The Difficulties of Adapting a South African Story From a Full Length Feature Script For An International Audience

PAUL VAN ZYL –  WRITER/DIRECTOR

 

Paul van Zyl, the director of a short narrative film, Elegy for a Revolutionary, which deals with a popular piece of South African history, currently on the global short film circuit, describes the problems of making a unique South African story accessible to an international audience and the difficulties of adapting a short from a full-length feature script.

*Who are you?

My name is Paul Van Zyl. I am an Afrikaner. My name speaks apartheid. Despite my heritage, I grew up with a left-wing outlook. As a young man my left wing leanings lead me to AWOL my military obligations by fleeing to Israel (My mother was Jewish). When I eventually returned I was immediately conscripted and after my service, began to study Journalism at Rhodes University where the key players of the African Resistance Movement were alumni and also my heroes. As a student, I worked for many left-wing newspapers, where I spouted popular left-wing dogma while working on behalf of the ANC/ARM movement. I am a graduate of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles (1984). I’ve been living and working in Los Angeles since graduating.  I grew up in South Africa. I detested apartheid but loved my country.  In 1996, the “great plan” of apartheid fell to pieces.  I set upon stories that exposed social injustice, expressed the inhumanity of authoritarian regimes, and demonstrated human resilience against adversity.  My films use the experience of underground political action in South Africa during the early 1980s.  It examines the motives of a group of young white “liberals” who turn to violence to oppose the repressive Nationalist Government.

At the core of this account is one question: “Can violence be justified as a way of opposing tyranny?” I hope to educate and entertain the audience with questions like these, and explore the divide between left and right, black and white, loyalty and treachery. In South Africa, I graduated from Rhodes University in South Africa with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Speech & Drama and Visual Communications. Ironically, I was failed out of the Journalism department which was my second major because of my political views.  I had to pick up Psychology as my second major. After graduation I did projects with the South African Broadcasting Company, Elton John and Michael York. Independently, he directed for the stage, and wrote and directed 5 short films. In the U.S., I completed the Directing program at the American Film Institute and interned with David Cronenberg, Michael Mann, Karl Shenkel and Curtis Hanson. On stage, I reprised Stillborn and Big Boys. I have worked with Fries Entertainment and New World Productions and on projects with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Martin Sheen, Lauren Hutton, Dennis Hopper, Seth Rogen and Barbara Streisand.

*How old are you?

I’m 60’s +. I was told never to give your real age in Hollywood, especially if you’re a man.

* What is the name of your short film?

Elegy for a Revolutionary.  It’s a loose adaptation from the novel by C.J. Driver with the same name which is a loose adaptation on the true story of the African Resistance Movement in South Africa during the ‘60’s.  In South Africa you had the Rivonia trials which put Nelson Mandela on Robbin Island for all those years, and then you had the ARM trials.

* Where was the film shot?

Elegy is a South African story which was shot in Los Angeles but funded out of South Africa and the USA.

* What is your film about?

Encouraged by his friend, a young, idealistic journalist joins the African National Congress (ANC) to protest apartheid. When their acts of sabotage turn to murder, their relationship falls apart. The notoriously brutal police are hot on the trail. When captured, do these two friends turn on each other for survival or remain quiet, facing torture and death? Then one of them cooperates with the security police and becomes a witness for the state. With a country divided and loyalty strained, two men are forced to choose sides — and suffer their fate. Right or wrong? Only one thing is certain: Betrayal knows no limits.

It’s a unique South African story about two friends who get arrested for political subversion and who sacrifice their friendship and ideals as they struggle towards a non-racial society and democracy in South Africa. It’s the true story of when a small group of white South African students, dreamed that they could help topple the apartheid regime by blasting down electric pylons and radio masts. They called themselves the African Resistance Movement (more information here).

