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Hanneke Schutte on 'Meerkat Maantuig'


Hanneke Schutte's film, Meerkat Maantuig (Meerkat Moonship), is a coming-of-age fairy tale drama about overcoming fear, growing up and pouring light into darkness. Spling now ranks it as one of his favourite South African films of all-time... and caught up with Hanneke to find out more.

Meerkat Maantuig - Hanneke Schutte

When did you envision Meerkat Maantuig - can you tell us about the journey from conception to final draft, how did the original idea evolve?

The film is based on a youth novella called ‘Blinde Sambok’ by Riana Scheepers. I’ve changed the book quite considerably, but I retained the central idea of a little girl living with a cursed name. When I read the book the first time I fell in love with this strange, dark tale of a young girl who thinks she’s going to die because of this old wives’ tale that she, and many people around her, believed in. It made me think about all the beliefs we cling onto that limit our lives.

Anchen du Plessis is a real find... such a fascinating face, am I correct in saying she was discovered quite recently - how did she come to be in your film?

You’re right, Anchen was an absolute blessing. She wasn’t originally cast as Gideonette, but we lost our lead two weeks before principal photography and we had to scurry to replace her. I’m a firm believer that if you can embrace these kinds of challenges/happy accidents during production and pre-production, they always end up making the film better.

Anchen played Young Killer in Vaselintjie so it was her second film and her first lead role.

The casting is superb... are the actors close to how you imagined them in your head?

The magic of great actors is that they bring so much of their own life stories and world perspectives to their roles. They imbue the characters with idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities that help us to identify with them. So yes, each one of them brought something special to the role and they exceeded all my expectations.

There's a Studio Ghibli air of sentimentality and blend of nature/technology in the design of this production... is that an influence or a coincidence? Did any other films give you inspiration for the look and feel?

You’re the first person to pick up on that! I sent our Production Designer, Waldermar Coetsee, a picture of Hal’s Moving Castle as inspiration for the moonship. We wanted to create something magical, whimsical and childlike. It was important that the design felt like it originated in the mind of a child.

He sent me this tiny drawing of the moonship (we still joke about how terrible the drawing was) and I thought that’s it, that’s the naiveté we’re going for!

The farm setting is sun-dappled and magical... how did you come upon this beautiful eco-forest location?

I found that location online while I was still writing the film. The farm belonged to this amazing guy who was an avid gardener and blogger. I followed his blog for about two years and I completely fell in love with the farm. When it came time to make the film I had my mind set on that location. He was in the process of selling the farm and the sale fell through about three times, so we kept negotiating with people and then losing the location. Our producers wanted me to find another location because time was running out, but that was the one thing that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. Finally, after some long and skillful negotiations on the part of our producer, the new owners gave us permission to shoot on the farm.

There's a horror element at play, was this film meant to be darker or more in the realm of fantasy at any point?

From the start the intention was for it to be a fairy tale. A story that is set in no particular place and in no particular time. Fairytales, especially the very old ones, have very dark and macabre elements because they deal with children’s fears. I didn’t want to shy away from that - if you’re going to deal with fear, it should feel real. But I didn’t want it to tilt into a full on horror or fantasy either, which is the tricky line I had to tread.

You did a great job of obscuring story elements, keeping the sense of mystery and intrigue at the fore - how tricky was it writing it this way?

With every draft I tried to take out elements that were too obvious or gave things away too early. Looking back I realise I made some mistakes and I could’ve done even more to make it subtler and more mysterious, but that’s the lesson you learn with every film.

Willie Nel's cinematography is lush, sumptuous even... composing some beautiful shots, using textures such as mesh netting and glade sunlight... is the finished product close to how you imagined it?

Absolutely, it’s exactly what I’d imagined, which isn’t something you can say very often. We had a hidden Pinterest board with tons of reference pictures that we worked from. Inspiration for the mood, the tone, the textures etc. I still love revisiting that board because Willie really managed to capture exactly what we had envisioned.

