Picking up where Sello left off
A film short, A Kind of Language, is a free adaptation of his work, existing alongside it.
When K Sello Duiker took his own life in 2005, there was a tremendous sense of tragedy—a unique voice, potentially a great voice, in South African literature had been silenced.
He had published only two books, the slender novella, Thirteen Cents, about a street kid in Cape Town, and then, in 20 01, the rather thick novel, The Quiet Violence of Dreams, which has many voices but centres on Tshepo, who goes from university to Valkenberg and a male brothel in the same city.
A story for young readers, The Hidden Star, was published after Duiker’s death, but it was The Quiet Violence of Dreams and its precursor (winner of the Commonwealth Prize) that caught the imagination of young South Africans, especially those who had lived through the upheavals of the 1980s, as Duiker had, into the turbulent new democracy.
The title of the book itself is now something of a cultural and generational catchphrase, and was adapted for the stage by Ashraf Johaardien (now the manager of the Wits Theatre) in 2008.
Showing at the Out in Africa gay and lesbian film festival is another take on Duiker’s work, the 23-minute A Kind of Language, directed by Phybia Dlamini and produced by Evan Abrahamse, Nombulelo Maringa and Dlamini.
Dlamini has worked in the South African film industry in various capacities for decades, including making pop videos, and was a participant in the Unesco scriptwriting workshop.
“Slowly I got into documentary,” she says, “and for the past 10 years I’ve been mostly doing documentary.”
The Duiker project came about because, she says, “two friends of mine who’d been living in Cape Town, Evan and Nombulelo, knew Sello and every time we got together they would talk about him”.
They decided to make a film inspired by his work—an adaptation of sorts, but a very free one.
The film combines documentary realism and a fractured, hallucinatory quality. We see Azure, the street kid, trying to hustle a buck in the Mother City, watched by a slightly sinister white man; we see Tshepo, madly daubing walls or, in the brothel (sorry, massage parlour), lusting after a co-worker and writing, dreaming, writing —
“Sello did what he did in writing the two books,” says Dlamini. “I had no intention of simply repeating what he did. I had to find a fresh perspective. I wanted to take it a step further from where Sello left it.”
Some have seen the chief characters in Thirteen Cents and The Quiet Violence of Dreams as continuous, Azure becoming Tshepo.
Dlamini, however, liked the contrast of the two existing simultaneously in the same world, and in a life in which Azure is more like the adult and Tshepo the child.
“It’s about these two spirits navigating their way in this beautiful-looking environment that is actually quite challenging.” Could the short film lead to the making of a feature?
“It is a short, it’s self-contained, it’s its own story,” says Dlamini. At the same time, though, “the idea was to explore our ideas, see what we were capable of, and when we look for the money to make the feature to be able to show people where we’re coming from and what sort of treatment we would give it”.
She says she knew about the play, but “I never got to see it. Apparently there’s a documentary someone’s done about Sello, and a 10-minute film, but I haven’t seen them. I can see them now, but at the time [we were making A Kind of Language] I wanted to be fresh in my mind.”
She and her co-producers put together what money they had, scrounged a bit from others, drew on “human resources” and found locations they could use for free. “We never got funding from any institution. It’s completely independent.”
A Kind of Language screens with The Cutter