Every now and again, months, and sometimes even years of hard work, come to fruition in one swift buzz of activity. The recent release of two feature films based on the work of Dalene Matthee was such an occasion.
Being involved in managing the rights of one of the most celebrated and well-loved Afrikaans novelists, it has been wonderful to see all the effort that has been put in behind the scenes eventually manifest itself in such a remarkable way.
The two films, Fiela se kind and Toorbos, both premiered at this year’s kykNET Silwerskermfees, the leading Afrikaans film festival in South Africa (with English thrown in for good measure – all films have English subtitles and some panel discussions were conducted in English), which was held in Cape Town in August. Both pictures did extremely well, with Fiela se kind scooping up the People’s Choice award, and Toorbos receiving the honour of closing the festival.
The success of these two films again highlights the staying power of Dalene Matthee’s work. Her bestselling novels possess the unique ability to speak to readers (and now viewers) across different eras, transcending language and cultural boundaries.
Fiela se kind (Fiela’s Child), arguably the most well-known novel in her oeuvre, especially exemplifies this characteristic. It tells the story of a white child that shows up on the doorstep of Fiela Komoetie, a so-called coloured woman, who takes the seemingly abandoned boy in and raises him as her own.
The centre cannot hold, however, and after nine years the authorities come knocking. Benjamin, as she has christened the boy, is taken away from her by unfeeling government officials who deem it unnatural that a white child should be raised by a brown woman. He is sent to live with a white family in the Knysna forest, who claim he is the son they lost years ago.
Set in the 19th century, this iconic novel examines the central questions of “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” The universal themes that permeate the narrative have touched readers for decades, and not just in Afrikaans. The book has been widely translated into, amongst others, English, Spanish, German, Icelandic, French, Hebrew and Italian.
The latest adaptation of Fiela se kind follows in the illustrious footsteps of the highly acclaimed 1988 film based on the novel, which was directed by Katinka Heyns and has become a classic in its own right. Brett Michael Innes was responsible for the current screenplay and also did duties as director. Zenobia Kloppers stars in the title role of Fiela.
Toorbos, another fan favourite, was adapted for the big screen for the first time by the talented René van Rooyen. This romantic drama, set in the 1930s, tells the mystical tale of a woman, the untamed Karoliena, who is connected to the forest on a primordial level. She is faced with a tumultuous inner conflict that sees her shifting to and fro between the juxtaposed worlds of the “civilised” village and the wildness of the forest.
Under Van Rooyen’s sensitive stewardship (she served as both writer and director on the project), the film version of this magical realist tale won the ‘Works in Progress’ award at the 2018 Cape Town International Market and Film Festival. This has ensured its exposure to some of the most influential figures on the world stage, which is sure to lead to an even wider audience in future.
A word of thanks needs to go to the organisers of the kykNET Silwerskermfees, not just for the platform they have provided for these two films, but also for their vital contributions to the local film industry in general. On the one hand the festival is aimed at celebrating the enormous talent we have here on home soil, while on the other it strives to develop fresh voices in the form of mentorship programmes.
A wide array of work was shown at this year’s edition of the event, with full-length feature films, short films, student films and documentaries all receiving tremendous support from welcoming and engaging audiences. A documentary on Dalene Matthee, produced by Danie Bester, was also screened at the festival, giving attendees a wonderful insight into the life and legacy of this beloved author and the status her novels still hold within the sphere of Afrikaans literature.
The documentary will be broadcast on kykNET on Sunday 13 October, to coincide with the late author’s birthday. In the meantime, Fiela se kind is screening nationwide and Toorbos is set for theatrical release in May 2020.
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