?

I had to let go of my moral standards... the soliciting and sex scenes were really hard for me to do. Physically my body was sore and tired and more than that it was hard to stay in an emotionally wrecked space for such a long period of time. At some point you start forgetting what is yours and what is hers, that made the recovery process difficult.

Tess Film 2016

What was a highlight or a special memory you’ll take away from Tess?

The incredible support of my fellow cast members and crew... they were with me every step of the way, carrying me when things got too much for me to handle. After one scene... when I looked up, the crew were standing with their backs towards me in order to give me privacy in the moment, they were hurting with me.

The film centres around abuse… is this a message movie, and if so, what message do you think it’ll leave with audiences?

For me, yes, it definitely has a very important message... I hope when you watch this film that the reality of abuse will hit you in the gut, because it's not pretty and it's not okay. Even though abuse may only last for a while, the effect of it can last a lifetime. But there are always angels among the darkness. For those that have been victims of abuse, may this film give you strength and hope. There as so many good people in this world, we just have to choose to stand together.

Have you read the book, and if so, how faithful were the film-makers in bringing this book to life?

I haven't read the book actually... I started and then decided that the script was more than enough to deal with. But I do believe that it was truthful, we used the exact same locations as in the book and the story unfolds in the same way. Obviously a lot of scenes had to be cut for the film, but Tess's journey and the essence of the story stays the same.

 
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