The release this week of the local film Promised Land, based on the classic novel by Karel Schoeman, Na die Geliefde Land, once again stirs up all kinds of questions about the local film industry. Questions like: should we be making art or political films? Should we be trying to make the Great South African Film? Will we ever make more than 10 features a year and, if not, why not?
The film was written and directed by Jason Xenopoulos, a 33-year-old local director and entrepreneur. After studying film in the United States he founded a leading Web development company and became CEO of Primedia Pictures, where he was involved with the development and production of films like Boesman & Lena.
So far Promised Land has shown at the Toronto International Film Festival and won an award for best script at the Tokyo International Film Festival.
How did you get involved with Promised Land?
I was in my final year of film school [at New York University] in 1993 when [casting agent and co-producer] Moonyeenn Lee sent me a copy of Karel Schoeman’s novel. At first I found it difficult to imagine how one might translate such an introspective character study into a film. But once I allowed myself to look beyond the surface narrative I discovered a well of thematic content with which I really connected. I found a way to integrate many of the issues that are core to me as a filmmaker into the story.
What grabbed you about it?
The sense of time and space that the novel portrays … and the profound thematic exploration of identity.
Tell us a bit about getting the financing together.
Financing a South African film is never easy. There are very few local sources of film finance and South African films have, traditionally, not performed well in the international market. As a result, David Wicht, one of the film’s producers, designed a pretty unorthodox funding structure that made the production possible. The film was financed primarily through industry investments — cash deferrals on the part of cast, crew and suppliers. Instead of taking salaries in the form of cash, people reinvested their salaries into the film in exchange for shares. In addition, Corp Capital assisted us in raising cash funding to cover suppliers’ direct costs and consumables. A pre-sale to M-Net plugged the remaining hole. Subsequent support from the NFVF [National Film and Video Foundation] and the Hubert Bals Foundation in Holland made the transfer from High-Definition to 35mm film possible.
Did you do any research into Afrikaners and their history?
My late stepmother was Afrikaans. She raised me from the age of six. As a child I spent a considerable amount of time with her family. I was always aware of the cultural differences that existed between her side of the family and my father’s. I think this made me more sympathetic of Afrikaner culture … and more critical at the same time. While writing Promised Land I spent quite a bit of time on the road, travelling through the platteland, the Karoo, the Northern Province, meeting people, talking to them. But above all, like all South Africans of my age, the history I learned at school was biased toward Afrikaner heritage anyway.
Did you ever talk to Schoeman?
Karel and I spent some very valuable time together. I met him about eight years ago while Lee and I were scouting the country for locations. In fact, many of the locations that we finally chose were farms that Karel had taken us to see.
Has Schoeman seen the film and, if so, what does he think?
Karel has not, to my knowledge, seen the film. He insisted from the start that he did not want to read the screenplay nor did he want to see the movie. Karel acknowledged that any cinematic interpretation of his novel would be exactly that … an interpretation. I guess that he felt that if he had to let go, it would be easier to let go completely.
Why does the credit say based on “a” novel by Schoeman?
Initially the credit was going to read “Inspired by the novel Na Die Geliefde Land“. Promised Land is not, nor was it intended to be, a literal translation of Karel’s book. Within the pages of Karel’s novel I discovered a texture, an ambiance, a sense of space, of desperation, a tragic sense of decay. It was this “essence” that I sought to capture. The credit is worded the way it is to reflect this.
I thought the performances were generally excellent. What kind of rehearsing or preparation, if any, did you do with the actors?
I worked extensively with Nick Boraine, Daniel Browde and Yvonne van de Bergh. With the other actors too … but not to the same extent. Sanford Meisner said that acting is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances”. I really believe that.
The book has been called a South African 1984; why did you choose to make it less so?
Promised Land, the movie, is less “allegorical” than the novel in that it has a contemporary setting. I wanted to retain the sense of isolation depicted in the book while situating the narrative within the present day. In order to do this I tried to create an eclectic environment cluttered with things from disparate times and places.
The film looks like a commercial. Do you have a background in that and, whether you do or don’t, what was your basic approach to the visual design of the film?
I set out to make an “expressionist” film. I specifically wanted to depict the emotional landscape that the characters inhabit, not just the physical one. I have always believed that in cinema form must follow function. That does not mean that one should avoid specific stylistic elements. To the contrary, it simply means that the visual style one chooses should reflect the essence of the underlying content. I have tried to use lighting, colour, camera movement and composition to create a cinematic subtext through which to explore the underlying psychology of any given moment.
And the sound design?
Sound design was used to track and echo George’s journey through his own emotional landscape. The disorientation that dominates the first half of the film is portrayed through a dissonant and atonal soundscape, while the emerging intimacy between George and Carla and George and Paul is accentuated by the emergence of an increasingly melodious score.
Though I personally think the film has an amazing visual and audio language, which works particularly well on video, I don’t agree with your making the Hattinghs Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) adherents. Why did you?
I was simply trying to point to the notion of racism and white supremacism through a simple and known icon. One that is purely visual, cinematic. One that is universal. Even international audiences who know nothing of the AWB recognise the fascism underlying this symbol. I never intended to specifically say that the Hattinghs were AWB adherents, but rather that they were right-wing Afrikaners whose views may at one time have dovetailed with those of the AWB. They may also have allied themselves with Die Wit Wolwe or the Boeremag … or Hitler’s Third Reich for that matter.
Didn’t you think it might come across as taking cheap shots at Afrikaners? And if your answer is that you made a film about a small, lunatic Afrikaner fringe, the question is why? Why would you want to tell that particular story, even though a handful of Afrikaner fanatics are now emerging?
I truly believe that there has been a bifurcation within Afrikaner culture. A split between the “old” and the “new”. In certain instances this split is quite extreme while at other times it can be quite subtle. The unspoken, ideological rift that may open up between father and son, mother and daughter, between brothers, sisters, cousins. A rift that may at times be indistinct, sitting within the nuances of conversation, the motivation behind everyday actions. Contemporary Afrikaners have been forced to make a choice. To choose between racial separatism or assimilation … between the past and the future … and to acknowledge all the ideological and philosophical ramifications that come with that decision. Promised Land depicts both sides of this equation. It portrays the death of one era and the birth of another. In doing so Promised Land depicts the advocates of separatist ideology quite cruelly. But in my view they are cruel people who deserve to be depicted cruelly … whose inhumanity is surpassed only by their own absurdity. These Afrikaner fanatics, as you call them, are a caricature of themselves. I believe I have rendered them quite accurately.
In short, why have you particularised a universal story?
I believe that in order to tell a universal story one must particularise it. One can only truly comment on the general by exploring the way it manifests within the specific. It is through cultural and social specificity that one achieves universality.