Framed: Books to Movies, Victor Dlamini, Antony Altbeker, Redi Tlhabi, Deon Meyer, 16 May 2014, Franschhoek LIterary Festival.
This panel brings together writers Victor Dlamini, Antony Altbeker, Redi Tlhabi (writer of one of my favourite South African books, Endings and Beginnings), and Deon Meyer, exploring how words are turned into action.
Having bought the rights to make Tlhabi's novel into a film, Altbeker talks of his exasperation at, what an expensive film it's going to turn out to be. He jokes that he “really wants to cast Charlize Theron as young Redi.” As for location- or studio-shooting, they need, for the sake of authenticity, not necessarily old Soweto but something that looks like it. Tlhabi comments that to film in Soweto now, one would have to address the problem of all the satellite dishes. But as Altbeker says, “the thing about Endings and Beginnings is its authenticity” and not doing it justice, he says, “would be a disservice to the author and she'd kill me.”
The poignancy of Tlhabi's story is proved as she reads a passage at Dlamini's request, which details her impressions as a child of her mother's impassioned prayers where she “would literally throw herself at the feet of God and plead for healing”. My head down, and scribbling notes, it seemed to me she's reciting from memory, and not even reading. A pause makes me look up – there's a sheepish look on her face and soft murmurs of sympathy for one moment – but she takes a breath and she resumes, just as steadily. The heartfelt applause that the reading evokes gives her the opportunity to dab her eyes quickly afterwards. Such a personal story has brought on a good deal of feedback. Dlamini confirms the importance of knowing, as a country, where we've come from: “Nothing is more annoying than saying 'forget about the past'.” Tlhabi has witnessed changes in Soweto – “I would like to believe there's a consciousness, an activism” – she says, although it's unclear whether this is true from the little that she can see. She admits that it is still a “harsh” place.
Turning his praise to Meyer, Dlamini asks how gripping suspense is maintained. Meyer replies enigmatically about a “secret recipe” known only to crime-fiction writers. “I can tell you,” he offers slyly, “but then I'd have to kill you.” The essential is, he says, to “go in late, and come out early,” typically starting at a moment of action, or tension, such as the murder; not to go on once its been resolved; and inter-cutting between short chapters, “keeping the movement going”.
Of his films, Meyer seems excited to see how actors bring characters to life in a way he hadn't envisaged. “Movie making,” he says, “is a sort of magic.” Asked to comment on what draws audiences, Meyer names romantic comedies aimed at 16-24 year-olds, but anything outside of that “is a risk”. His first book printed only 1200 books – 600 sold, and he was offered the chance to buy the remaining for R1 each or they would be pulped. With films, the financial risk is far greater, when making more serious crime thrillers. “I will continue to write books to pay my kids' university fees, and I will make movies for the love of making movies.”
Dlamini is already sending around the roving microphones for the audience questions. Are mini-series and serialisation not an option for a more in-depth and comprehensive coverage of a book's characters? Meyer agrees it's a wonderful idea, but a series would need to be financed by commissioning, either the SABC or Mnet, and the resources there are limited. Furthermore, a South African series would not be so marketable overseas, where the masses have learnt to appreciated and accept our literature to some degree, but are still resisting our cinema.
Next, someone asks about Tlhabi's feelings on the publicising of her personal life. Though an “overwhelming” process, there is feedback that she says “validates” her and “makes the journey so worth it.” And she adds, “I'm waiting in anticipation to see the journey unfolding.” There is another question concerning the languages in her film, which Altbeker assures will be in the vernacular. And lastly someone voices an opinion, met with immediate all-around approval, that the Franschhoek Literary Festival should also feature films as well as books. Dlamini is enthusiastic and suggests it on the spot to the Festival's gifted director, Jenny Hobbs, who nods from the back.
When the subject of current crime in South Africa is mentioned, Meyer is very clear that his portrayal is fictional. As proof, Altbeker wonders why Scandanavia produces more crime novels than actual murders. Meyer does not think it's important for the crime to be reflected in literature. An aspect just as prolific, but largely overlooked, is white-collar crime. “Homework for next year,” Dlamini says as he releases us. There is the brilliant landscape of Franschhoek, purple-grey clouds and bright flames of orange trees, and a glass of wine to be found outside, but still, enthusiasts press to the stage of the hall to discuss their thoughts with the panel and have their book signed, so that they need to be told to leave in time for the following session to begin.