My friends and I dreamed that we could help topple the apartheid regime by blasting down electric pylons and radio masts. We wanted to join the African Resistance Movement (ARM). This was a world where the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress were banned and the Liberal Party, to which most of us belonged, was soon to be banned. The ANC leadership had effectively been put away by the Rivonia trial and their armed struggle was underground. We respected them and wanted to play our part. In July 1964, during a wave of raids across the country, the apartheid security police picked up several members of the African Resistance Movement. Soon after being taken into detention, one of its key members began to talk. His exhaustive and gratuitously detailed testimony, first in detention and then as a state witness, was used to convict many of his closest friends and associates. To refer to him as a rat was hard on rats, the apartheid judge remarked when sentencing those at whose expense he had bought his freedom.

The ARM has often been written off as a group of misguided amateurs, or liberals out of their depth. But in fact the organization predated the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the armed wing of the ANC), and in the thirty-six months of its active existence did as much economic damage to state infrastructure as MK managed during the same period. As such, we are led to the tragic final act of the ARM story, in which a bomb was planted on the platform of Park Station, Johannesburg. Despite telephoned warnings to the police and newspapers, the concourse was not cleared and a suitcase stuffed with TNT and petrol exploded at 4:33 pm on 24 July 1964, at the height of rush hour. A grandmother was killed, her twelve-year-old granddaughter terribly burned, and twenty-two others seriously injured. It was considered a disaster on every level: “it consolidated white opinion, led directly to the demise of the Liberal Party, and strengthened the hand of the white government for more than a decade.

The perpetrator was killed in Pretoria Central on April fool’s Day 1965, the only white “political” hanged by the state, and went to the gallows singing “We Shall Overcome.”  His conviction was secured with the states-evidence turn of one of his friends in the movement. Following many testimonies, and as part of the deal struck with the apartheid prosecutors, many members went into permanent exile. The Arm Movement did not do much to create effective change and eradicate apartheid. Instead most of those mentioned, wrecked their lives and became broken and self-lacerating men. An important key player 15 years after the fact confessed his shame in an article from the heart titled “I Gave the Names.”  But by then, a cancer of mistrust and mutual suspicion had developed among many ex-ARM members and many years after the betrayals, accusations of intrigue and treachery are still bandied about – I urge you to read more about “Elegy for a Revolutionary.”  It’s loosely inspired by the novel Elegy for a Revolutionary by C.J. Driver, which was banned in South Africa for many years, and is based on the true story of the ARM movement in South Africa during apartheid. It’s a personal journey through the war of apartheid and centers on the personalities of two friends who are both traitors and paradoxically heroes.  Elegy joins several other genres in this compromised, messy and contested narrative.

It is dealt with in several political memoirs and “jail diaries” from Hugh Lewin’s Bandiet (1974, 2002), Albie Sachs’ Stephanie on Trial (1968), as well as Eddie Daniels’ There and Back (1998), Nadine Gordimer’s The Late Bourgeois World (1966) and Athol Fugard’s radical experiment in theatre, Orestes (1978). John Harris’s almost unreadable moving letters to his wife from death row have been threaded into the Guardian correspondent David Beresford’s Truth is a Strange Fruit (2010). And in a 2002 edition of Granta magazine, Adrian Leftwich, himself offered a confession which took him 15 years to write – “as much an essay in the personal politics of fear as it is in the politics of failure and betrayal”– and which was intriguingly judged as sincere and powerful, inadequate and evasive, by the different individuals affected by his actions. Following testimony, and as part of the deal they struck with the apartheid prosecutors, many members were forced into permanent exile.

The ARM has often been written off as a group of misguided amateurs, or liberals out of their depth. But in fact the organization predated the formation of Umkhonto We Sizwe (the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), and in the thirty-six months of its active existence did as much economic damage to state infrastructure as MK managed during the same period. As such, we are led to the tragic final act of the ARM story, in which John Harris planted a bomb on the platform of Park Station, Johannesburg. Despite his telephoned warnings to the police and newspapers, the concourse was not cleared and a suitcase stuffed with TNT and petrol exploded at 4:33 pm on 24 July 1964, at the height of rush hour. A grandmother was killed, her twelve-year-old granddaughter terribly burned, and twenty-two others seriously injured. It was a disaster on every level: “it consolidated white opinion, led directly to the demise of the Liberal Party, and strengthened the hand of the white government for more than a decade. Harris was killed in Pretoria Central on April fool’s Day 1965, the only white “political” hanged by the state, and went to the gallows singing “We Shall Overcome. In 2012, years after these betrayals, accusations of intrigue and treachery are still being bandied about.


