Paul van Zyl, the 60 year old, director of a short narrative film, Elegy for a Revolutionary, which deals with a popular piece of South African history, currently on the global short film circuit, describes the problems of making a unique South African story accessible to an international audience and the difficulties of adapting a short from a full-length feature script.
Who are you?
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. 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 am a graduate of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles (1984).
I’ve been living and working in Los Angeles since graduating. 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 stories that exposed social injustice, expressed the inhumanity of authoritarian regimes and demonstrated human resilience against adversity.
After graduation I did projects with the South African Broadcasting Company, Elton John and Michael York. Independently, I directed for the stage and wrote and directed 5 short films. In the U.S., I completed the Directing program at the American Film Institute and interned with David Cronenberg, Michael Mann, Karl Shenkel and Curtis Hanson. On stage, I reprised Stillborn and Big Boys. I have worked with Fries Entertainment and New World Productions and on projects with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Martin Sheen, Lauren Hutton, Dennis Hopper, Seth Rogen and Barbara Streisand.
What is the name of your short film?
Elegy for a Revolutionary, a loose adaptation of the novel by C.J. Driver of the same name.
Where was the film shot?
Elegy is a South African story which was shot in Los Angeles but funded out of South Africa and the USA.
What is your film about?
Elegy for a Revolutionary is based on the true story of the ARM movement in South Africa during apartheid. It’s a personal journey through the war of apartheid and centres on the personalities of two friends who are both traitors and paradoxical heroes.
It is a unique South African story about two friends who get arrested for political subversion. They sacrifice their friendship and ideals as they struggle towards a non-racial society and democracy in South Africa.
Is there something about your film you wish you could change or improve?
I feel the main problem with the story is that it lacks context.
Without knowing some background about the political atmosphere of those difficult times, the audience has no chance for an emotional connection to the characters, which is always key. In essence, the story is too direct. It needs more time.
I also think the picture also lacks scope. The audience needs more placements into the environment. This could have been accomplished by more use of images of apartheid, reminiscent of the South or the Jews in the Second World War to give an audience a frame of reference. I think this would have helped anchor the story in South Africa. After all, the story is as much about the country as the people who died for it.
For me, the story deserves to be a feature film. I don’t think it works as a short film. It needs the scope of a feature to become more gradually invested in these two boys and the politics happening around them. It was hard to reduce the scope so that it’s just about two friends who get caught up in something bigger than themselves and lose control. If given the opportunity to do over I would tone down the scope of the story and include more news material. I also think I would change the end. At the end I would have liked to include more flashbacks of the two boys having a laugh, to show how close they actually were. I think it would have added to the resonance of the betrayal.
What inspired you to make it?
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 of the whites 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 and it was an ideological fantasy. I also discovered a split between my personal self and the political self. I think it was this split which made it easy for us to turn against each other.
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 was underground. We respected them and wanted to play our part.
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 the 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.
What awards has the short won thus far?
We’ve won Best Political Statement Short at the Action on Film Festival in Los Angeles, Best Human Rights Short and Best Director at the American International Film Festival. The film won Best Short at the Independent Film Festival in Tampa, Florida, semi-finalist in the Action Cut Short Film Competition, a Merit Award winner in the Best Shorts Competition in Los Angeles, Best of the Best Short at the Isle of Wight Festival in the UK and we have nine nominations at the International Filmmaker of the World Festival in the UK, including Best Short, Best Screenplay (Paul van Zyl), Best Actor (Brian Ames), Best Supporting Actor (David Patterson), Best Supporting Actress (Marcia Battise), Best Wardrobe (Joe Kucharski), Best Make-up (Cheyenne Webster), Best Music (Andrew Jed), and Best Editing (Ryan Knight).
The feature film is next. The short was initially designed as promotion to help raise funds for the feature.