Die verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer – A beloved South African folk tale brought to life on the Big Screen

Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer is a retelling of the tragic yet heart-warming folktale about a young girl who makes the ultimate sacrifice to save her brother’s life, and has been adapted for the big screen by writer-director Matthys Boshoff, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Brett Michael Innes, who co-wrote the screenplay.

“It is a great responsibility and honour to adapt the beloved folk tale of Racheltjie de Beer for the big screen,” says writer-director Matthys Boshoff, whose journey into film directing includes stops in anthropology, biblical archaeology, business and economics, performing arts, and scriptwriting.

After film school, he worked in the art department on international feature films for four years, then completed a filmmaker’s residency at the International Film and Television Workshops in America. He’s adventured in diverse locations like Afghanistan, Patagonia, and Uganda, and lived in Johannesburg’s CBD. In these places, as in his work, he always takes an eye for beauty, an appetite for risk, a sense of discovery, and an appreciation for humanity. He is currently adapting his award-winning short film Flesh of My Flesh into a feature film, and developing a historical series with a team of writers.

“The story of Racheltjie De Beer is cherished by many South Africans across different cultures and had a great impact on me as a child,” says Boshoff. The arresting image of a young girl lost in a snowstorm at night, with a defenseless child in her arms, who then makes the ultimate sacrifice out of love, captured my imagination, inspiring in me both fear and admiration. It is from this personal connection to the story that I set about making a film that ebbs and flows between ominous danger, courage and love.”

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There has been much debate about the veracity of the story of Racheltjie de Beer. Is it truth or fiction that Eugene Marais first penned in the early 1920s?

As a narrative filmmaker, particularly concerned with the dramatic art form, Boshoff remained impartial in this debate, choosing to focus on the truth within the story, investigating what it teaches us about human nature, spirituality and family dynamics, loss, forgiveness, and new beginnings.

Boshoff believed this tension between truth and fiction provided the opportunity to bring a fresh look at Racheltjie’s tale in a way that will appeal to loyal followers, younger contemporary audiences, and those who are not familiar with her story.

“The cinematic approach grounds the film in the harsh realities of trekking with children through the magnificent, yet rugged, South African wilderness in the 1800s, what it was like to live on an isolated farm, and the horror of being lost in a snowstorm at night, without adequate clothing to keep warm.”

“The film also takes inspiration from the language of fables and myth in its colour palette, styling and music, as well as the mystical qualities ascribed to plants, animals, and the forces of nature. “

“We have made the brewing storm a character, giving it personality, thereby blurring the lines between the physical and metaphysical, bringing truth and poetry together in a beautiful synergy that imbues the film with a timeless quality.”

“The storm in the film is presented as a character and is a metaphor for the deceased Marie. Like the memory of Marie that lingers in the story, the storm always lingers on the periphery, as if it is following the de Beer family on their journey. When Herman ruins Marie’s memorial and reveals the truth of her death to the children, shattering Racheltjie’s heart, the storm pulls in on the farm as if reacting to the dramatic events that unfolded. In a sense the storm is Marie. It is within the heart of the storm that Racheltjie’s quest to remember her mom will be fulfilled.”

“Over and above the themes of humans-versus-nature, sacrifice and love that mark this folk tale, the film adaptation examines the coming of age of a girl on the cusp of adolescence, growing up without a mother, caught between being a child herself yet having to be an adult to her little brother. Her own transition to womanhood takes place within the storm of a broken household where her father is incapable of making peace with his late wife’s death.”

Boshoff hopes that this adventure drama will have audiences in awe of nature’s beauty and power, and show them the fortitude of a young girl facing mortal danger and tugging at the heartstrings.

“Hopefully it will leave them pondering their relationships with those whom they love most. “

Brett Michael Innes is a bestselling author and award-winning filmmaker. In 2012 he decided to focus his attention on film and literature and his debut novel, The Story of Racheltjie de Beer, became a South African bestseller. He went on to adapt it for screen with the director, Matthys Boshoff. His writing and directing debut, Sink, has been heralded by local critics as a ‘breakout film that sets a new standard for South African cinema’ and saw him win the SAFTA for Best Film and Best Screenplay. He has just completed his second feature, an adaptation of the iconic novel Fiela se Kind was released nationwide in September 2019.

Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer stars Stian Bam (‘Modder en Bloed’, ‘Verraaiers’), Zonika De Vries (”n Man Soos My Pa’, ‘Dis Koue Kos, Skat’), Marius Weyers (‘Dis Ek, Anna’, ‘Faan Se Trein’), Sandra Prinsloo (”n Man Soos My Pa’, ”n Pawpaw vir My Darling’), Antoinette Louw (‘Bram Fischer’, ‘Nul Is Nie Niks Nie’), Seputla Sebogodi (Isidingo, Scandal, Rhythm City), Beate Opperman (‘Verraaiers’, ‘Roepman’) and Charlie Bouguenon (‘Transformers: The Last Knight’, ‘Homeland’, ‘Vuil Wasgoed’). Starring in his first film role is Johannes Jordaan in the role of Racheltjie’s little brother.

The film recently won Best Actor (Stian Bam), Best Production Design and a Special Award for VFX at the 2019 kykNET Silwerskerm Festival.

Q&A with writer-director Matthys Boshoff

What do we know of the origins of the story of Racheltjie?

There are two different theories about the origins of the story. One is that it is a true story that took place in 1843 at the back end of the Great Trek. There are diehard followers of this theory who will take you to where they believe Racheltjie is buried. The other theory suggests that Eugene Marais’ fictional story – written in the early 1920s – was inspired by a contemporary published account of Hazel Milner, a girl in America who saved two of her younger siblings from a blizzard by sacrificing her own life. Marais wrote the story of Racheltjie de Beer in postwar South Africa when Afrikaners needed heroes to inspire them.

As a film writer and director, I am less concerned with whether or not the story is true, but far more interested in the universal human truths found in Racheltjie’s story. Like Piet Roodt, former professor in Afrikaans literature at the University of Pretoria, once told me: ‘Met ‘n storie lieg jy die waarheid’ (In storytelling you make truth out of lies). What does the story reveal about us as human beings, our nature and our culture?

What makes Racheltjie such an enduring story?

There are two forces working in tandem that grip the popular imagination: fear and love. Our own fear of death, the fear of being at the mercy of nature’s harshest elements, fear of being lost, alone, stranded, helpless. The horror of being responsible for someone else’s survival, against all these odds. And then the courage it takes to confront that fear with love, to give your life for someone you love and, ultimately, how death gives birth to life.

What are the themes explored?

Besides the themes of sacrifice, courage, and love that are evident in the tale, we set out to create a coming-of-age story about a young girl growing up, without a mother, and having to fulfill a motherly role for her brother, navigating the tensions between childhood and adulthood as she transitions into womanhood herself. All the characters in the story are transitioning and going through their own rite of passage. Even the landscape transitions from green summer to brown, yellow and red autumn, and, finally, to a white snow-covered wasteland.

The film starts with a wound. A young girl watches from afar as her father buries her deceased mother. The rest of the film essentially examines how this little family deals with this wound by trying to cover it up, ignore it, and focus elsewhere. However, it continues to fester and forces each member of the family to confront it and go through the process of healing. We also explore how we relate to those who have passed on. How do we remember and honour them? How do we make peace with death and learn to let go? What are the consequences if we cannot let go?

How have you approached the re-telling in order to make the story accessible to a modern audience?

The first and broad approach is to tap into timeless universal themes that will make the story relatable to a more modern audience: family dynamics, loss, new beginnings, bitterness, adventure, survival, and ultimately love.

More specifically, the portrayal of Racheltjie is our strongest hook for a millennial audience. Besides coming of age, which nearly anyone (especially young women) can relate to, her character is molded in the image of modern women leaders who we can admire: she is feminine, tough, headstrong and independent young woman with agency.

Even though we lean on the language of period pieces, the film takes on the visual language of fables and myths in its colour palette, music, wardrobe, styling, sound and the introduction of mystical elements within nature, plants, animals and the brewing storm. All of these give the film a timeless quality.

Where did you choose to set and shoot the film and why?

There are two sections to the film: the journey to the farm, and the De Beer family’s time on the farm.

For the journey we wanted to depict a little family, a father with two children, trekking with a shoddy wagon through a harsh and unforgiving environment with the magnificent Drakensberg mountains as the backdrop, an epic landscape that shows how insignificant we really are. What are our chances against the powerful forces of nature? Some of Drakensberg’s most iconic peaks show the epic nature of their journey. However, we didn’t romanticise the beauty of the mountains but rather framed them in such a way as to express the madness, determination and incredible will and resilience it takes to journey through this treacherous landscape by ox wagon. One of our favourite locations, split rock, was found after weeks of scouting. Without giving away too much, this egg-shaped mammoth of rock is split in half and the gap wide enough to walk through. It towers a good 30+ meters into the sky and is breathtaking in its magnificence.

We found the farm after driving thousands of kilometres of dirt road and shredding many tyres in the process. Most of the old houses we found were either completely destroyed by fire during the Boer War (South African War) of 1899 or damaged to such an extent that they were extensively renovated and no longer period-specific.

