Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with writer-director Sean Else about Modder en Bloed, ”a story about survival, honour, loyalty and in the end…a moral victory under immoral circumstances.”
You have always had a love affair with the Anglo Boer war, first in the glorious musical Ons Vir Jou, and now the epos Modder and Bloed. Tell me about this?
I love history. From all over the world. It tells us more about our present and teaches us not to repeat mistakes in the future. Unfortunately, we hardly ever learn from the past. I have also touched on other sections of our history (the musical – Shaka Zulu, Bloedbroers, both with Deon Opperman) but the Anglo-Boer War really changed a lot of the socio-economics of our country and affected each and every South African in some or other way. On top of this, it was a war with many international players. Except for the British Colonies, volunteers from all over the world (Ireland, America, France, Russia, Scandinavia etc.) joined the ranks of the Boers and fought alongside them against Imperialism. It was also an immoral victory for England and the world needs to take note of this costly war, which took place on the southern tip of Africa. All in the name of gold and greed.
Your imagination has always been larger than life. Where does this come from?
I’ve always been a dreamer. Ever since I can remember I have lived in my imagination. We also moved around a lot (9 schools), and although I learned to adapt through observation and seemed quite social, I mostly ended up entertaining myself. My parents also encouraged me to read a lot.
I remember all my mother’s Reader Digest books and the comic books my dad bought – 2000 AD and Battle Comics – which was incredible graphic comics of their time and fed my love for war stories even more. Film became my next love and from an early age, I knew that I wanted to tell stories.
You excel in three passions, composing, scripting, and directing: which discipline enslaves you most?
It’s a combination of all of them. Making films combines all of them in one. In the end, I am a storyteller. If I can capture emotion with a lyric in a song, or a scene in a film that an audience can relate to emotionally, I have done my work. The most important element is that it remains honest. It must also be something that is important to me.
How would you describe Modder en Bloed in your own words?
I have. It’s called a script…he, he. Okay, jokes aside. Modder en Bloed, like many other films set in war, shows the true character of people in war. Good or bad. It follows a tragic hero, who has lost everything and everyone dear to him, as he has to find a reason to live. To keep on going. To get back up out of his own “modder en bloed”. He is faced with broken men of all walks of life who feel the same. Men who have given up, and even under these circumstances, cannot stand together. But he cannot fight against his own heroic nature. When a boy’s life is threatened he stands up and finds a reason to fight. This reason unites the men and brings them together to find the courage to stand up to oppression. Modder en Bloed is a story about survival, honour, loyalty, and in the end…a moral victory under immoral circumstances.
The narrative deals with three separate stories, the story of a Boer who loses his family and has to bow down to the English Empire, it deals with how Boers conquer the English with brawn by playing rugby, and it is equally the story of a woman who bears witness to the atrocities and prejudice in the concentration camp. Was this your intention? Your views on this?
Yes, there are three storylines, but they all speak to each other and merge. The Boer losing everything and having to bow to the English use rugby as a device to stand up to the English Empire; for him and the others, rugby is a continuation of the war for life and their own honour of the battlefield. The English woman witnessing the atrocities of the camps is actually going through the hell of war herself. The loss of her husband binds her to our main character. But both have to learn empathy and respect for the other’s loss without being judgmental. In war it is much better to be on the side of humanity and this is what they have to learn from each other and themselves.
Modder en Bloed is also an anthem of freedom for outsiders fighting oppressors and dictators, very much a story of today. Your views on this?
It is a universal story which can be told in any war or situation present or past, where an Empire takes what they want (gold in the instance of the Anglo-Boer War) ignoring the short and long term outcome to the people, country or cultures found within.
In ‘n Man Soos My Pa you told the story of a family torn apart by past events, in Modder en Bloed you tell the story of a family who faces a dark future, your views on this?
I believe that honesty, truth and detail should prevail in storytelling. Within both stories there is a glimmer of hope though, and that is important. I present tragedy, but I present a small glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
- Watch my interview with Sean Else talking about ‘n Man Soos My Pa.
