What the fuck is Strikfontein?by Max Barashenkov / 10.10.2011
Not so long ago, in the murk of a Cape Town evening, I meet a man and, after sampling disgusting coffee liquer, we get talking about cinema. From quiet and reserved, he transforms into a passionate critic of the local industry. He speaks with fire, his words scream for change, of shaking up the stagnant Afrikaans film and TV scene. His name is Johan Cronje, he is the writer/director of Strikfontein, and before I met him I never gave a shit about Afrikaans TV or Kyknet.
Strikfontein, a proposed 13-part series, is currently half-born – two pilot episodes have been shot out of the filmmakers’ pockets and a social-media-driven promo campaign is mid-swing, its final aim is to rouse enough interest in the show to get Kyknet to buy it. To us, hip assholes, a production about Afrikaans students returning to their hometown after years of studies might sound, well, lame, but judging from the response Cronje’s project has generated so far, such a theme strikes a chord with the Afrikaans youth market. The semi-mystical name, Strikfontein, began appearing on the Kyknet facebook page, demanding for the show to be aired, snowballing to such an extent that the Afrikaans broadcaster asked for no more Strikfontein mentions to be made, sparking off a 60-odd comment thread questioning the content managing practices of Kyknet.
Being a skeptical bastard, I decided to seek some professional opinion on this whole Strikfontein business and spoke to Professor Martin Botha, one of the top academics in the Afrikaans cinema field, publisher of many a book and regular attendee of the Cannes Film Festival. While the full, 4000 word interview is too long to publish here – the gist comes down to things being rather sour in Afrikaans cinema – he did have the following to say about the start-up production:
“I personally admire the three dimensional characters, understated and naturalistic performances and subtle approach to thematic concerns. It also has a wonderful sense regarding the use of space and location. A substantial number of Afrikaans productions suffer from weak scripts, characterization and a lack of creativity.”
When asked if Strikfontein wasn’t just another soap-opera for the Afrikaans kids, Botha offered this, which in turn casts the Kyknet Facebook post in new light:
“No, it [Strikfontein] will fill a huge void in recent Afrikaans cinema and TV, but hopefully it won’t be compromised by funders, broadcasters, etc. My experience during the past 30 years has been that the South African film industry had always been stifled not because of any shortage of creativity but because of a cabal of egocentric gate-keepers in funding and distribution agencies, who impose their blinkered vision that our film culture only becomes legitimized when it is endorsed by their short-sighted agendas which ignores the power of individuality of the film-maker and the power of the audience to grow and sustain an inclusive film culture.”
Convinced, I grabbed Johan Cronje by the neck and got him to answer some difficult questions.
Where the hell is Strikfontein and what do you eat it with?
Johan Cronje: Well, it’s everywhere and nowhere I suppose. Mostly on the web. But no, it doesn’t exist, not in reality. We want it to though.
Why a series about Afrikaans students returning to their hometown? Surely gangs, poverty or corruption would have been more topical in our current society?
Topical, sure. Engaging, not so much. Local entertainment keeps tumbling into the pitfall of thinking it should deal with these subjects, subjects that the press deals with all too often. Entertainment should be just that – entertaining, and more importantly have an element of escapism to it. I’m not saying that the stories told should be removed from pressing issues in our society, but those issues aren’t always what you want to be battered with when trying to enjoy a film or a TV series. Another thing that I find with local entertainment is that it tries so hard to represent the supposed socio-political issues of the day that the story suffers. It’s as if the focus falls unto the locality of event problems and refrains from adequately exploring the characters. We have such a broad array of people in our country but they’re never given the opportunity to shine, rather the issues that they are ‘supposed to’ deal with are the main focal point, leaving the characters marginalized. Once we’ve established characters that can engage in their own right, that have a vibrant existence apart from their respective ‘struggles’, then only we’ll want to see them deal with the issues of the day, since it will then be entertaining. Up until now it’s just been didactic.
Strikfontein deals with a subject matter and subculture that I know best, and given the lack of entertainment afforded the young Afrikaans speaker, it’s a gap that I want to address. Being about students on their way home, the pressing coming-of-age issue is one that resonates across any lingual/cultural divide, and within the university culture that exists in South Africa, it offers the perfect scenario to explore these issues. Add to that the distinct character of a small South African dorpie, and you’ve got an assembly of elements worth telling a story about. I want to see Afrikaans content within a package that speaks of authentic artistic credibility – a series that we don’t compare with international shows but rather speak of in the same breath.
How is Strikfontein, in its representation of Afrikaans youth, going to be different from other Afrikaans shows that we see on TV?
