African Gothic, a bold new international film version of Reza de Wet’s iconic masterpiece, Diepe Grond, will have its South African and African premiere at the Durban International Film Festival in July.
African Gothic is a gritty, poignant drama set in a decaying farmhouse in the desolate heart of the parched Free State, about a dangerous and passionate relationship between deeply troubled lovers, their benign domestic worker and a hapless lawyer who pays them a visit. The production features two South African-born actors from Johannesburg who play the pivotal roles of Frikkie and Sussie: Damon Shalit plays the menacing Frikkie, and Chella Ferrow plays his beautiful and complex, sweetheart from childhood.
Shalit also wrote the screenplay and produced the film, which is directed by Gabriel Bologna. Shalit performed in the LA premiere of the play in 2005. Shortly thereafter he began writing the screenplay – a process, which was endorsed and supported by de Wet.
“After performing in the play, I felt compelled to embark on the journey to create the film.” says Shalit. “I was fortunate enough to be able to work directly with Reza de Wet in developing the screenplay, a somewhat daunting task as the play is such an iconic piece of theatre. The challenge came in how to take the play, set in one room, and expand it into a cinematic experience. So it was invaluable having her insightful input into this process.”
“When I read the screenplay of which Damon took pangs to stay true to the original text, I was surprised to discover that such a dark milieu and context was completely overshadowed by a deep love story. Aside from the spectacular symbolisms throughout the piece that represent the insidiously complex and dark legacy of Apartheid, there is a remarkable revelation about the nature of love itself: what unites people is not necessarily their common interests and pursuits, but in fact, their grief, their pain,” explains Bologna.
“What makes Frikkie and Sussie’s bond so strong is the mutual abuses they shared in their childhood – only they and they alone could understand one another, as their love was consecrated by the same scars, both emotional and physical. Surprisingly, in some strange way, we are all like Frikkie and Sussie – our true search for love lies in finding someone who not only understands our joy, but even more so, our pain,” he said
“Reza de Wet, was one of South Africa’s most celebrated authors, who has won more theatre and literary awards than any other playwright. Though, sadly, she passed away last year, she has left behind a legacy in her native country of leading an artistic war against Apartheid. When the government censors were clamping down on news, television and film, Reza led a hand-full of playwrights into a thriving artistic movement called, Theatre of the Struggle,” he explains.
“We are passionate about this story, and very excited about it coming to Durban, as it has a meaningful context in South Africa,” says Chella Ferrow who plays Sussie. “Reza de Wet wrote such powerful and courageous stories, and we are so proud to be bringing African Gothic to life on screen. When I think of her writing such a bold and daring piece during a time of so much oppression and secrecy, I am in awe. Her writing is extraordinarily fearless and potent in commenting on the complex nature of society and morality at that time.”
Frikkie and Sussie are carefully-crafted, fascinating characters – complex, intriguing, gritty and feral. Visually and emotionally, they would not be out of place in a Roger Ballen photograph. Their complexity and depth make them a challenge to perform.
It is hugely significant that this important piece of South African theatre will be seen by a new international audience, and that the pivotal characters of Sussie and Frikkie will be played by South African actors who have carved a career for themselves in Hollywood.
Shalit was born and raised in Linksfield, Johannesburg before moving to Houston with his family in his early teens. Ferrow grew up in Johannesburg and studied psychology through Wits and Unisa. She then moved to London in 1998 to do a post-graduate in acting. She has been living in New York for the past 11 years.
They are supported by established British actor Jonny Coyne, who plays the ill-fated Mr Grove, who was most recently seen in Hangover Part 3 and Gangster Squad; and Alina, the housekeeper, played by US singer / actress Connie Jackson who was in Dreamgirls on Broadway and has been a backing vocalist for Phil Collins. The young Frikkie and Sussie are played by youthful Cape Town-born, UK based-actor David Verne, and Los Angeles musical-theatre performer Aviv Gadi. The parents are played by former South African actors, Glen Anthony Vaughan – who spent many years at PACT – and Maria Olsen, who moved from East London to Los Angeles in 2005.
Director, Gabriel Bologna, worked as an actor with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Mark Rydeland, Dick Van Dyke, before turning to writing and directing with his most recent film being Black Waters of Echo Pond. He is son of Hollywood legends, Joe Bologna and Renee Taylor.
“Like so much of film making, this has been a true labour of love and remarkable creative collaboration,” says Shalit. “Our film is not mere film adaptation of a play, but a wide-reaching artistic achievement that will hopefully spread global awareness about Reza de Wet, one of South Africa’s greatest playwrights, who died last year.”
African Gothic will have its South African premiere at the Durban International Film Festival. It is a joint SA and US production. Visit www.africangothic.com for more info.
The Durban International Film Festival takes place in Durban, South Africa from July 18 to 28. African Gothic will be screened at 20 July 12:00 at Musgrave Ster Kinekor; 24 July 15:30 at Ekhaya Multi-Arts Centre; 25 July 18:00 at Suncoast Cinecentre. For more info go to www.durbanfilmfest.co.za