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STUDENT MOVIE RESURRECTED AFTER 30 YEARS

South Africa’s first full-length student feature film, A Fire in Africa, produced in 1987, is currently being digitally restored by two MFA (Master of Fine Arts) students, Laura van der Merwe and Mark Buyskes, who are also lecturers at the Johannesburg campus of AFDA, the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance, which operates in four provinces across the country. Laura and Mark, who lecture in Editing and Colourisation respectively, will be assessed on the film as a practical component of their studies when the premiere of the restored version is held at Cinema Nouveau Rosebank on 24 November 2017.

Laura and Mark presented their research projects, as part of a VALA (Value Added Learning Audit) assessment, to a panel of academics that included Prof Keyan Tomaselli, author of the book The S.A. Film Industry. Their presentations included clips from the film indicating what effect their academic strategy and practical approach would have on the restoration and, in fact, the re-visioning of the film. After a gruelling three-hour session, Laura and Mark were informed that both had passed with distinction. Laura supervised the restoration (re-editing and re-visioning) and Mark was responsible for the colourisation and final sound mixing.

A Fire in Africa, with a running time of 90 minutes, was originally produced and distributed in 1989 as the practical component of Gerhard Uys’s Master’s Degree in Film Production, to serve as a comprehensive guide (based on the so-called B Scheme film subsidy for the production of low-budget feature films for blacks under Apartheid), from concept to distribution. ‘The movie was shot in mere 17 days by a ragtag mob of film students working with a shoe-string budget of only R64 000. The film was shot on location in Namibia by aspiring filmmakers who had little practical experience in filmmaking and no experience in feature film production,’ says filmmaker Gerhard Uys, whose first feature film this was.

In 1990, just as the study reached its final stages, the B Scheme was terminated due to its myriad irregularities, rendering Uys’s research redundant. Although the study had to be abandoned, the film itself was completed, distributed and screened in townships across South Africa, eventually qualifying for a full state subsidy. Gerhard, who lectured at and ultimately headed the Technikon Pretoria Film School, had established Nickelodeon Films in 1983. He went on to become the first filmmaker in South Africa to obtain a doctorate in Motion Picture Production.

PEOPLE INVOLVED

The key production team consisted of just 12 people working in collaboration with three professional actors and 18 sponsors. The project would have collapsed without the invaluable assistance of many others, mostly without compensation: some 78 Ovahima, 29 Herero, 50 karateka, 20 assistants and 14 RSA soldiers were involved in shooting the film, while a crew of 27 worked on the restoration of the film. In total, some 250 people were involved in the making of A Fire in Africa.

Any filmmaker recalling a first low-budget feature film will understand the truth of Darrell Roodt’s words on going through that experience with Place of Weeping in 1986: ‘Everything is against you.’

The leading role in A Fire in Africa was played by Japan Mthembu − his first appearance in a feature film. He went on to appear in Invictus (2009), Snake Island (2002) and A Far Off Place (1993). In Invictus, which tells the true story of President Nelson Mandela’s role in inspiring the Springboks to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Japan plays the role of a local cop. The movie, directed by Clint Eastwood, was nominated for two Oscars.

A Fire in Africa was writer Emil Kolbe’s first feature film script, after which he emigrated to Australia. Emil went on to write many movie scripts and novels, one of which is Kidnap, published by Amazon.com. Emil, a former newspaper sub-editor, lives in Sydney where he writes books under the name Neil Colby.

INSPIRATION

The first Rugby World Cup was held in 1987. A striking omission from the tournament was the Springbok team, excluded because of the international sports boycott against the South African government’s policy of apartheid. Gerhard Uys, then a Master’s student, and scriptwriter Emil Kolbe had heated debates on the unethical, if not immoral, act of calling an event a rugby world tournament when the formidable Springboks were not included. If, say, a man with superhuman abilities who lived in a place where no one had heard of the Olympic Games could run 100 metres in under eight seconds (a time never actually achieved), would it not be unethical to claim that the Olympic 100 metres gold medallist, with a time slower than that, was the fastest man in the world? This discussion led to the writing of a screenplay for Gerhard’s Master’s degree and the ultimate production of A Fire in Africa, with the logline: ‘An aspiration born in the darkest civilisation’.

SYNOPSIS

A Fire in Africa is the story of Omusuverua Muharukua, a member of the Ovahimba tribe of Kaokoland in the far north of Namibia. His grandfather, Nguzu, is the first to notice a smouldering fire within Omusu. He sends him to school, where Omusu learns English, grows in faith and, at a nearby army camp, comes into contact with the mystical martial art of karate.

Nguzu has a clear strategy to assure Omusu’s future. He envisages Omusu as the next leader of the Ovahimba – a leader who will save his tribe from extinction. Nguzu who failed to fulfil this role himself, has suffered from guilt all his life. This peace-loving tribe, nearly a century before, had fled into the Namib, the oldest desert in the world, after suffering genocide at the hands of the German army in 1904. Nguzu hopes that Omusu will inspire his people, now struggling to survive in a godforsaken wilderness, to become the proud and prosperous tribe they once were.