Our approach is to offer a naturalistic, and therefore realistic, portrayal on screen – in the events and the characters. This isn’t being done now. Everybody moans about how absurdly unnatural something like 7de Laan or Bakgat is, yet they keep on watching it because there’s nothing else on offer. Whatever representation of Afrikaans people there exists on screens in South Africa, is being done in modes that belong on a theatre stage, not on film or TV. It’s littered with over-dramatized elements that ruin our experience of it as it comes across as unnatural. Our hope is to resurrect this, by offering a contemporary, nuanced view of a group of people.
For me it’s an issue of nuance vs. stereotype – for too long have Afrikaans people been portrayed within stereotypical characters and situations. Those stereotypes do exist, but I don’t want to watch it, and I’m sure neither does the rest of South Africa. Not anymore. There’s just so much more to offer that hasn’t even been touched yet. Why was Amelie a French film that the whole world wanted to see? We don’t have characters of any real caliber in current Afrikaans entertainment.
Another aspect that gives the show a sense of authentic representation is that everyone involved is of a fairly young age. It’s basically a series made by the youth, for the youth. Having a personal connection to the subculture and people portrayed is a huge advantage.
What, for you, is the Afrikaans identity, if such a thing exists at all? Do you think Strikfontein would add to, or expand the understanding of, this identity/culture?
I don’t think one exists. Not anymore. What would generally be considered the Afrikaans identity is a seriously marginalized one, and in dire need of resurrection, even if that resurrection means breaking down the pre-conceived ideas and notions of what this culture entails. The fact of the matter is that Afrikaans speaking communities exist all over the country, and they all differ. Within entertainment, the notion that the language itself constitutes a ‘genre’ is one I’ve always had a problem with. There are so many different variations and subdivisions within Afrikaans that I just feel it’s time to explore them all. And each one can and should be explored in its own right. Strikfontein merely represents one of these. I’m not trying to portray a world that represents a mold of the Afrikaner.
Has the Afrikaans music revival, spearheaded by Fokofpoliesiekar, influenced you in any way as a filmmaker?
Definitely. I think that revival had an immense impact on Afrikaans entertainment as a whole, especially that of ‘alternative ‘ form. It was the first time I could relate to music being performed in my mother tongue. What happened within the music industry is that people became of aware of and started having faith in music of their own language. This created a movement that eventually led to an industry that can somewhat sustain itself.
That is what I hope to see happen in the near future in Afrikaans film – something to break through and give the masses a product that entertains at the same level they’d expect from the rest of the world, but within their own language, showing a people and culture they know personally. If people started having that same sense of faith in filmic products done in Afrikaans, the same could happen for Afrikaans cinema. Hopefully Strikfontein can play some part in that.
What is so different about the production process of Strikfontein?
Well, we shot the two pilots on a micro-budget, but with great emphasis on high aesthetic quality. Our main angle of ‘difference’ is our marketing strategy – we’ve recently run an extended online marketing campaign via social media networks in order to create awareness of Strikfontein before it’s even been commissioned. We were basically selling it as a town that exists in actuality, somewhat blurring the lines between fiction and reality. It started with the guys from Dans Dans Lisa being involved in a brawl in the town [Strikfontien] at one of their shows, which went on to create massive online hype with photos and even a cell phone video that captured the ‘actual’ incident. After that a music video for the band’s song ‘Die mense hier’ – also the show’s theme song – was released, containing images of the pilot episodes and the DDL guys hitchhiking to Strikfontein. After that mini-trailers of the series were released weekly, throughout keeping the public information about what exactly Strikfontein is very ambiguous.
The final phase of this campaign saw us going public with it all. A short documentary on Youtube explains all the incidents that led up to this phase, and a statement on Facebook makes it clear that Strikfontein doesn’t actually exist, but it can if people want it to. With the help from the online community we hope to make our case for selling Strikfontein to a broadcaster as strong as possible, and by doing so allowing the show to feature on an established platform so that it may have the impact on Afrikaans entertainment we feel it can.
You have collaborated with a number of local musicians and bands, would you say that you are, essentially, building a South African participatory-cinema scene?
The plan is for Strikfontein to have a new-media hook throughout the entire production process. We want to keep the audience involved in all aspects, such as daily updates of shooting on set, behind the scenes interviews and so forth. We’re also going to correlate new-media activity with the episodes once they screen, so that the audience will be able to follow story elements live on social networks as an episode is broadcast, and be able to follow it even between episodes, again blurring the line between reality and fiction.
Collaboration with bands and artists was and will remain a very important one, given that the music industry is in a much better state, content and support wise, than the film industry. So we’re engaging these artists to help establish a healthier state of being for film. Throughout Strikfontein’s episodes a keen focus will remain on artists, bands and their music, basically because it will reflect the importance these elements play in the subculture portrayed in the show, and as such the importance it has on the lives of the audience.
While it is a different question whether Strikfontein will attain the heights that it aims for, I’m all for sticking it to the man, turning things a little on their heads and challenging the status-quo. Down with the Afrikaans media kings!