Filmmakers Spotlight: Interview with Director Paul Van Zyl of "Elegy for a Revolutionary"
Tell us a little bit about your project and how long you’ve been working on it.
It’s a short film called Elegy for a Revolutionary, which deals with a popular piece of South African history. My name is Paul Van Zyl. I am an Afrikaner. My name speaks apartheid. Despite my heritage, I grew up with a left-wing outlook. As a young man my left wing leanings lead me to AWOL my military obligations by fleeing to Israel. (My mother was Jewish). When I eventually returned, I was immediately conscripted and after my service, began to study Journalism at Rhodes University where the key players of the African Resistance Movement were alumni and also my heroes. As a student, I worked for many left-wing newspapers, where I spouted popular left-wing dogma while working on behalf of the ANC/ARM movement. I grew up in South Africa. I detested apartheid but loved my country. In 1996, the “great plan” of apartheid fell to pieces. I set upon this story to expose social injustice, and express the inhumanity of authoritarian regimes, and demonstrate human resilience against adversity. I used my personal experience of underground political action in South Africa.
Elegy examines the motives of a group of young white “liberals” who turn to violence to oppose the repressive Nationalist Government. At the core of this account is one question: “Can violence be justified as a way of opposing tyranny?” I hope to educate and entertain the audience with questions like these, and explore the divide between left and right, black and white, loyalty and treachery. Elegy is a loose adaptation from a novel by C.J. Driver, who also attended Rhodes University. The novel was banned in South Africa for many years and is a loose adaptation on the true story of the African Resistance Movement during the ‘60’s. In South Africa you had the Rivonia trials which put Nelson Mandela on Robbin Island for all those years (the black story), and then you had the ARM trials (the white story). I’m telling the white man’s apartheid story. I suspect I didn’t get into any festivals in South Africa because the story is about two white guys. Production was sabotaged in South Africa so I ended up shooting it in Los Angeles.
The story is about two friends who turn to violence to protest apartheid in South Africa. When their acts of sabotage turn to murder, their relationship falls apart. Then one of them cooperates with the Security Police and becomes a witness for the State. Two boys are forced to choose sides and suffer their fate. Essentially, it’s about betrayal knowing no limits.
Encouraged by his friend, a young, idealistic journalist joins the African National Congress (ANC) to protest apartheid. The notoriously brutal police are hot on the trail. When captured, do these two friends turn on each other for survival or remain quiet, facing torture and death? It’s a unique/true story of when a small group of white South African students, dreamed that they could help topple the apartheid regime by blasting down electric pylons and radio masts. They called themselves the African Resistance Movement. (Google: African Resistance Movement, apartheid, South Africa (ARM))
My friends and I dreamed that we could help topple the apartheid regime by blasting down electric pylons and radio masts. We wanted to join the African Resistance Movement (ARM). This was a world where the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress were banned and the Liberal Party, to which most of us belonged, was soon to be banned. The ANC leadership had effectively been put away by the Rivonia trial and their armed struggle went underground. We respected them and wanted to play our part.
In July 1964, during a wave of raids across the country, the apartheid security police picked up several members of the African Resistance Movement. Soon after being taken into detention, one of its key members began to talk. His exhaustive and gratuitously detailed testimony, first in detention and then as a state witness, was used to convict many of his closest friends and associates. To refer to him as a rat was hard on rats, the judge remarked when sentencing those at whose expense he had bought his freedom.
The ARM has often been written off as a group of misguided amateurs, or liberals out of their depth. But in fact the organization predated the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the armed wing of the ANC), and in the thirty-six months of its active existence did as much economic damage to state infrastructure as MK managed during the same period. As such, we are led to the tragic final act of the ARM story, in which a bomb was planted on the platform of Park Station, Johannesburg. Despite telephoned warnings to the police and newspapers, the concourse was not cleared and a suitcase stuffed with TNT and petrol exploded at 4:33 pm on 24 July 1964, at the height of rush hour. A grandmother was killed, her twelve-year-old granddaughter terribly burned, and twenty-two others seriously injured. It was considered a disaster on every level: “it consolidated white opinion, led directly to the demise of the Liberal Party, and strengthened the hand of the white government for more than a decade.
The perpetrator was killed in Pretoria Central on April fool’s Day 1965, the only white “political” hanged by the state, and went to the gallows singing “We Shall Overcome”. His conviction was secured with the states-evidence turn of one of his friends in the movement. Following many testimonies, and as part of the deal struck with the apartheid prosecutors, many members were jailed while others went into permanent exile.
The Arm Movement did not do much to create effective change and eradicate apartheid. Instead most of those mentioned, wrecked their lives and became broken and self-lacerating men. An important key player 15 years after the fact confessed his shame in an article from the heart titled “I Gave the Names”. But by then, a cancer of mistrust and mutual suspicion had developed among many ex-ARM members and many years after the betrayals, accusations of intrigue and treachery are still bandied about. Elegy is a personal journey through the war of apartheid and centers on the personalities of two friends who are both traitors and paradoxically heroes.
