Writer-director René van Rooyen talks about her magical South African film Toorbos

After a 6-year’s journey from page to screen, René van Rooyen’s insightful adaptation of Dalene Matthee’s novel Toorbos as a screenwriter, and her astute visual sensibility as a director, delivers an inspirational journey of the heart that showcases the best of South African filmmaking and is officially this year’s South African entry for the highly coveted Best International Feature Film Award for the 2021 Academy Awards.

René’s film has seen great success at the Cape Town International Market and Film Festival, having won the award for ‘Work in Progress’ (WIP) programme. The film has also been selected or the Torino Film Festival in Italy, November 2020.  It is only the third South African entry by a female director for the Academy Awards, since 1989.

“Toorbos’ success serves as great testament of this classic novel and our history as a country. Our filmmakers play a significant role in preserving our history and René has managed to capture Dalene Mathee’s novel immaculately. The story of TOORBOS is about a historical event in South Africa, which affected the last forest inhabitants of South Africa’s Knysna forest in the 1930s.  We wish René and her team all the best as their film will be competing on global stages. South Africa is rooting for you,’’ said NFVF CEO, Makhosazana Khanyile.

“Toorbos not only highlights the importance of finding the balance in the tug of war between the masculine and feminine, but also in the urgent need to heal our broken world, by reconnecting to nature. The submission gives the film spotlight in the global arena, an absolute dream come true for the project. We are truly humbled, ” says René van Rooyen

Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with writer-director René van Rooyen

Toorbos is a passionately crafted masterwork that proudly showcases powerful South African stories that deserve to be told by filmmakers like yourself.

This comment warms my heart. When undertaking a feature film, the personal pressure is immense in ensuring that the project is meaningful and truthful. From the outset it was to approach it with complete honesty. I didn’t want it to be referenced or feel like another film, but form part of my quest in also giving South African cinema a unique and authentic voice.

That’s the beauty when working on adaptations, you have a solid base from which to build, with deeply researched characters and stories that explore unique undiscovered settings. More so, the themes are complex – ours was built around the rootedness of the forest people as they struggle between the developing world and their connection to nature.

In his latest documentary 93-year-old David Attenborough states that the way to heal out broken world is to not be apart from nature, but to be a part of it. That is exactly what Toorbos celebrates, showing how  a forest child who is born into poverty and raised in similar circumstances in the 30s,  “adopts” the forest as her only guardian.

Exactly, and yet, even though this argument is so current, we – like the protagonist – struggle to truly see the importance and prioritise our connection to nature. Karoliena is pushed and pulled in between two worlds. An enigma walking along two dualities – the one which offers her financial prosperity and comfort, the other which is deeply rooted in her psyche – a yearning which she struggles to define – and that’s her deep connection to nature. Throughout the story, she questions which of these two opposites will truly give her personal freedom… She struggles in not only prioritising her own connection to nature, but also in convincing those around her, why it’s important.

It’s astounding how little difference there is in Toorbos of the 1930s and our world in South Africa today … the film opens a window into universal realities and creates a poignant reminder of how fragile our humanity is, particularly those who live in the shadows …

Yes, it’s been a keen interest of mine for many years. To describe it in its simplest form, is looking at how the more gentle indigenous communities with their deep spiritual connection to nature have been marginalised and uprooted by the more “progressive” societies. It happens time and again and the outcome mostly favours those who prioritise economic progress…

If there are two things we all yearn for, is to be true to ourselves and loved without compromise. Toorbos poignantly shows how this miracle is possible and can heal wounds with its magic. 

This is most likely why I fell in love with the story at the start. I read it in the year I was married, 2012. What Dalene captured in her writing was the essence of this. Both characters needed to become their “full self” in order to love each other truly. In both cases, they couldn’t achieve this, without reconnecting with the forest. Both Karoliena and Johannes upon witnessing the forest’s magic, could transcend beyond their false realities, to become their authentic self and therefore finally connect and love one another.

What attracted you to Toorbos?  It is fair to say that you were born to make Toorbos ?

It could be because I’ve lived with the story for almost a decade that I would love that to be true. The themes of the book is one which I have explored in different ways in several other stories. Majority of my writing look at the psychological headspace of a female character who is caught between reality and a ‘dreamspace’. I love filming in beautiful settings and exploring my characters through the impact that a certain landscape has on them.  

Dalene Matthee

A timeline of Dalene Matthee’s life and work

Did you first approach Dalene Matthee’s novel as a writer and then interpreted it through the lens of a filmmaker, or was it a story that spoke to you as a storymaker?