Was Modder en Bloed an easy screenplay to write? Tell me something about how it started and what process you followed, or did the story write itself?
The better stories are always clear and uncluttered. For me this story is very clean in narrative and was therefore easier to write. I had a very good knowledge of the history, but did lost of research regarding the capture of prisoners, the prisoner of war camps all over the world (for the Boers), St Helena and especially regarding the rugby as the game was very different then. During my reading many years back I read that the Boers mostly learnt the game of rugby in those camps and I always knew there was a story there. When the rugby world cup started hitting the news in 2014, I knew the time was right. I always start by imagining the story in my head for a couple of weeks before I sit down and start with the structural layout and characters. Once I know exactly what the story is and what everyone’s purpose is towards the narrative and main theme, I start working in more detail within the acts. I then start laying down definite scenes (but just what the scene is about) in cards in Final Draft and once I feel confident that the structure and rhythm is right, I start writing the first draft. During this process the magic happens and structurally a few tweaks happen as well. My first draft is always very long . On this film we had about three drafts.
What was your pitch to the producers to sit in the director’s chair, or was it a given from the beginning?
It was a given from the beginning as we were co-producers with Dark Matter Studios. But I am not an ego-driven director. If I lacked the right credentials for the job, I would have pushed for another director to do the work. In this instance my knowledge, background and understanding of the theme and genre was beneficial to the project.
Did you have any specific actors in mind when writing the screenplay?
No. I allowed the characters to form themselves which I’m very glad I did.
Was it difficult transforming words into action?
Not at all. I write and direct with the edit in mind, so I plan my storyboard as I am writing in my head. In pre-production I then spend a lot of time planning my shots and putting together my Production ‘Bibles’ (as I call them). This gives each department insight and references to what I see in my head. With a shared vision we can create so much more.
The emotion you captured on the screen is raw and real, it must have been an equally emotional journey for you as well? Tell me about the impact the film had on your own life?
It was quite emotional. Not so much the emotions of the characters. Capturing the performances on screen is exciting and exhilarating. But the process of actually getting what we set out to do under immense pressure and financial limitations are emotional. That incredible journey from page to film to audience is what makes this work we do so incredible.
Why did you want to tell this story?
Because firstly it’s a story that I would like to see myself. That is key for me in any film. Secondly, it’s a unique story with immense cultural value both locally and internationally.
Is this the origins of the Springbok rugby team, or is that a fictional reality in Modder en Bloed?
No. It is fiction. But what I have done is take elements of the truth, real characters, real situations, real politics and the truth about the Afrikaner learning to play rugby in those camps, and combined them to give the essence of what the war, the camps and the majority Afrikaner’s introduction to the game was about. The 1906 team that toured to the British Isles consisted of a few men who were in those camps. One man specifically, Dougie “Sommie” Morkel on whom I based Willem Morkel, was on St Helena and was very active with the rugby in the camps. In every character there is a real historical character from whom I took certain elements. Colonel Swannel is based on two historical characters: a real Swannell who was in the war and played rugby in Australia, but mostly, he is based on Breaker Morant, and Australian who executed Boer soldiers and civilians in the Eastern Transvaal. Katherine is inspired by Emily Hobhouse and Emmiline Pankhurst. Butler is based on a real Lt. Butler who played for Ireland and the British. Phil Blignaut was a Springbok sprinter. Etc. etc.
In Modder en Bloed the concentration camp becomes the heart and soul of what separated and divided a nation? Your views on this?
The war in itself separated and divided a nation. At the end of it neighbour fought against neighbour, brother fought against brother, and a whole new country was unified under Imperial rule and became a colony with all the pitfalls and new rules attached to it. It left deep scars.
What advice can you give young scribes who want to be filmmakers?
Be honest to yourself.
What do you hope audiences will get from watching Modder en Bloed?
Emotion, empathy, understanding.
Tell me about your next project?
There are quite a few local and international projects in pre-production and development ranging from science fiction, to musicals, to period pieces.