Omusu is forced into confrontation with the customs of his tribe when his best friend is killed by an evil man named Omurue. When he questions the workings of the traditional judicial system, he is banished from his village. Alone, but determined, he sets off on a journey across the desert to the big city. At a leading martial arts school in Windhoek, he soon attains a black belt in karate. Thanks to his natural talent and exceptionally fast reflexes, he is given the opportunity of a lifetime − to join the Kaokoland karate team in a tournament against the USA world champions.

After the championships, he travels back to his tribe to reclaim his fiancée and new born child before they fall victim to his arch-enemy, Omurue. After defeating Omurue in combat, he is hailed as a hero and becomes the new leader of the tribe.

MURPHY’S LAW

The story of the making of A Fire in Africa is arguably as dramatic as the film itself and the production period was plagued by Murphy’s Law: ‘Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.’

The film was shot in five locations across Namibia: Ohopoho, Gobabis, Goanikontes Oasis, Dune Seven near Walvis Bay and Kolmanskop near Lüderitz Bay. The team’s three vehicles – two Kombis and a BMW − each travelled about 9 500 km (35% more than was budgeted for).

The pre-production phase from January to June 1987 proceeded without any major mishaps – unlike the filming that followed. The crew of ten filmmakers and two actors, setting off at different times in their three vehicles, faced an unbroken drive of 30 hours to cover the 2 500 km from Pretoria to Ohopoho, the capital of Kaokoland. The first vehicle left on 12 June 1987 and duly arrived in Ohopoho. The second vehicle, the camera Kombi with trailer, left on the afternoon of 15 June and the last vehicle was due to depart with the main actor on 16 June.

The producer was the last to leave with the main actor, once he had had his hair braided for his role as a Himba. While preparing to depart on the morning of 16 June, the producer received a phone call from the casting agency informing him that the main actor had been involved in a car accident in which a woman had died, and the actor was in hospital with serious injuries. Desperately searching for a replacement to play the lead, the producer was stopped at a roadblock into Alexandra and refused entry by the police because of rioting. It was Soweto Day, 16 June, and he would be taking his life in his hands if he entered the township. He went home, where his telephone rang again with more bad news: the camera Kombi’s trailer tyres had disintegrated from the weight of the film equipment, and the driver only noticed the sparks flying off the wheel rims 14 km down the road.

Still desperate to find someone to fill the main role, the producer very early the next morning called Japan Mthembu through the Intertalent casting agency. He was originally first choice for the role, but had not been contracted because his fee was beyond the budget. This time, fortunately, a half-asleep Japan agreed to help out within budget constraints. At considerable extra cost, including the hire of a Kombi to transport the stranded film equipment to Ohopoho, these problems were solved.

But on the scheduled first day of filming, three of what was essentially a skeleton crew were ill in bed with diarrhoea. This gave the producer some profoundly bleak moments of introspection, when he seriously considered pulling the plug on the entire project. What kept the production going was the idealistic belief of the students – who, after all, had been foolhardy enough to take on a low-budget feature film in a foreign country − that, as the saying goes in the performing arts, everything would be ‘all right on the night’.

This was the time of the Border War between the South African Defence Force and the South West African People’s Organisation, SWAPO. The filmmakers were cautioned to avoid byroads, because remote gravel tracks were favourite sites for landmines. The problem was that the village chosen for filming could only be reached via such a road. Fortunately no landmines were detonated, but everyone was aware of the danger − including the Ovahimba, who were among the film crew, carrying AK-47 machine guns for their protection. Filming proceeded while all fervently hoped that nothing serious would befall them.

Late one night, after a gruelling 12 hours of filming, aggressive-looking military police (MPs) came to arrest the producer because the army had received intelligence that the crew had been seen filming ‘strategic military structures’, a practice that the producer had been explicitly warned against. After hearing the crew’s profuse appeals for mercy, the MPs opted instead to confiscate the roll of film that they were told contained the prohibited footage. What they did not know was that one of the crew members, sensing trouble, had cunningly labelled a can containing an unexposed left-over piece of film ‘military vehicle scene’. The can was confiscated, the MPs were fooled and the scene survived. To this day it remains in the film.

The unforeseen costs meant that most of the crew had to return to Pretoria two days earlier than scheduled, and a crew of just three (director, director of photography and camera assistant) were left to film the Kolmanskop scene. The production had degenerated into a silent film because there was no sound engineer on set. The camera Kombi drove into Pretoria at a snail’s pace, where it got as far as the Nickelodeon production house. It refused to move an inch further because its engine had irreparably succumbed to the desert dust.

Phase 2, filming in South Africa, went much more smoothly, perhaps thanks to the ‘home-ground’ advantage. But as soon as the crew allowed themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security − having successfully organised one of the most challenging scenes, which depicted an international karate championship − Murphy returned to the set. Just before filming of the scene was due to start at the University of Pretoria Sports Centre, the producer received the news that the actor cast in the role of Malcolm, the Kaokoland karate team captain, had been offered a lucrative contract by an American film company to act as technical adviser for their karate film, so he was no longer available to play the role. The director, probably the only crew member not already cast in some small acting role, had a brown belt in karate, so there was no option but for him to step in. The only snag was his squeaky voice, which did not sound like anyone’s idea of a karate expert. Another voice had to be dubbed over later – a task that was done during the restoration of the film.