It joins several other genres in this compromised, messy and contested narrative. It is dealt with in several political memoirs and “jail diaries” from Hugh Lewin’s Bandiet, Albie Sachs’ Stephanie on Trial, as well as Eddie Daniels’ There and Back, to Nadine Gordimer’s The Late Bourgeois World and Athol Fugard’s radical experiment in theatre, Orestes. John Harris’s almost unreadable moving letters to his wife from death row have been threaded into the Guardian correspondent David Beresford’s Truth is a Strange Fruit. And in a 2002 edition of Granta magazine, Adrian Leftwich, himself offered a confession which took him 15 years to write – “as much an essay in the personal politics of fear as it is in the politics of failure and betrayal”– and which was intriguingly judged as sincere and powerful, inadequate and evasive, by the different individuals affected by his actions. In 2012, years after these betrayals, accusations of intrigue and treachery are still being bandied about.
I’ve waited 40 years to tell this story. The story inspires moral and intellectual traditions. It’s different from other apartheid movies because it shows how taking sides with the oppressed blacks prevented us from acting out this commitment while it narrates a history and gives a biography to the white left in South Africa. In telling the story, I want to come to terms with how we failed to live up to our moral positions as saboteurs and revolutionaries. Our commitment did not know its own frailty. It was an ideological fantasy. I also discovered a split between my personal self and the political self. And I think it was this split which made it easy for us to turn against each other.
The message of the film is that violence begets violence. I do not condone violence of any kind. In fact, the character Donald and I share the same experience. The ARM movement would not have me as a member because I was a pacifist and could not stomach revolution and did not believe in armed struggle. I was called a dilettante. In spite of that, I earnestly wanted to do something to effectively change South Africa – as opposed to doing nothing and being a part of the problem, so I broke rules and became involved anyway.
For me, the story deserves to be a feature film. It needs the scope of a feature to become more gradually invested in these two boys and the politics happening around them. I did the short as a promotional piece for the feature.
As a South African, I’ve always felt that it is important to look at history, to look back to where we came from, in order to know where we are going, particularly with Nelson Mandela’s vision of the new South Africa. Elegy makes great spiritual cinema. The feature will lift the veil on this remarkable breed of white South Africans who operated during the frenzied mayhem of apartheid. Little is known of their dilemma and this story will bring to public view the tremendous debt of their contribution during a country’s fragile transition from suppression to freedom. Audiences will discover questions of what they did and how they handled themselves.
Is there anyone you'd like to thank for helping out with this film?
Yes. My two executive Producers who wish to remain nameless because they felt the story was too controversial for their reputations. My sister, Jennifer, who was instrumental in her encouragement and support. Stacy Ekstein, my producer, whose work on the film was outstanding. Her understanding of film production is immense and I was particularly impressed with her passion and commitment. Her husband and my cinematographer, Chris Ekstein, was a great, big burst of light casting out all the darkness. He added a spirit to the film as a DP which was brilliant. Pam Gilles, the casting director, gave me a cast that was out of this world. My actors, Brian Ames, Martin Copping, Glen Anthony Vaughan, Michael Enright, Steve Humphreys, Tomas Boykin, Marcia Batisse, Anthony Holiday, David Patterson and the two actors who’s work ended up on the editing floor - Keston John and Zack Yanni. Leland Price, fellow AFI alum, kept me sane and my friend, confident and right-hand-man, Chris Mirosevic, kept me going. My AD, T.K. Shom, picked up the flak when I had meltdowns and he led an excellent crew who gave me no problems. My four editors, Ryan Knight, Michael Miller, Daniel Elkayam and Joe Tornatore. C.J. Driver for giving me the rights and lastly, my IndieGogo contributors, who helped me, get the film completed.
How does it feel to have your film part of the NewFilmmakers Screening at Sunset Gower Studios?
It feels like I’m singing. (I can’t sing). The song is about NewFilmmakers generosity of spirit. They deserve sky-writing of sorts (I can’t fly). They have the gift of the gab and I love ear bashing with all of them. They’re like word mills and chatterboxes with long-winded chew the fat, talking the hind leg off a mule sessions, about encouragement and support. They’ve made my smile brighter and my hard times lighter because they care about independent short-film filmmakers and help get projects out there. God know, it’s difficult enough.
What inspires you?
Being held on the dance floor and smelling, dizzy aromatic fumes... Sorry, just kidding. I‘m inspired by stories with characters who hang in there as they overcome obstacles, when they wrestle with a gorilla but don’t quit. I’m inspired when they polish the dull side to see the bright side of life.
Who are your influences and who do you admire?
I admire Nelson Mandela. His influence is to not look back in anger bur around in awareness. He taught me civility is the most profound and basic form of spirituality. It’s a spirituality that respects that we’re all here on earth in some basic form, dealing with the same basic stuff: and that we all, each and every one of us, are deserving of respect. Your duty is your own freedom and the freedom of everyone else. He reminds me an African proverb: there are 40 kinds of lunacy, but only one kind of common sense. He also taught me about anger – that it’s just one letter away from danger.
What lessons have you learned from the industry so far?
