Southern Africa, 1865. When Fiela, a hardworking coloured woman, discovers a three-year-old white boy on her doorstep her choice to take him in is one that will have long-lasting ramifications on both her and the child. After a decade in Fiela’s care, Benjamin is noticed by government officials and taken from her, returned to the white family of woodcutters they believe he came from.
Separated by law and geography, Fiela and Benjamin spend the next decade trying to find each other while simultaneously coming to terms with their individual identities. Fiela has lost a son and slowly descends into depression, a state of mind that is further exasperated by the abuse that she experiences from both the law and Benjamin’s new father as she tries to find him. Benjamin, on the other hand, is thrust into an abusive and impoverished environment, one where he is forced to take on a new identity while suppressing the one he has.
Story Behind the Story
By Brett Michael Innes
‘Fiela se Kind’ is a South African classic, an Afrikaans novel that has been studied in schools around the country for over three decades. It was adapted for film in 1988 by Katinka Heyns and starred Shaleen Surtie-Richards in a performance that was as iconic as the character whom inspired it.
A story of the walls that separate us and the love that unites, ‘Fiela se Kind’ tells the tale of a coloured woman in 1890s Southern Africa who finds a white toddler on her Karoo doorstep and raises him as her own. Nine years later, he is discovered and sent to what is believed to be his ‘original’ family. The novel, which spans over 20 years, follows the journey of Benjamin, a boy with two names, and Fiela and Barta, the two women he calls ‘mother’.
As was the case in my first film, I would like to work with the approach of a ‘foreground’ and a ‘background’, a ‘centre of frame’ and an ‘edge of frame’. To better explain this idea, cultural critic Slavoj Zizek has the following to say around the similar approach taken by Alfonso Cuarón:
“What attracted me immensely to ‘Y tu Mama Tambien’ was this wonderful tension between foreground and background. If you look at the film superficially it’s just a sexual adventure with a desperate ending but, after watching it, you cannot say that it is only a film about two young boys discovering their sexuality. It’s the other way around. You see the absurdity of their life against the background of social oppression.
The fate and journey of the individual hero becomes a kind of prism through which you see the background even sharper. This prism gives a powerful portrayal of the ideological despair of the time that could never have come from looking at these themes directly. You can see it in an oblique sort of way only if it remains in the background.”
This is an approach that I aim to execute in ‘Fiela se Kind’, not only on a narrative level, but also on a visual and audio one, trying to place what is important away from the focal point and on the edge of frame. In the ‘foreground’ or ‘centre of frame’ we have a mother and son trying to reunite with each other, a simple yet universally accessible story about the love between two people, motherhood, loss and, most of all, identity. It is a story that could have played out in the American South or the Australian Outback and it is because of this that the film will resonate with a global audience as well as the South African one.
In the ‘background’ or the ‘edge of frame’ of this story we have a social commentary on race relations in pre-Apartheid Southern Africa as well as the formation of the ‘coloured identity’ at the hands of Dutch and British colonial authorities. This is a very specific experience that could only have taken place in South Africa at this time and the camera will flirt with these themes while not diverting attention from the primary themes.
I would also like to explore Fiela’s darkness in this narrative, something that has never been approached in the novel, film or stage adaptations. White guilt has led many of the white storytellers to place her on a pedestal, deeming her as a saint/victim who can do no wrong and is purely a victim of white cruelty. I find this problematic because it is in her shades of grey that we find her humanity and her wrongdoings that she becomes more interesting.
The international market struggles to process white Afrikaans narratives as African and this solves that problem while also giving some of the incredible Coloured actors in our industry the chance to play diverse roles. This is one of the few stories that appeals equally to both a white and brown Afrikaans audience in a way that other films with coloured leads often do not.
In all my projects I like to find an element from nature that will become the guiding star for the project, a tangible object that the artists who I collaborate with can always go back to as a reference and an inspiration. For ‘Fiela se Kind’ it is the wood. In Chinese Taoist thought, the element of wood is predominantly associated with the strength and flexibility. The wood element is one that seeks ways to grow and expand while being symbolic of the beginning of life, sensuality and fecundity. In Chinese medicine, wood is associated with negative feelings of anger.
This works well on a narrative level because wood plays such a large part of the story, with the Van Rooyens deriving their livelihood from cutting down trees and Fiela doing the same by tapping aloes. The forests of Knysna are a character in themselves, seamlessly surrounding the characters with the element that will guide the film.
Wood, in all its forms, will be present in every frame of the film, from the colour choices to the props, the poetic symbolism to the lighting design.