Do you keep a scrapbook of ideas for film... there are subtle touches throughout the film that make it seem so?

Yes, back to Pinterest! While I write I collected hundreds of pictures that help me create the mood and tone and bring the film to life. I’m a very visual person and it really helps me to see the film while I write it.

I’m doing it again on the script that I’m working on at the moment. Whenever I feel stuck I just go back to the references and I immerse myself in that world.

What do you see as your greatest strength as a director?

I’m actually not sure, but I think it helps that I approach a film with no ego, which means that I stay open to people, to challenges and to my own mistakes. I’ve found if you stay open and vulnerable it creates a space where magic can happen.

What was the most enjoyable part of making Meerkat Maantuig?

Our time in Magoebaskloof was absolutely incredible. It felt like we were a bunch of kids at Veldskool. We laughed and cried and struggled through the rain and mud, it was truly a life changing experience.

What was the most challenging aspect of making Meerkat Maantuig?

It was the same thing that made it so memorable! It was incredibly tough shooting in a rain forest and dealing with spiders, snakes, mosquitos and mudslides. We constantly had to change the shooting schedule to work around the rain and we lost hours every day waiting for bakkies to get pulled out of the mud, but it helped us to band together and it created a wonder spirit of camaraderie.

Meerkat Maantuig informs the buoying tone of this movie, was this the original title?

The book was called ‘Blinde Sambok’, but we thought that Meerkat Maantuig captured the spirit and whimsy of the film a bit better.

How did South African audiences respond to this film?

To be honest, I think many people were a bit baffled by it! It’s not the type of local film audiences are used to watching and I think it probably leaned too far towards being an art film for it to really reach a wide audience. But that being said, I received so many emails from people, young and old, who told me that the film had deeply affected them. A few moms who told me that the film helped them to open up conversations with their kids about their fears. One mom even told me that it was the first time she’d seen her sixteen year-old son cry in a movie and that he wanted to watch it a second time! And that’s more meaningful to me than anything else.

How has the film been performing on the festival circuit?

We’ve been overwhelmed by the success Meerkat has had internationally. The film has been selected to screen at 17 international film festivals and we’ve received wonderful feedback. We’re incredibly grateful that our small South African story seems to really resonate with international audiences.

What's next for Hanneke Schutte? Have you got any upcoming projects that you'd like to mention?

I’ve just finished a final(ish) draft of my next screenplay called The Poem.

Unfortunately, it’s another sad one!

 
2018 Oscar Winners


The 2018 Oscars provided plenty of surprises in almost every category. Bets at some of the South African online casinos were wild, with both neither the bookies nor the bettors quite sure what to expect. In the end, most observers commented that the choices were correct but some people still wonder about the choices.

Here is a round up of the 2018 Oscar top prize winners and what made them stand out in the eyes of the Academy.

Best Picture and Best Director for The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water won for Best Picture and Best Director, which surprised many people, not the least because the film was basically a science fiction film which is generally overlooked by Hollywood's award season.

The movie, which is set in 1962, focuses on Elisa, a mute woman who is isolated by her inability to speak. She works as a cleaning lady in a high-security government laboratory and discovers a classified secret -- a scaled creature that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with this mysterious creature she learns that its fate lies in the hands of a marine biologist and a hostile government agent.

The passion of director, Guillermo Del Toro, for this simple tale of loyalty and love touched and resonated with many in the Academy. Many observers noted that he spent a good chunk of his post-production time traveling around the world to explain his vision – for many in the Academy, that gave the movie the context that voters needed to cast their votes for this film. Del Toro made the movie because he was pursuing the direction that his heart told him to follow and that spoke to the academy.

Some observers have noted that The Shape of Water spoke to the older Academy members who appreciated the period-movie setting. One voter explained that he saw it as a "love letter to Hollywood and movies” while a second expanded, saying “It’s a movie-lover’s movie.” It was seen as a movie that wears its old-school cinematic influences on its sleeve while being brave enough to explore new horizons with both lead characters being mute. In the end, The Shape of Water won because the Academy liked it the best - it offered an escape into a romantic fantasy.