I think Danny Kaye said this: that the industry is like a great big canvas. You should throw all the paint on it you can. The industry has taught me many lessons; it’s hard to decide which one is of the greatest value. Maybe that nobody will believe in you unless you believe in yourself. I think Liberace said that. I’ll settle on two lessons… 1. Luck=good planning + careful execution and 2. Get out and network, get out and network, get out and network.
If you could collaborate with anybody, who would it be?
I’m giving away my age. I would have liked to have collaborated with Andy Warhol (he was naughty and pushed the envelope) and Alfred Hitchcock (he entertained as he explored human nature while creating insights and awareness). As far as notable European directors are concerned, there’s the politics of Costa Gavras and Hector Babenco . Today, it would be David Cronenburg and Christopher Nolan (they do it all and get repeat orders). I acknowledge that the feature film industry will only progress artistically and commercially, if technical knowledge is paralleld by both theoretical and critical knowledge. In America, people like George Lucas and Martin Scorese have re-written technical horizons and thematic conventions. They have furthermore, revitalized the economics of film production as well as introduce the age of the mega-buck movie. I would want to collaborate with filmmakers who help modify the existing system to create better film art with technical improvements and, dare I say it, greater profits. Throughout I have had to opportunity to challenge and to use independent thought and initiative. My degrees in psychology and drama, my experience as an actor and my status as a teacher, have all helped me derive satisfaction in my work. I am interested in third world filmmaking and would therefore also like to work with directors, Peter Weir and the likes of Roger Spottiswoode.
What is the toughest experience you've ever had to overcome?
I think the most difficult is telling a South African story while providing an understandable narrative structure for an international audience not necessarily aware of different cultures and history. The abbreviation of the Elegy story straight from the novel and then from the feature length script to the short format, required a smaller scope to make it focused enough. The audience needed to be placed in the environment of South Africa to understand how the characters earned their point-of-view, making them more purposeful so that it’s understood why they turn to violence. This could have been accomplished by more use of images of apartheid, reminiscent of the South or the Jews during the Second World War to give an audience a frame of reference. I think this would have helped anchor the story. After all, the story is as much about the country as the people who died for it. But the budget wasn’t big enough. The beginning of the movie was the toughest. Most of what I shot had to be re-structured and replaced with voice-over
What is the best piece of advice someone has given to you?
It was a lesson from the television actress, Camyrn Manheim. She called it knowing when to cross the street. She described how all her life she had been waiting for her life to begin, as if her life was somehow way up ahead of her and that one day she would just arrive there. This was before she realized that she was, in fact, standing smack dab in the middle of it, as if standing on the corner of life but never going anywhere. She saw it as having two choices – she could either cross the street or just keep waiting for a few more years of green lights to go by. For me, it was a life giving lesson. When I graduated from the Directing program at the American Film Institute in 1984, I had no confidence to be a director. I was afraid that I might not be a good enough, or deserving, or entitled enough and I was scared of criticism, so I stood on that corner for more than 25 years, doing nothing, saying nothing and being nothing before she told me to get going. It was a four-letter lesson on procrastination: DOn’t waIT. At my ripe old age, I am proud to say I have finally crossed the street. I have finally directed my first film.
What advice would you give to new filmmakers starting out in the industry?
Set accurate and doable goals. Mine your network of people. Develop your “map of relationships”, tell them exactly what you’re doing and make requests. Do more networking than you think you need to do. Go to events. Offer an Associate Producer’s fee or an Executive Producer credit on a single card in the main titles to help with the financing of your film. Many people who are looking to start their own film company really like this opportunity. Hold a Sales Presentation and have some of your key attachments there if possible. Buy a unit of the LLC yourself. It means a lot to investors if you have invested in your own film. Get educated on State and Provincial Incentives but also think globally. Give investors a chance to play by offering them a part as an extra etc. and stand in abundance with your investors when you write up your business plan. Make declarations. Your word has tremendous power. Have a milestone and a timeline for targets to keep momentum going. Have an accountability plan and keep to your promises. Get a mentor to help create a supportive structure. Take your filters off and master the act of listening. Put people at ease. Be present, on purpose, focused and centered. Empower people in your conversations. Learn to count to 10 when the going gets tough. Make acknowledgements and make it easy to say “yes”. And, above all, remember, it’s all about having FUN!
Where can we expect to see you next?
On the red carpet for the premiere of the Elegy feature film.
Let our readers know where they can find more information about you and your projects.
facebook: Paul Van Zyl
Elegy facebook: elegythemovie
www.linkedin.com Paul Van Zyl
Anything else you'd like to add?
I like the wisdom of “Casablanca”. In the movie the jaded Rick asks freedom fighter Victor Laszlo why he wages an endless battle against the Nazi’s control of Europe. “Don’t you sometimes wonder if it’s worth all this? I mean, what are you fighting for?” asks Rick. Laszlo’s answer comes from the heart. “We may as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we’ll die”, he responds. That’s good advice for anyone dealing with struggles – no matter how big or small.
For more information, visit: http://www.newfilmmakersla.com/
About the Author
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