As often is the case with low-budget feature films, the editing phase became a casualty ward for all the mistakes made during the production phase. At this juncture, seeing the number of technical problems mounting up, the editor, whose sole responsibility it was to rescue the film, decided to abandon it. After what can only be called kid glove treatment from the assistant director, who pointed out that most of the ‘hard stuff’ had already been accomplished, the editor relented and the post-production process resumed.

Apart from the numerous technical, acting and lighting defects, the silent Kolmanskop scene came back to haunt the editor. All the sound, including Japan’s many footsteps in the sand, had to be realistically recreated in a sound studio. After prodding scores of objects into countless sand-simulating concoctions, the editor and assistant-director settled for a koki pen pressed into a mixture of Horlicks and salt as sounding the closest to footsteps on desert sand.

The endless production phase challenges resulted in the film editing taking longer than the pre-production and production phases combined, and it took a year before the film could be sent to Irene Film Laboratories for distribution prints to be made.

REVENUE

A Fire in Africa was distributed in black townships mainly in Gauteng, and an abridged 59-minute version was licensed to the SABC’s TV2 and TV3 channels for dubbing into Zulu and Sotho. The film overran its R64 000 budget, and ultimately cost R80 000 to produce. The SABC contributed R15 000, but ironically, the abridged version for TV broadcast, which had to be edited down with new music and an effects track for dubbing purposes, cost an additional R15 000. The film eventually earned R600 000 at the box office, an R80 000 subsidy and R15 000 from SABC licensing, totalling a substantial R695 000. Nickelodeon received the full subsidy of R80 000, which was more than the film had been registered for at the Department of Home Affairs, because the filmmakers were adjudged to have walked the extra mile in their aspiration to produce a good-quality finished product.

When Nickelodeon complained to the distributor that it had not received any portion of the box office income, the distributor said she was doing the producer a favour by distributing the film, arguing that she could have crossed the road to a film rental shop and hired Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones, which would have earned her much more than a low-budget South African film like A Fire in Africa. Unpalatable as this argument was, Nickelodeon had to accept it, because without documentary proof from the distributor that the film had been distributed as required by the system, it would not receive a state subsidy.

During the restoration of the film, ‘Big Brother’ Hollywood flexed its muscles again to stifle competition. This time it was the composer of the new score for A Fire in Africa, who frequently had to stop work when American dollars spoke louder than South African rands. When will the powers that control the film industry ever begin to understand the extent to which American film imperialism negatively affects the progress of the South African film industry?

RECOGNITION

Recognition is due to members of the production crew who expected to receive a share of the profit but sadly got nothing because the system was not structured fairly. Ironically, those who worked hard over two years to produce the movie, including the design of marketing material and distribution of copies, earned nothing, while the distributors and exhibitors earned R600 000 for respectively shipping and screening the reels of film. To the 250 people who so unselfishly gave of themselves for the sake of the film, we dedicate the following line from the film spoken by Malcolm, the Kaokoland karate team captain: ‘My father once told me that most people who in their life-time accomplish great things, seldom get the recognition they deserve.’

Now, at last, we want to give P.G. du Plessis (script adviser), Eddy Dorey (who played the role of Sensei Becker) and Chris Schutte (director of photography), who are all no longer with us, ‘the recognition they deserve’. We also owe a debt of gratitude to Malcolm Gooding, the man with the golden voice that all of South Africa recognises from decades of commercials, radio programmes, TV shows and movies, who re-recorded audio and added new TV commentary in his studio in Franschhoek, Gooding’s Groves − free of charge because, he says, ‘I want to give back something to the South African film industry, which has been very good to me.’

Incidentally, Malcolm was the master of ceremonies at the Rugby World Cup in 1995, when the Springbok team was at last allowed to participate in the tournament. They made their point when they beat the ‘world champions, the All Blacks, on home turf. At the handing over of the cup to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, Nelson Mandela stepped up to the podium where Malcolm stood ready to introduce him. Madiba, almost deafened by the noise from the record 45 000-strong stadium crowd who had all recognised their newly elected president, asked Malcolm: ‘Who are you?’ Malcolm replied: ‘Good day, Mister President. I am Malcolm Gooding and I am here to introduce you.’ Madiba’s quick-witted response was: ‘Do you think I need to be introduced?’

 

NICKELODEON FILMS

TEL: 012 325 1207, e-mail: uys@nickelodeonfilms.com

Laura van der Merwe, Restoration Supervisor, cell: 083 469 9793

Mark Buyskes, Colourisation and Final Sound Mixer, tel: 011 482 8345

Japan Mthembu, Lead Actor, cell: 082 840 9761

Dr Gerhard Uys, Producer, cell: 072 605 5242


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