It's also worth noting that The Shape of Water won for Original Score. Alexander Desplat composed his score to give voice to the film’s two mute characters (the amphibious creature and the cleaning woman, whose theme was whistled by Desplat himself). The "voice" took the form of a South American bandoneon style accordion, which was included to suggest the creature’s geographical home.

Frances McDormand, Best Actress for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand's award as Best Actress wasn't a great surprise but it did give pause to observers who questioned how the Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri could work, given the movie's unsettling subject matter.

McDormand succeeded in bringing director Martin McDonagh's vision to life as she portrayed a grieving mother who was prepared to take on her town's citizens, her friends and powerful authorities in her pursuit of justice for her murdered daughter.

The film focuses on Mildred Hayes who rents three local billboards in an attempt to draw attention to the lackluster police investigation into the murder. The comedy is interspersed between unthinkably painful, banal and idiotic happenings and McDormand makes it come together in this scorching, tragicomedy.

Through her acting McDormand keeps the film from getting stuck in the hold of a morality play and brings it into the realm of an unblinking depiction of white, working-class America without simplifying or sanitizing reality or presenting events as simple right or wrong. Her portrayal hovers between nuance and complexity as she interacts with characters whose humanity extends beyond their bad behavior.

It's rumored that McDormand based her character on John Wayne, combining a fierce pursuit of justice with a certain silliness and playfulness as she demonstrates how to temper devastation with hope.

Gary Oldman, Best Actor for Darkest Hour

It's hard to imagine the dark terror that England faced in 1940 as it was targeted by Germany's Blitzrkieg. The German army had already overrun much of Europe and seemed invincible. America was not yet supporting Great Britain, Russia was crumbling and the Germans had made their intention of conquering all of Europe clear.

Gary Oldman was chosen to portray one of the 20th century's greatest statesmen, Winston Churchill, who led England through the dark days of World War II after the country lost faith in apologist Neville Chamberlain. Oldman is not acting in a historical drama as much as he demonstrates how England, under his leadership, moved through the early days of WWII through the political intrigues of the British parliament, royalty and diplomatic relations with the United States.

The movie covers the period of May to June 1940, the first few weeks of Churchill’s premiership when powerful voices in the upper echelons of the British government were clamoring for negotiation with Germany. Darkest Hour is Churchill versus his cabinet as events move briskly and decisions can mean the life or death of thousands. Oldman successfully shows how Churchill’s alienation from many of his peers was juxtaposed with a camaraderie with his countrymen through the dark early days of the war and the crucial decisions involved in evacuating Dunkirk.

Oldman disappears into his role completely, giving the audience the full Churchill... at turns affectionate, full of self-doubt, witty, merry and drunkenly rebarbative. Most Oscar observers were not surprised to see Oldman walk away with the Best Actor Award.

 
The Last Encounters Documentary Film Festival?


The Encounters Documentary Film Festival has been running for 20 years. During this time the festival has become a much-anticipated calendar event, and the premiere documentary festival in Africa. With many environmental causes, on-going poaching and a civil war-ravaged continent, Africa seems to be at the forefront of documentary film-making with many filmmakers using Africa as the destination of choice. While the Encounters Documentary Film Festival has been running for two decades, it's at a critical turning point in terms of funding.

 

With many sponsors reducing their sponsorship, they have become more reliant on their major sponsors such as the National Film and Video Foundation. Unfortunately, at the eleventh hour, actually on the opening night of the festival, their funding was cut. Anticipating this reluctance from the NFVF, they started a crowdfunding project under the hashtag #HelpKeepEncountersAlive to raise R700,000 in order to sustain the festival. The festival went ahead even though the goal wasn't achieved, making it even more important that they find a new flagship sponsor if its to continue in 2019.

