Arts & Entertainments

It took me 43 years to get into production of Faan’s Train – Roets

Koos Roets is a director and cinematographer, known for Faan se trein (2014), Hoener met die Rooi Skoene (2017) and Die Sersant en die Tiger Moth (1973). He has been involved in more than 150 productions as director of photography (DOP). In this interview with TONY OKUYEME, the renowned filmmaker who is set to direct Against All Odds, a biopic on Gerrie Coetzee, the first African to win the Heavyweight Boxing title, talks about the journey so far, Nollywood, filmmaking and other issues

You’re a director, cinematographer and scriptwriter. Which of these came first?

I started as an assistant cameraman for the famous South Arican filmmaker Jamie Uys (‘Gods Must Be Crazy’) in 1962 and became a DOP in 1969.

How?

I built my own projectors when I was still at primary school and always wanted to be a cameraman. Later when I acquired an 8mm camera I started making short movies. Soon after that my father helped me to buy a 16 mm sound projector. Our town had no cinema, so a friend and I started regular film shows in the town hall. After I completed my military training I took the bull by the horns, and asked Jamie Uys for a job. I was fortunate and started the next day.

Let’s look a bit at the marriage between the Nigerian movie industry, Nollywood, and South African movie industry. How would you rate both?

I have great respect for the Nigerian film industry as Nollywood is one of the largest film industries in the world. Nollywood generates large sums of money although it’s not on par with Bollywood and Hollywood. Their actors and crew are well paid, which is not the case in South Africa. I think South Africa has got the talent, but the lack of money prevents the South African industry to soar. It’s a tremendous achievement for Nollywood to develop into a world class film industry. As the South African industry, it also started very much as a cottage industry. African stories and the way they are told are refreshingly unique!

You began your career in 1962 as an Assistant Director of Photography (DoP) with Jamie Uys’ ‘Lord Oom Piet’. Did you set out to be a filmmaker?

There was never a doubt about what I want to do in life! When I was about 10, I got the weekend job as assistant projector operator in a neighboring town. There I discovered the great international movies of the time! That was also the time I saw the first movie by Jamie Uys and other pioneering South African filmmakers like Pierre de Wet.

Why?

It is a unique art form with a dynamic process in which you have a whole spectrum of the arts namely photography, music, writing, directing actors, art directing, set design, make-up, wardrobe as well as editing coming together to create a visual story.

How has the industry changed?

Due to the digital revolution the industry has changed significantly. Mostly for the better! It has become infinitely easier to produce films as the camera gear is so much less expensive and the entire process less time consuming. A low budget production of shot of film could easily double the cost. This gives young filmmakers the chance to enter the industry and tell their stories in their own way. Sometimes, though, I become nostalgic, longing for the magic and characters on the film sets of yesteryears, but I definitely I am not yearning for the challenges and hardships of shooting on film.

Your name has featured 35 times among the nominees of various awards of which you have won a total of 33. How does that make you feel?

I really appreciate the awards, the industry recognising my work, but after 60 years in the industry everyone should have accumulated one or two by now!

Which of these awards do you treasure most and why?

I treasure the awards of the prestigious South African Academy for Arts and Sciences most. I am very fortunate by receiving it on three occasions.

You’re about to direct ‘Against All Odds’, the story of the first African to win the Heavyweight Boxing title, Gerrie Coetzee from South Africa. How is the story and plot different from the ones you have directed?

I have directed a production starring the famous Robert Vaughn (Man from Uncle) and Timothy Brantley which portrayed the life of the American boxer, Kid McCoy. ‘Against all Odds’ is the remarkable story of the white South African Gerrie Coetzee who was the first boxer from the African continent to win the World Heavyweight Title, by knocking out Michael Dokes from the USA in a spectacular way. Although he was a white person, he suffered tremendously under the apartheid system, with his career under threat from the international sport boycott and he himself ridiculed by his own people as a traitor for his steadfast stance against the unfair system of apartheid. He also had the misfortune of very fragile hands. His greatest asset was his right fist, but it was also his greatest concern with numerous operations performed on this hand. It is reckoned that 60 percent of his fights had been fought with one or both hands broken!

What does Gerrie Coetzee mean to you as a filmmaker and as an African?

I am very proud of the man as I am familiar with the difficulties he experienced, facing unsurmountable obstacles in pursuing his dream to become an international champion. During the time of his boxing career I shot a documentary on Gerrie and learned a lot about this softspoken but determined and focused man.

Is this your first time of working with Nigerian filmmaker, Kenddrie Utuk?

Yes, it is the first time.

How would you describe him?

Kenddrie is a man with passion and drive, a commodity vitally important in the film industry. I also found him a most decent considerate and caring person.

What are your expectations about this film?

If this film is done correctly, it can be a world-beater. The script has all the ingredients of a successful movie – a strong storyline with a pro-active hero or protagonist, facing a diverse set of challenges and obstacles in chasing his dream, and overcoming the whole lot at last to triumph as world champion. The world always loves an underdog that beats the odds!

What is your take on the script writer, Ernest Enobong?

Ernest did an incredible job. It was not easy to decide which way to go story-wise but I think he chose the right path. We came across a lot of new information that was later added but he supplied the very healthy skeleton on which we hung the story.

From your experience, what has been your most challenging project?

I produced a film ‘Faan se Trein’ (‘Faan’s Train’) which took me 43 years to get into production. In the end it turned out to be a winner, receiving nine awards at the prestigious South African Silwerskerm Festival.

You did a documentary about Desmond Tutu. How was it?

The ‘Arch’ was a most wonderful man! I spent a week with him during the world cup soccer match and had to sit through countless games! He was an expert on soccer and I’m not a soccer fan! Between games though, we had a wonderful time! He was telling me interesting stories from his young and naughty days.

Also, your brother is a pilot and he had piloted Nelson Mandela a few times before he passed on. Significantly, Nelson Mandela is featured in this movie with Gerrie Coetzee. So obviously there’s a personal connection with Nelson Mandela. What’s your take on this and how would you describe Nelson Mandela?

I had the good fortune of shooting quite a few interviews with Mister Nelson Mandela. After the second interview he even remembered me and called me by the name! A most remarkable and humble man! His legacy as a South African leader is enormous indeed. I admire his resilience, his dedication to a course, his passion, his wisdom and his strong leadership.

Who are your favourite South African and Nigerian actors and Why?

My favorite South African born actors are the Oscar winning Charlize Theron (Monster), Richard E. Grant, John Kani, Alice Krige, Embeth Davids, Sandra Prinsloo and Deon Lotz (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom). Deon also received an award for his portrayal of the troubled doctor in the movie ‘Faan Se Trein’ which I directed. I directed Embeth Davids in a South African movie Nag van die Negentiende and she ended up playing the female lead in Schindler’s List! Nigeria has a wealth of talents with the likes of Stan Nze, Nkem Owoh, Ramsey Nouah and Richard Mofe-Damijo. My personal favourites are the veteran Chief Pete Edochie and Genevieve Nnaji. Genevieve caught my attention with her convincing portrayal of the character ‘Adaeze’ in ‘Lionheart’. The veteran Pete Adoche is one of Africa’s most talented actors and I admire his portrayal of the character ‘Okonkwo’ in the ‘Things Fall Apart’ mini-series.

 

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