Selling Isobel is a gruelling, full-length feature film, which tells the story of Frida Farrell’s trafficking experience — she bravely plays the lead role herself — and it won her and director Rudolf Buitendach the Raindance Film Festival’s inaugural Indie Award in 2016 as well as Best International Film at the European Independent Film Festival.
More than 20-million people worldwide have been trafficked for sexual exploitation, forced labour and related activities.
Selling Isobel isn’t the only social responsibility film that Buitendach has been involved in. In 2015 he produced and edited the environmental documentary Medicine of the Wolf “to try to save this iconic species from extinction”. Directed by Julia Huffman and featuring conservationist Jane Goodall and National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg, it won the Grand Jury Prize for best film at the Arizona International Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival.
Collecting awards at film festivals is something Buitendach is becoming quite adept at. His 2012 debut feature film Dark Hearts — in which an artist finds his muse by making paintings with human blood — won the LA Neo-noir Film Festival before finding a home on the network Showtime. His second feature film, Where the Road Runs Out, won the Best Jury Award at the 2014 San Diego Film Festival and the Black Reel Award for Outstanding World Cinema. In 2015 he won the Best Director Award at the Sunscreen Film Festival in Florida.
Buitendach grew up in Gauteng, where he used to drive Charlize Theron to dance lessons, and studied film and video technology in the early 1990s. After graduating, he moved to London where he learnt to finance his dream of directing by editing trailers for the likes of Mike Leigh, Lars von Trier and Werner Herzog, collecting nominations and awards along the way and shooting the world’s first fully digital film, Indoor Fireworks.
“Editing pays the bills when I’m in lengthy development,” he says. “An understanding of editing is hugely beneficial, as shooting time is always expensive.”
Winning awards doesn’t mean the bills get paid, and Buitendach has become a past master at shooting his films on a shoestring budget. Dark Hearts, for instance, had a budget of only a million dollars. It was shot in downtown Los Angeles in just 17 days and among those who auditioned were the sons of Jean-Claude van Damme and Peter O’Toole, the daughters of Nastassja Kinski, Don Johnson and Martin Landau and the granddaughter of Elvis Presley.
Even if he had had a large budget, making Where the Road Runs Out would have been a huge challenge for any filmmaker. It was the first feature film ever shot in Equatorial Guinea, where most of the country is tropical rainforests. The average humidity is 80%, there is next to no film infrastructure and the locals speak Spanish, Fang or Bube.
On top of this, Buitendach’s storyboard, script notes, general prep and laptop were stolen en route to the location.
“Unless you are born into wealth or enjoy suffering, find another career,” says Buitendach about being a director. “Actually, I wouldn’t trade this for the world, but maybe I just enjoy suffering.”
He has just finished shooting his fourth feature film, in Cambodia, where for the first time he didn’t have to follow the given script and the whims of the producers closely. “Hex is the only one of my films where I developed the project myself as writer. On the others I was always competing with other directors and had to pitch, prove my worth.”
Crossing the globe to shoot in exotic locations is not without its adventures. “On Hex, we shot a supernatural scene at one of the most haunted places on Earth. The local crew were very reluctant as it meant two consecutive all-night shoots there — and indeed, walking away from the film set to catch my breath, I saw a ghostly apparition. Earlier that night, my script mysteriously vanished, only to reappear on exactly the spot where I left it, but a few hours too late,” Buitendach says.
The director, who lives close to Hollywood these days, says he would love to shoot something back home. “I’m a British citizen and US green card holder these days, but graduated from the Pretoria Film School as [the] top student. My award was given by the legendary Jamie Uys, and I would love nothing more than to come and do an Afrikaans or interesting South African film back in South Africa.”