Renowned for featuring world-class documentaries and serving as an important showcase for documentary filmmakers, it will be a travesty for the Encounters Documentary Film Festival to make 2018 its last year. Encouraging young filmmakers, inspiring the next generation of documentary filmmakers and creating jobs around the event, it is important that this festival continue. Sadly, in a tough economic environment it's becoming more and more difficult to lure advertisers to get involved with these kinds of annual projects.

While international funding institutions certainly make things easier, it seems odd that the Encounters Documentary Film Festival hasn't been able to garner more worldwide support. A blossoming film industry, the subject of many documentaries, becoming a popular destination for film-making, the obvious benefits of the exchange rate and being able to have an active influence and control over the showcase, it seems strange that no one has taken an active interest in rescuing the renowned South African film festival.

Trying to ramp up that kind of branding and reputation isn't easy, which would make any successor sluggish in terms of its drive to create something similar, making it seem like a lost opportunity for a bigger entity not to get involved. Appealing to a key figure like Leonardo DiCaprio, as a strong proponent of documentary films, having been instrumental in The 11th Hour and Before the Flood, it wouldn't take much terms of investment when you work it back into Rands. Add your support behind Spling's tweet or begin your own campaign to get the message heard.

This year's festival featured a myriad of documentary features and short films... here are two.

The Deminer follows a Kurdish Colonel who made it his life's mission to save lives by defusing mines and bombs in the city of Mosul, Iraq. Working on behalf of the U.S. Army, this brave man could have been the inspiration for Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker in the relentless manner he carried out his work. A family man of eight children, his matter of fact style is next level in terms of confidence. Known as "Crazy Fahkir" by his co-workers, and becoming a national icon of sorts, the man's altruistic efforts are inspiring,and his family's interviews demonstrate that while he was constantly in the field, he was well-loved.

Taking a fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité style documentary footage we get a unique perspective and thrilling account of the man's life going into very dangerous terrain and seeing him disarm bombs and mines using nothing but a simple knife and a pair of clippers. Taking a camera behind-the-scenes, we get a first hand account of a true hero. Even after facing near-fatal explosions and having a target on his back, Colonel Fahkir went on... The Deminer ensures that his story will endure.

Then, following the rags-to-riches success story of Trevor Noah, Kill or Die, a low-budget local doccie, follows the journey of several local comedians from all walks of life. The title references the need for comedians to dominate the stage, establishing a great rapport with the audience or suffering the humiliation of feigned laughter and the possibility of being booed off stage. Focusing on the trajectory of several comedians, most in the early stages of their career, this fly-on-the-wall documentary goes behind-the-scenes to get the inside story of what it takes.

Talent and hard work are the cornerstones of the profession, and this documentary gets to grips with the rigours and ability of comedians to pick themselves up. Taking the leap of faith and moving from traditional career paths onto stand-up stages is no easy feat, requires great self belief and is easier said than done. Yet somehow each of these comedians is able to rise above their circumstances coming from very humble backgrounds to the limelight where they're able to shine. Centring predominantly around a charming and cocky comedian with a bright future ahead of him, we see a star in the making, who seems ready to command his own show. Then, following a rising star female comedian, we discover a woman with fresh challenges. Another comedian who uses a puppet as part of his show, finds himself in South Africa turning his street smarts into comic agility, while another up-and-coming comedian discovers it's a lot tougher to get noticed, taking a few knocks along the way.

With incredible international and local documentaries featuring at the Encounters Documentary Film Festival, it's quite tragic that there's a strong chance they won't get the same platform in 2019... unless we do something about it.

 
Some of the Most Memorable Romantic Films of All-Time...


You're never going to get any two movie lovers to agree on a list of the best films of any genre. For instance, science fiction fans were thrilled to find out that a sci-fi film, The Shape of Water, won the 2018 Oscars while Vegas casino film-goers who don't enjoy science fiction were appalled.

Yet among dedicated movie buffs there is a level of agreement regarding some romantic movies that are generally accepted as being at the top of the pile.

