/ 24 August 2007

A gem in the rough

Kemaketse Kedirile is a security guard on the set of Anthony Minghella’s movie version of Alexander McCall Smith’s bestselling novel The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency currently shooting in and around Gaborone. As one of more than 1 200 locals employed on the movie, Kedirile tells me that his name means “I’m amazed”. When I ask him about the movie he says, “It’s just like my name — I’m amazed. It’s amazing that they are turning Mr Alexander’s book into a reality.”

The film version of McCall Smith’s first novel in the successful series seems to be going according to plan. Producer Amy Moore — who first visited Botswana when she hitchhiked across the country in the late 1980s — optioned the rights to the novel seven years ago. She met Minghella through a mutual friend and, although he wasn’t entirely convinced that he wanted to direct the film, he was enchanted by the novel and came on board to develop it through his company.

He began work on the adaptation with old friend Richard Curtis, best known as the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and the Mr Bean series.

“I knew that he was the perfect person to help adapt the script. Richard was one of the founders of Comic Relief. He has this incredible investment in decency,” says the director, “He’s one of these people who doesn’t go fishing for optimism, he lives with it every day and so he was the perfect person to help fashion the upbeat tone of Mma Ramotswe’s story.”

The series of novels, which now runs at seven instalments, follows the daily foibles of the “traditionally built”, eminently sensible owner of Botswana’s only female detective agency. Mma Ramotswe is a winning character and a welcome change from the fast-talking, cynical, maverick gumshoe or the kickboxing female secret agent. Armed with a strong sense of right and wrong, and not a handgun, she’s practical yet softhearted, inventive yet conventional and she brings a practical wisdom to solving mysteries involving greed, lust and dishonesty.

Minghella, best known for his Oscar-winning The English Patient, says the stories have a complex and nostalgic appeal and that the material evokes memories of his own sheltered youth on the Isle of Wight, “These days we don’t know where our food comes from, where our waste goes, how our machines work — it seems that because we cannot question everything, we end up questioning nothing. Mma Ramotswe’s talent is in questioning things … even the smallest.”

Minghella, however, remains cautious about saccharine or over-the-top treatment. “It’s like a pretty painting, an oil painting, for example, which always starts with a dark base on the canvas. So underneath this wonderful generosity of spirit lies other, darker stuff.” It is this dramatic weight underlying the story that finally confirmed his decision to direct the movie.

The day I visit they are filming one of these more threatening scenes. Mma Ramotswe, played by Jill Scott, has set up a rendezvous with the powerful and shady local gangster Charlie Kgotso, played by Idris Elba of acclaimed TV show The Wire.

The crew has set up parallel tracks around a cake stall filled to the brim with extravagant, kitschy delicacies. The scene is long, suspenseful and, somehow, funny. At the end of the take Minghella doesn’t shout “Cut!” — instead he applauds and quietly says: “Superb. Excellent work”. The director consults with everybody and, because he doesn’t exert a tinsel-town superiority, he comes across as a co-worker.

The film was difficult to cast. As recently as three months ago Minghella thought the movie was not going to happen — after scouring Botswana, South Africa and the rest of the world, the filmmakers believed the inimitable Mma Ramotswe could not be replicated. It was finally the award-winning United States singer Scott who mesmerised Minghella. “I knew from her rap poetry, her spoken performances and her singing that she was the one. She was the one person, out of hundreds whom we auditioned, who has this … ” — he pauses before finding the the right word — “this majesty. Simply put, she has enormous soul.”

The actress, who, like her director, is warm and unassuming, says: “Mma Ramotswe is 80% spirit. There’s a fire inside her. I like her and I’m proud of her.”

Although the film is whimsical and at times broadly comic, Scott is not going for caricature. “I’m not making it so big, so not all her thought processes are exposed. People here in Botswana are gentle and show a great deal of respect for each other. So we’ve made sure that if there’s any so-called ‘silly’ humour it comes at the right time.”

The integrity of Scott’s performance is borne out by her “stand-in”, the Gaberone poetess Desma Majola. “What I love about my country, and this Jill [Scott] understands perfectly, is that everybody has an inbuilt cultural artistry. Our women here are very strong, we’re conservative, yet open-minded. We don’t rush for stuff. There’s this inbuilt humility here and for this Jill is perfect. She’s just so, I don’t know, so wholesome. She’s not like a Hollywood star with an ego the size of Manhattan.”

Majola seems to agree with Moore, her producer, that the stars are in some special alignment, smiling on the production. “This might sound wacky, but I think God’s hand is in this whole thing. I think he wanted to have this country seen. I think it’s a blessed production. What’s amazing is how smoothly it’s all happened, I mean it hasn’t been that challenging.”

The production has not, however, been without its share of controversy. At one point the filmmakers thought of shooting in Limpopo to make use of South Africa’s tax-rebate scheme for film production, but Moore was adamant that it be shot in the country where the Ramotswe tales were born. To make this happen she lobbied the Botswana ministry of environment, wildlife and tourism, which pledged $5-million toward the cost of production.

The government grant attracted some criticism in the local press, which went as far as to say the film perpetuated racial myths and stereotypes. Minister of Tourism Kitso Mokaila insisted the movie presented “a rare opportunity” for the country to market itself as a premier African travel destination. “People can say what they want. But I can assure you that this decision, taken with the approval of Cabinet, was not a mistake.”

Moore says: “This is a country of talk, and everyone’s had their say. We’ve consulted the people about everything. This is the most democratic country I’ve ever known, so it’s only natural that everything has been totally transparent.”

McCall Smith dedicated the fourth book in the series The Kalahari Typing School For Men to Moore, demonstrating his faith that she shares his affectingly droll vision.

The filmmakers are hoping that this will be the first in a series involving the adventures of Mma Ramotswe. The charmer seems set to be as succesful on the screen as she was on the page, which all goes to show that Botswana has a lot more gems to offer besides diamonds.