I’m mostly attracted to stories because of the themes they explore, but Toorbos was multi-faseted. Upon the first reading Karoliena’s complex internal struggle hooked me. I found her incredibly strange, yet her quest to find a footing in the world, very relatable. I loved the love story. It was different and honest. She is a romantic, in love, yet unable to commit to her husband until he truly understands and respects her outlook in life. Their relationship was like the many footpaths in the forest, they are trying to find one another, but losing their way in between all the different routes… It explored married relationships in its essence, a never-ending discovery, one in which we can only grow, when we continue to be true to ourselves. As a filmmaker I knew the setting, the parallels between the bigger themes and the love story, would be something that I could commit to over many years-  which is often the case with feature filmmaking. You have to undertake a project which you can still discover and interest you almost a decade later.

Was it a difficult process from page to screen? How long did t take you to craft the screenplay?

It was a six-year writing process. The novel was an extremely challenging adaptation. Karoliena is also not a active character – in essence it’s a coming-of-age narrative of a young woman trying to find herself – without big active character beats. With that it takes place over many years and to condense that into a two hour screenplay and still give the story a flow, petrified me.

Toorbos is an important film of our time, where our ‘New Normal’ brought us back to our authentic selves? 

Yes. Karoliena’s search for personal freedom and being true to herself is what makes her so admirable. She’s on a quest to define her authentic self, even though she cannot find a map on how to achieve it, other than better learning to trust her gut and following that with determination and fortitude. Today we have mindfulness podcasts, breathing, meditation, self reflection, yoga retreats, nature breaks anything that can help us ‘be ourselves”. We, like Karoliena, move further away from being able to trust our gut and act truthfully, or create with authenticity. Isn’t it worrying how easily we as groups can become manipulated and almost ‘infect’ one another. This metaphor in Toorbos is told through the difference between the new plantation trees and the old indigenous forest. The plantations, are exact replicas, with hard needle like leaves, they poison the forest floor and are easily susceptible to fire outbreaks and sickness (think about the recent Knysna fires and the destruction of the pine forests), whilst the indigenous forest is wild, every tree different and in their ‘authenticity’ each play an important role in giving life to one another and allowing the forest to prosper.

Why do you think it is so difficult for people to be themselves, and even more difficult to simple ‘be’?

Having been raised on a farm, I find the times where I’m most truthful and connected to myself, is when I’m visiting my home with the stillness of that space. Where I’m disconnect from the rush of life and my career. I recently travelled to Peru and hiked the Inca trails and camped deep in the Amazon forest. One of my most vivid memories was sitting at the front deck of our four-man boat, as we travelled up-river. Those experiences, even though it’s only for a few weeks, have an immense impact on my own self-awareness and re-evaluation of my goals and what’s important. In the rush and mayhem of life, if we don’t take a step back, cut ourselves off and connect to nature, it’s very difficult to remain truthful and authentic – especially as creatives. I find that when I don’t do that, I’m more easily manipulated in the way I create – to follow group thinking or trends and ultimately I get stuck at writing. 

Are you a romantic at heart?

Totally. I think deep down when I was newly married and read the novel, I made the film as a reminder to myself that even if we drift apart, if there’s heartbreak, or we lose our way, we will somehow always find a way back to one another.

What do you think are the ingredients of a perfect romance?   Were there any particular films that inspired / influenced your creation of Toorbos?

I read many screenplays when writing. For Toorbos I remember reading Brooklyn, The Piano, An Education, Bright Star, yet when I started referencing it as a director, I couldn’t find any films. I couldn’t find inspiration from romance-genre films. The project wasn’t something I could find parallels with in genre – or tone – to other films. I even struggled cutting a mood real to do so. Ultimately I looked at Kieslowski in referencing the cinematography. Tarkovsky in bringing environments to life. Andrew Wyeth (the painter) for lighting design. Jane Campion’s work on character. If you look at the above, you could see that there’s a similar tone, a moodiness, a grittiness in design and sense of mysticism.

With Toorbos you never imprint yourself on the story or its characters, but simply allow it to happen so effortlessly…  

We had a very strong pre-production phase. I felt safe in that I was working with an excellent team. We clearly defined the vision almost two months in advance and from there every department started to design within it. Having worked on the screenplay for so many years and especially with how complex Karoliena was, I needed to let her go and hand her over to an actress I could trust. Elani started breaking down her character three months prior to filming. She did extensive research on the era. She did voice training for weeks. Classes that shifted her body language. She and Stiaan started dissecting the screenplay. It was important for the story that they felt completely empowered. In rehearsals we spent quite a bit of time, incorporating their notes and ideas into the screenplay. We had solid boundaries in which to create, but the story does ask for every member to be empowered.