The Story of Racheltjie de Beer reads like a fable and we were looking for a homestead in a location that would express the harsh reality of living on a remote, isolated farm in the 1800s, but one that also possessed a poetic quality worthy of the story. The farm Tierhoek proved perfect. It is situated in a valley/gorge surrounded by mountains, with a farmhouse and outbuildings that were constructed in the 1870s. The stonework is immaculate and there were very few modern elements – no telephone lines or electricity. The house was never renovated and has an ‘old soul’ with lichen growing on the original walls and burn marks from the war still present. The authenticity of the house brought an honest yet dreamlike, tactile quality to the images that one could not create on a built set. The actors drew from this authenticity of the house as it literally transported them back in time.

The story called for extensive VFX. Discuss the scope of these

We have over 220 visual effects shots in this film which, I think, is a first for a local film without major international participation. Visual effects include cleaning up or painting out non-period specifics, but the real excitement lies where it adds elements to the image and story. From a leopard to zebras in the snow, a baboon, sky replacements with a brewing storm, augmenting the environment, adding more layers of mountains, covering the landscape with snow, to ‘amputating’ a man’s fingers.

We wanted to make the storm a character in the story and give it personality. Therefore, we didn’t simply replace clear skies with stock images of clouds, but instead, we built our own cloud systems that we could manipulate and move as we wanted. This allowed us to give the storm personality – let it turn darker when we wanted it to, move faster, swirl, light up with lightning etc. One can almost ascribe emotions to the movement of the clouds.

Our approach was always to combine in-camera effects with visual effects. Large wind machines kick up dust and debris, blowing ‘fake’ snow through the frame combined with visual effects of dust, debris and snow. A paper-based product that looks like snow scattered in the foreground of wide landscape shots with visual effects covering the background in snow.

Tell us about your cinematic style choices

To accommodate the epic emotional and visual nature of the story, we captured it in a cinematic style that is tailored for a big-screen experience. The film has an intimate yet epic quality to it: from the sound design to the production design, music, camera work and the emotional journey that the characters and audience go through. There is a dramatic transformation of the landscape from late summer to snow-covered winter. Themes of life and death, loss, courage, sacrifice, coming of age and love are covered; these are big experiences and emotions.

The story is set pre-electrification and, to stay true to the period, we wanted the lighting in the film to feel natural. This didn’t exclude the use of artificial lighting, but it is subtle and doesn’t distract from the candle-lit interiors of the period. For inspiration, we studied period films like ‘There will be Blood’ and looked at paintings by Turner, Vermeer and other Dutch Masters. Many of the frames in the film really look like paintings.

Technology has come a long way and the Sony Venice camera we used is extremely light-sensitive which allowed cinematographer Willie Nel to light many of the interiors largely with candles, oil lamps and firelight only. The lighting we used was strategically placed and shaped. We even took old film lights, removed the bulbs and placed candles inside them, allowing us to treat candles as film lights i.e. focus the light with lenses and flag it off, while it had all the natural characteristics of real flames. This created an authentic and intimate atmosphere in which the actors could work. Sandra Prinsloo commented that it didn’t feel as though she had stepped onto a film set, but had actually been transported back into a dream world. I believe this helped with the performances of the actors because their breath would affect the candle and the flicker would be evident in the scene or on another actor’s face. It created a beautiful synergy between performance, emotion and the technical craft of filmmaking where one affects the other in a very organic way. In some of the scenes, specifically the storm scene, the actors had to light themselves with the lanterns they held. Again, the sensitivity of the camera allowed us to use real flames that flickered in the wind as opposed to LED lights with pre-set flicker functions. It is a dramatic film and we went for a high-contrast look that underscores the characters’ journeys and state of mind.

From the beginning, we were determined to take a step away from the monotonal look and colour palette associated with period pieces and to push our look and colour palette into the world of fables and mythology. I was looking for a central metaphor for the film and one day realised that the entire film is about healing. For healing to take place there must be a wound. I liken the film to an old wound or bruise that is healing. From that metaphor, production designer, Chantel Carter, and I derived a colour palette that consisted of tones of green, and touches of yellow and purple, like a bruise that is healing. The blue skies and blue wardrobe for Jamie suggest a hopeful future. This was then grounded by earthy browns, rust and aubergine colours that we saw in the veld and rocks on the farm. Our colourist (and editor) Warwick Allan and I also looked at paintings by Pierneef for inspiration. To our utter joy, he too made extensive use of greens, purples and rust colours. These colours in combination with visual effects also play into the language of fables and mythology which give the film a fable or dreamlike quality.