Afrikaans crime writer’s terrifying thriller adapted for the big screen

Gys de Villiers

Gys de Villiers

Action packed local thriller

Die Ontwaking (‘The Awakening’), a grisly, action-packed thriller that investigates the mind and motivations of an acutely intelligent serial killer, will open in selected cinemas around the country on 26 February 2016.

The film is the directorial debut of acclaimed production designer Johnny Breedt (‘Paljas’, ‘Hotel Rwanda’, ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’), and has been hailed as a game-changer for South African film. Die Ontwaking is based on the first book of the ‘Abel’ trilogy, ‘Abel se Ontwaking’ (translated into English as ‘The Skin Collector’), by well-known crime writer Chris Karsten.

Abel Lotz (Gys de Villiers), the owner of a small art gallery specialising in African masks and artefacts, is also a curator of a different kind: he has an assortment of tattoos which he harvests from the bodies of his beautiful young victims for a collection that forms part of his ‘cosmic journals’, a bizarre project in which he retells the story of the cosmos.

Ella Nesser (Juanita de Villiers) is the attractive, but inexperienced police detective in charge of the case. Her task is to track down the serial killer before yet another young woman is murdered. She is in a long-term relationship with Bam (Armand Aucamp), and while she works hard to prove herself to her more senior colleagues Fred Lange (Gerard Rudolf) and Silas Sauls (Paul Eilers), she also has to deal with personal issues.

Abel is smart and his commitment to completing the cosmic journal is unwavering. On the eve of his fiftieth birthday, he decides it’s time for a new look: he is to harvest a face from an unsuspecting victim, preferably female and beautiful, as his mother always wanted a daughter. The young cop would do nicely.

“A few years ago I decided I wanted to direct a film in Afrikaans and I popped into a book store to look for inspiration,” says Breedt. “That’s when I came across Chris Karsten’s ‘Abel se Ontwaking’. I read it on a flight to the USA and I could not put it down. I just knew that it could be turned into a fantastic film. The thriller genre is much darker than what I had in mind for my first feature film, but that was also what attracted me to the project. I wanted to challenge myself as a scriptwriter and director and this was the perfect vehicle. I was determined to take the audience with me into places that make people feel uncomfortable.”

The film explores how twisted societies also produce traumatised, deeply wounded individuals, who eventually turn to violent behaviour. At its heart, Die Ontwaking delves into the complex dynamic between the deranged, yet sympathetic Abel Lotz and the rookie police investigator who is resilient, fit and focused. The film plays with the mind of its audience and keeps people on the edge of their seats wondering what on earth goes on in the head of a psychopath.

The motif of skin – which covers the body while forming the membrane between the self and world – forms the basis for an investigation into the ways in which we see ourselves, the way we are perceived by others, and the ways in which our experiences become etched in our skins.

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