Some of those include:

The Americanization of Emily

The Americanization of Emily was released in 1964. James Garner plays a WWII naval officer who does everything possible to remove himself from battle in his struggle to stay alive. He often hides out in the London flat of his navy buddy (James Coburn) where he falls in love with a war widow (Julie Andrews). When Garner is chosen to land on Omaha beach in D-Day's initial landing party he redeems himself and earns Emily's respect and love.

One of the reasons that this film resonates with so many people is that it puts all the romantic clichés to test --heroism on the battlefield, self-sacrifice and loyalty in the bedroom. Emily lost her father, husband and brother in World War II but she continues to believe in service to country even while trying to avoid the cultural complicity that pushes men to be heroes.

Brokeback Mountain

This movie, set against the sweeping landscapes of Texas and Wyoming, tells the tale of two young men -- a rodeo cowboy and a ranch-hand who meet in the summer of 1963 during a cattle drive. They forge a lifelong relationship despite its complications and tragedies, providing a testament to the power and endurance of love, however unconventional.

The romantic drama ranks 12th among the highest-grossing movies of this genre. Ennis Del Mar is in love with Jack Twist. Ennis is stoic and closed while Jack is open. Jack envisions life with Ennis but Ennis is reticent, fearing a love that goes against convention and normative boundaries.

The two secretive lovers call their bond “a goddam bitch of an unsatisfactory situation"; which is further complicated by the fact that both are married and don't have any idea of how to relate to their wives, especially after their affair begins.

Jack's blend of naivete and savvy contrasts with Ennis's repression that actor Heath Leger portrays by constantly clenching his jaw. This movie doesn't have a happy ending but it's a life lesson that shows how innocuous youthfulness gives way to austere, hard maturity.

Casablanca

In many ways Casablanca is the classic by which all other romantic stories are compared. The WWII movie starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Berman, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid and Sydney Greenstreet, the A-listers of the '40s who created a masterpiece that not only gave viewers a great love story but also stirred up patriotism and gave audiences a sense of hope in the dark days when the Allies were struggling against the Axis powers.

The action takes place in Casablanca where Rick Blaine (Humphry Bogart) runs a nightclub. Rick is cynical and jaded but his patriotism is tested when he comes into possession of two letters of transit which could offer someone the chance to escape from Nazi-ruled Casablanca and travel to neutral Portugal.

Nazi Major Strasser, in the meantime, is pursuing Victor Laslow, a Czechoslovakian underground leader. Lazlo's wife, Ilsa, was an old flame of Ricks and they still carry a flame for each other. The pair consider using the letters of transit to run off together but Rick's patriotism wins out and in the end he sends Ilsa on the plane with her husband as he develops his own plans to join the struggle against the Nazis.

Movie critics have always regarded Casablanca as the romance by which all other films should be measured. There are no pat, happy endings in this film but it captures all of the pathos of a couple in love who must think of the bigger picture before they consider their own happiness.

Love Story

If you came of age in the '70s you are probably familiar with this story that explores how true love can endure. The movie is based on a book by Erich Segal that tells the story of Oliver Barrett IV, a preppy Harvard student who falls in love with Jenny, working class girl. Against his upper crust parents'; wishes they get married and struggle as Oliver studies at law school.

Jenny fails to conceive and the tests show that it's because she has cancer. Oliver's devastation and devotion are chronicled throughout her last months and death. The movie is regarded as a classic that showed how love changes a person for the better -- even though the finale isn't always the way that we'd want it to end.

An Officer and a Gentleman

An Officer and a Gentleman is a true feel-good film that packs all the elements of a good story into an hour and a half film. Richard Gere plays Zack Mayo who aspires to be a navy pilot. He's aloof but at the training camp for his 13-week officer's course he becomes involved in an affair with working girl Paula Pokrifi (Debra Winger).

Zack is as closed as a person can get but when his best friend Sid commits suicide over an unhappy romance, Paula helps Zack to realize the importance of opening up. Slowly he begins to learn how to give of himself to the benefit of those around him and himself.

 
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