* What inspired you to make it?

I’ve waited 40 years to tell this story. The story inspires moral and intellectual traditions. It’s different from other apartheid movies because it shows how taking sides with the oppressed blacks prevented us from acting out this commitment while it narrates a history of the white left in South Africa. In telling the story, I want to come to terms with how we failed to live up to our moral positions as saboteurs and revolutionaries. Our commitment did not know its own frailty. It was an ideological fantasy. I also discovered a split between my personal self and the political self. And I think it was this split which made it easy for us to turn against each other.

The message of the film is that violence begets violence. I do not condone violence of any kind. In fact, the character Donald and I share the same experience. The ARM movement would not have me as a member because I was a pacifist and could not stomach revolution and did not believe in the armed struggle. I was called a dilettante. In spite of that, I earnestly wanted to do something to effectively change South Africa – as opposed to doing nothing and being a part of the problem, so I broke rules and became involved anyway.

* What were some of the difficulties putting it together?

I tried to shoot the film in South Africa to make it a unique biography but was sabotaged. Shooting in Los Angeles provided numerous problems – finding South African actors, dealing with accents etc. The most difficult was providing an understandable narrative structure for an international audience not aware of South Africa’s culture and history. I also needed to reduce the scope of the story from full feature length to a story that fits into the short film format. I had to tone down the politics, the logistics of their acts of terrorism and the judgment of the government. In the final assessment, the story ends up merely being told and not felt. It’s all facts with no feeling. The abbreviation of the story straight from the feature length script makes the chain of events truncated, not giving enough sense of the passage of time. I think the speed of the piece happens so quickly the boys might come off as foolish and larks? What did they have to lose? Why they did this? Instead, the film plays for speed and pushes too fast. It’s not focused enough; the audience does not feel deeply for the protagonist. In fact, I don’t think it’s quite clear what they are supposed to feel.

The opening was most problematic – lots of cutting and re-cutting. It needed a bigger scope. The audience needed to be placed in the environment. The characters don’t earn their point-of-view making them more purposeful and frustrated to understand why they turn to violence. So their choice to fight against the government, although noble, is unexplained, or at best assumed. The main problem became the story lacking context preventing the audience from an emotional connection to the characters.

I tried INDIEGOGO to help raise funds for post production but was very unsuccessful. Crowd funding is an art unto itself. I’d like to pursue that avenue after much due diligence and research.

* What were some of the changes you had to make from the screenplay when you began filming?

To get inside the story, it needed to change a lot. I don’t particularly like voice-over but it became voice-over dependent, making it feel more like a documentary than a drama.

Also, the budget was small and unfortunately I needed to come from a position of deprivation. I selected locations which would not involve any company moves and because the shooting schedule was only 4 days I kept the camera static and didn’t give much of a physical life to the characters.

Finally, the voice-over is my voice and I think it’s too heavy-handed. I’m not an actor so I would rather have a real actor do it.

* Is there something about your film you wish you could change or improve? 

I feel the main problem with the story is that it lacks context. Without knowing some background about the political atmosphere of those difficult times, the audience has no chance for an emotional connection to the characters, which is always key. In essence, the story is too direct. It needs more time.

I also think the picture also lacks scope. The audience needs more placements into the environment. This could have been accomplished by more use of images of apartheid, reminiscent of the South or the Jews in the Second World War to give an audience a frame of reference. I think this would have helped anchor the story in South Africa. After all, the story is as much about the country as the people who died for it.

For me, the story deserves to be a feature film. I don’t think it works as a short film. It needs the scope of a feature to become more gradually invested in these two boys and the politics happening around them. It was hard to reduce the scope so that it’s just about two friends who get caught up in something bigger than themselves and lose control. If given the opportunity to do over I would tone down the scope of the story and include more news material. I also think I would change the end. At the end I would have liked to include more flashbacks of the two boys having a laugh, to show how close they actually were. I think it would have added to the resonance of the betrayal.

