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.
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.