It is magical how Elani Dekker and Stiaan Smith embrace their respective journeys – we want them to be together despite of all the odds stacked against them. How did you achieve the incredible bond between them …

We all felt a great sense of responsibility in doing a Dalene Matthee adaptation. Even more so did Elani and Stiaan. They spent hours together in not only understanding their characters on-screen, but getting to know each other off-screen. The connection on screen is real and truthful, because that was what was taking place behind the cameras. They were incredibly disciplined in guiding one another and spent hours discussing character, the screenplay and understanding their arch’s to ultimately create a sense – that even though they’re apart and in conflict for such a large part of the story – they are ‘meant to be’. I’m glad that this is the experience, because it reflects on the actors’ hard work… and since they’ve made it public… it’s also interesting to note that this connection had started on set, three years down the line, they are still together.

The magic you create in Toorbos is real – was it difficult to achieve or was it an organic process that mutated into its miraculous splendour.

 When approaching the magical elements, it was of utmost importance to keep it organic, gritty and real. We wanted to create as much as we could in-camera with on-set SFX and leave as little possible to VFX. We referenced Andrei Tarkovski a great deal in designing the mythical ‘magical’ scenes. Wind for example plays an important role in bringing the forest to life. We needed to make it a living breathing entity that could compete with Johannes. Yet there was not a breeze in the forest. For this wind machines and wind blowers is in every scene where there is even the slightest movement. There are other elements; like dust, rain and mud that we created on set. The tree spirit was VFX, but the same principles applied – we never wanted the audience to see that it’s VFX. We shot images with the different indigenous trees’ dried out leaves and the wonderful team from Two tales animation put it together. Ultimately when looking at the ‘magical’ moments, the audience has to question whether it’s real, or not. They need to be struggling through the same dualities as the protagonist.

It’s astounding how Toorbos opens a window to the soul of men for women, just as it allows men to gain access to the mysticism of women’s mindscape. 

Yes, it shows the tug-of-war between he masculine and the feminine. Not only in Karoliena and Johannes, but also in the themes that it explores. Whether we are male, or female, we possess both, but society has boxed us in, or placed more importance on certain qualities. It’s when Karoliena and Johannes start challenging one another, that they start reflecting on their own masculine and feminine identities. He has as much an impact on her thinking and understanding, as she has on his. That is why it’s incredibly important that we fight for our own authentic self, not only to challenge one another in society, but find a better balance in the world between the masculine and feminine. I believe a lot of healing can take place when this would happen.

How do you see filmmaking in South Africa today after everything has been grounded by an unforeseen pandemic?

It’s frightening. We’re hearing that the bigger budget local features might suffer, whilst we will be witnessing more low-budget straight to VOD / TV offerings in the years to come. The filmmaking approach between the two is vastly different. For cinema films, it’s a longer process, you’re taking more risks, thinking differently, being more creative and challenging filmmaking to create an immersive cinema experience. In TV, because of the incredibly short turnarounds, there isn’t much time and you easily fall into formulaic filmmaking. We’re going to have to work especially hard to convince financiers and audiences to why they need to go to cinema.  

How do you see the future for screenwriters on South Africa?

I have found the past year explosive. There is not enough writers and a boom with Netflix entering the market and DSTV undertaking loads of local and international co-productions. There isn’t a more exciting time to be a screenwriter.

What do you think producers are looking for in a screenplay?

 There is so much content being created, that from a producer’s point of view, it’s different from say a director-producer. It also changes with the seasons. A few years ago, it was all about authenticity and self-reflection, now the buzz word is genre films. There is so much content being created and sold. Personally I try to create without thinking of this, else I will get lost. I look at projects that I can tell different to other storytellers. Themes that could resonate with a larger audience and characters that can be complex and unpredictable.  

Any tips for screenwriters who want to get their work out there?

Disect and know every book and thinking on screenwriting and structure and spend years in building that knowledge. Then forget all about it and trust your gut! Research and find unexplored interesting stories, but keep it personal and write from what you know. Write that screenplay. Apply to markets, festivals or short film competitions to get your first works out there. My career started with the kykNET Silwerskerm Film festival.

We have entered the age of truly independent filmmaking in South Africa, do you agree?

Yes, yet if our cinemas fail, I’m afraid that many of the new rising voices, wont have the correct platform to showcase their skills. With that it’s exciting to see the international success so many of our peers are achieving. Seven years ago – as an Afrikaans filmmaker –  the opportunities were limited in terms of the type of films we could tell, but all of that has changed because of the many brave works by the “new wave” of filmmakers.

What do you hope audiences will get out of watching Toorbos?

I hope to transport them into a place they haven’t yet discovered, fall in love and when they leave, having hopefully challenged their own world views. Most of all, I wish for them – especially after this time locked in with COVID – to enjoy the setting and experience escapism for the two hours travelling through the 1930’s Knysna forests.

Future plans?

I’ve recently completed the Realness African residency with my screenplay “Vrees” (Fear), which is a psychological horror, exploring white identity on an African farm set in the Karoo, which I’m hoping to film by winter 2021. Through our production company Red Letter Day Pictures, we’re also in development of a grey-market comedy and several TV series.