* What has it been like submitting to festivals?

The screeners are very young and many of them don’t know about Apartheid. I had to place a graphic card describing apartheid in the beginning of the film which I was reluctant to do. It’s a generation issue. Apartheid is not taught in schools and seems to be a forgotten issue. I think it is still important because the South African film voice has always been closely linked to the society which has been influenced by politics and struggle. And as a South African, I’ve always felt that it is important to look at history, to look back to where we came from, in order to know where we are going, particularly with Nelson Mandela’s vision of the new South Africa. When the plan of apartheid began to fall to pieces, it seemed I had entered into world where conquest had to be undone and I became interested in stories which provided a unique biography for South Africa. It makes great spiritual cinema. I plan to make a feature which will lift the veil on this remarkable breed of white South Africans who operated during the frenzied mayhem of apartheid. Little is known of their dilemma and this story will bring to public view the tremendous debt of their contribution during a country’s fragile transition from suppression to freedom. Audiences will discover questions of what they did and how they handled themselves. Oh, and, by the way, Elegy does not condone terrorism but rather questions whether violence can be justified as a way of opposing tyranny.”

* What’s next?

The feature film is next. The short was initially designed as promotion to help raise funds for the feature.

* Any advice for new filmmakers?

Set accurate and doable goals. Mine your network of people. Develop your “map of relationships,” tell them exactly what you’re doing and make requests. Do more networking than you think you need to do. Go to events. Offer an Associate Producer’s fee or an Executive Producer credit on a single card in the main titles to help with the financing of your film. Many people who are looking to start their own film company really like this opportunity. Hold a Sales Presentation and have some of your key attachments there if possible. Buy a unit of the LLC yourself. It means a lot to investors if you have invested in your own film.  Get educated on State and Provincial Incentives but also think globally. Give investors a chance to play by offering them a part as an extra etc. and stand in abundance with your investors when you write up your business plan. Make declarations. Your word has tremendous power. Have a milestone and a timeline for targets to keep momentum going. Have an accountability plan and keep to your promises. Get a mentor to help create a supportive structure. Take your filters off and master the act of listening. Put people at ease. Be present, on purpose, focused and centered. Empower people in your conversations. Learn to count to 10 when the going gets tough. Make acknowledgements and make it easy to say “yes.”

And, above all, remember, it’s all about having FUN!

ELEGY FOR A REVOLUTIONARY, a short narrative film about the true story of the African Resistance Movement in South Africa during apartheid in the ‘60’s has won numerous awards and nominations.

Encouraged by his friend, a young, idealistic journalist joins the African National Congress (ANC) to protest apartheid. When their acts of sabotage turn to murder, their relationship falls apart. The notoriously brutal police are hot on the trail. When captured, do these two friends turn on each other for survival or remain quiet, facing torture and death? Then one of them cooperates with the security police and becomes a witness for the state. With a country divided and loyalty strained, two men are forced to choose sides — and suffer their fate. Right or wrong? Only one thing is certain: Betrayal knows no limits. It is a true & personal story based on the African Resistance Movement (ARM) in South Africa during apartheid, loosely adapted from the novel of the same name by South African author, C.J. Driver. Award and nominations include :

Best Political Statement Short at the Action on Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Best Human Rights Short and Best Director at the American International Film Festival

Best Short at the Independent Film Festival in Tampa, Florida

Semi-finalist in the Action Cut Short Film Competition

A Merit Award winner in the Best Shorts Competition in Los Angeles.

Nine nominations at the International Filmmaker of the World Festival in the UK, including Best Short, Best Screenplay (Paul van Zyl), Best Actor (Brian Ames), Best Supporting Actor (David Patterson), Best Supporting Actress (Marcia Battise), Best Wardrobe (Joe Kucharski), Best Make-up (Cheyenne Webster), Best Music (Andrew Jed), and Best Editing (Ryan Knight).

Best of the Best Short at the Isle of Wight Festival in the UK.