Writer-director Etienne Kallos talks about Die Stropers (The Harvesters)

Etienne Kallos is a Greek-South African film director who studied theatre and then worked in non-fiction before doing his M.F.A. in Film Directing at New York University.

Die Stropers (The Harvesters) is an internationally co-produced feature film set within the rural Free State region of contemporary South Africa, an isolated stronghold of the Afrikaans ethnic minority. It is a psychological drama exploring the coming-of-age of a new generation of Afrikaans youth. It tells the story of obedient Afrikaans teenager, Janno, who witnesses his childhood come to an abrupt end on the day his fiercely religious mother, Marie, brings home a mysterious street orphan, Pieter, to foster on the family’s remote cattle farm.

Kallos’ short non-fiction film ‘Jane’s Birthday Trip’ screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and was a national finalist for the Student Academy Awards. His fiction short, ‘No Exit’ screened at 2006 Slamdance Film Festival and another short, ‘doorman’, was presented at the 2006
Cannes Film Festival (Cinéfondation section) and at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. His thesis film, ‘Firstborn’, was the first Afrikaans-language film to win the Corto Cortissimo Lion d’Or for Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival in 2009. Die Stropers (The Harvesters) is his first feature film.

Read the review of Die Stropers (The Harvesters)

What is so special about the Free State that you set your first feature film there?

It’s a fascinating region, the “bible belt” of South Africa, the heart of Afrikaner culture, all maize fields, farmhouses and church steeples. From a distance it looks like time stands still in the Free State but of course, up close, that’s not the case. The eastern part of the region is especially intriguing; it is wilder than the western region, and there is something mysterious and powerful in that landscape, something that captures
you and won’t let go.

I come from Cape Town myself so the first time I even heard of the eastern Free State was though the late Reza de Wet, a wonderful Afrikaans playwright and teacher who was my mentor when I studied theatre at Rhodes University.

When I first visited the eastern Free State, I was struck by how these beautiful Free State farms could be a paradise, yet there are bars on windows, and fear in the air. A loneliness too. Hearing about farmers being murdered is not uncommon. With the South African government continuing to threaten ‘re-appropriation of (Afrikaner) land without
compensation’, it brings up fascinating notions of what it means to ‘belong’.

What is your perception of the rural farming population?

I respect the way the Afrikaners work the land – they are devoted to it. And I like the new generation.

I wanted to explore adolescence and tell a story about the first generation to be born completely outside of the Apartheid system. The issue of this legacy is never addressed directly in the film, yet it is pervasive and expressed by the feeling of alienation of the young protagonist, Janno, through his loneliness, his fear of being judged, and how lost he feels.

Brent Vermeulen and Alex Van Dyk in Die Stropers (The Harvesters)

How do you live with the weight of post-colonialism on your shoulders? Do we have to literally and figuratively burn the structures of our ancestors to become African?

This is my experience too – the fracture and conflict inherent in being an African of European descent. The experience of fracture is important to me as a storyteller, to love and hate in the same breath, to belong and be a stranger at the same time: You grow up oblivious and then, suddenly, as a teenager, you realise that you don’t really belong in your family, in your community, in your culture.

It is a universal experience, this loss of childhood, but I wanted to give it a rural setting. When you live in a city you dominate space, whereas in the countryside, it’s the other way around: The land and the elements control you. The silence of the countryside exaggerates every decision you make, every action you take, and throws it back at you.

Etienne Kallos with Brent Vermeulen during filming of Die Stropers

Describe the writing process.

I used the award money from my short film ‘Firstborn’, which had won the Golden Lion for ‘best short film’ at Venice in 2009, among other awards, to fund research trips to the Free State.

At the time I was pursuing many different leads over the country, trying to figure out what my first feature project would be about. I was immediately struck with how willing and eager the Afrikaans community was to share with me. The door opened wide and I walked through it.

In 2010 I flew to Johannesburg, rented a car and drove around the Free State and KwaZulu Natal meeting people – farmers, orphans, high school students, social workers.

My first draft of the script was a compilation of research materials. It was just too broad, not a story yet. Eventually, I had to throw out most of my research and find a single thread, a single point of view. I started a second draft after I had returned to the USA and was teaching my first semester at NYU.

Alex van Dyk and Brent Vermeulen in Die Stropers

Where does the story about two adversarial brothers come from?

I feel fractured somehow and wanted to explore this experience through Janno and Pieter and their complicated dynamic. This kind of ‘brotherhood’ cannot be described sufficiently in words, but it is exciting to dramatize. Despite the socio-political context, this is not a story that occurs in the exterior world of reality. It’s more of an inner journey and the tension between interior and exterior worlds is very exciting to work with cinematically.

How did you move onto production?

I completed a second draft in 2012 and applied to the Cannes Cinéfondation Residence program and to the Sundance Screenwriting Lab. Both programs selected my script, so I was working between Paris and Utah. The script won two awards. It received the Fondation Gan’s ‘Prix Opening Shot’ for best screenplay at Cannes and the Mahindra ‘Global Filmmaker Award’ at Sundance.

With these two prizes and a Golden Lion for ‘best short film’, I thought my first feature film would be easy to finance. But it wasn’t the case.

I kept on travelling and researching, establishing connections with generous farmers – the harvest sequence, for instance, was
literally a gift from a farmer who gave us his maize crops, trucks and threshers for a day.

This film was only made possible through the generosity of the Afrikaans people. I would drive around at random and knock on farmers’ doors. Sometimes I would literally dream of a farmhouse and then I would wake up and drive around trying to find it.

In the end, a South African producer brought a Canadian producer on board, who in turn brought on board Sophie Erbs, from the French company Cinéma Defacto, to co-produce the film. The first two partners dropped the project, but the good relations I had built with Sophie allowed us to make the film together. She hasn’t stopped fighting for the film since I
met her six years ago.

How did you find the two boys who play Janno and Pieter?

I wanted the actors to be 14 or 15, an age when emotions still shape bodies. I knew having older boys play younger wouldn’t work. Kids at that age grow up fast, so I postponed the casting for as long as I could. Afrikaner society is quite conservative, so it wasn’t easy to gain access as the script explores sexuality in part. Half the schools refused to allow me to hold
auditions, parents too.

But I also met youths and their parents who believed in me and the project. Just ten days before the shoot I finally cast the two young actors, it was pretty stressful. I knew there had to be chemistry between them, and that such chemistry would come, in part, from their contrasting personalities.

Brent Vermeulen with Etienne Kallos during filming of Stropers

The character of Janno was written as physically fragile; he gives the impression of not being able to cope with the demands of farm life. But Brent, who plays the part, is quite the opposite – he is a high school wrestler and rugby player. Nevertheless, from the first audition in a Paarl high school, I knew that it would be him. I could sense under his reserved
demeanour a unique, frenetic emotional quality, something unspoken and inspiring. More importantly, I could sense that it would not scare him to explore his inner life. He had the underlying emotional strength required for the part.

When I found Alex, who plays Pieter, he had just turned 14 and had no acting experience whatsoever. In contrast to Brent, who is more urban with his love of hip-hop and Kanye West, Alex comes from a family of farmers in the Durbanville area. He has a natural charisma that the camera loves and whereas Brent’s freneticism feels emotional and subterranean, with Alex it’s all extroverted and physical. They were a great match.

Etienne Kallos with Alex van Dyk during filming of Stropers

Was Pieter adopted by the family to replace Janno?

That’s what Janno thinks. My job was to bring to light his fears, his own perspective, to explore the limits of a single point of view. What his parents actually think or do isn’t what the film is about. Janno’s point of view is unstable, unreliable. He overhears whispers, insinuations, conversations and then forms an opinion based on those snippets of information. He craves unconditional love. His parents have difficulty expressing their
feelings. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love him.

The storytelling had to remain ambiguous, especially as it’s about a young person who does not know good from evil yet. The music, for instance, does not convey joy or sadness – it strikes a balance so that the audience can participate in the story, have a full experience and form their own conclusions. Pieter isn’t some lost city child who finds redemption through
his contact with nature. Speaking of redemption would imply a judgement of the characters – you must sin in order to be redeemed – and I don’t judge them like that.

Why does Janno contemplate the family photo gallery so often?

All farmhouses in the region have a family portrait gallery on the walls, to protect them from loneliness and provide comfort. Every farmer wants to look up and feel that his family has been there for three centuries. It is a way of saying, “we belong to this land, look at all those who came before us.”

Which community do I belong to? Which land do I belong to? These questions form part of the main themes in the film.

Today, not to belong to a place or community is a common experience, as we hear and read every day stories of immigrants, refugees and exiles
around the world. In South Africa, the very idea of belonging is evolving and that is part of the story.

As for Janno, the pictures on the wall are not a comfort, they are a weight against which he pushes. He is moving towards a new Africa, a new sense of place that has not been discovered by the older generations.

Describe the cinematography.

Michal Englert is a fantastic Polish cinematographer. I think it was my photographs of the Free State, which I had taken over a few years driving around the region, that convinced him to come on board. At that point I already had most of the shooting locations mapped out.

He came early so that we could travel the area together and brainstorm. I also watched a bunch of classic Polish films, some of them with religious motifs, like Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s ‘Mother Joan of the Angels’, so that I could understand his cultural point of view.

Together we made a shot list and storyboarded some scenes. It was a tricky balance as I wanted to capture the landscape with fresh eyes and yet I didn’t want the image to transform the landscapes – they are already unique and beautiful. For instance, it was always a dream of mine to shoot at Sterkfontein Dam, the unbelievably beautiful lake where we staged the rugby and fishing scenes.

Michal is also great at hand-held camera work, so we explored the tension between static wide shots that create such a strong sense of place and then hand-held shots that explore Janno’s point of view.

I see the ‘nightclub scene’ as part of South Africa’s future: On my travels I was surprised to find that every farming town on the border between Free State and KwaZulu Natal had a small Chinatown area, immigrants coming in through neighbouring Lesotho. They don’t care to speak English or try to be white, instead they speak Zulu or Sotho. I thought how great it would be to create a ‘Chinese shebeen’; they don’t exist yet but they will one day. Yes, the scene has a dreamlike feel, but to me the whole film is dreamlike, like a chamber play.

Are there elements of Greek tragedy?

Well yes, I am ethnically Greek after all!

A few years ago I visited the island of Rhodes with my mother and attended a live performance of a Greek tragedy for the first time. It was ‘Iphigenia in Tauris’. I was struck by the intensity of the acting, Iphigenia came onto stage crying and was hysterical from start to finish.

That Greek style of sustained intensity, controlled madness, is exciting to me. It had an impact on how I chose to tell the story of The Harvesters.