My colleagues could hardly understand my excitement when a film about Pieter-Dirk Uys was going to be screened at the Berlinale. For my very private reasons of nostalgia, this was a film “not to be missed”. When I lived in Cape Town, South Africa, in the 1960/1970s Pieter-Dirk Uys was one of the few performers attacking the apartheid system with a satirical sense of humour. He wrote his own plays and performed in Pepper Street (a little private theatre), where you had to climb squeaking steep wooden stairs leading into the room that served as a theatre. It was adventursome, and it was against government rule as it functioned as a “non-racial” theatre. His outspoken criticism was dangerous, and eventually his plays were banned. In 1981 he created the character Evita Bezuidenhout, “the most famous white woman in South Africa”, his alter ego (modelled on Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna). In this disguise he got away with his daring political shows telling the worst truths about the apartheid system. He had come a long way since the early days in Pepper Street. With his TV sketches he reached the masses and his live shows were witty, daring and very much up-to-date with political statements. To watch him in various one-man live shows, impersonating and making fun of government officials, was always a very refreshing and stimulating experience. Luckily he survived the reprisals of the apartheid government as he was supported and loved by people of all races. I was curious which gripes he would have with the New South Africa and what a documentary by a young Australian would be like.
“When I was 15 years old I saw a show that changed my life…” these were the words of Julian Shaw, the Australian writer/director of Darling! Watching Pieter-Dirk Uys’ one-man show in Sydney, he was mesmerized by the famed anti-apartheid crusader turned AIDS awareness activist. Hardly anyone knew him outside of South Africa and he wanted the world to know the story of this fearless man with a mission. The footage of the film was shot during five trips to South Africa and Germany, documenting Uys’ inimitable skill as a mimic to politicise the HIV/AIDS pandemic at grassroots level. With his free AIDS-awareness entertainment programme called “For Facts Sake!”, the now 60-year old performer is touring the country, having visited 500 schools, prisons and reformatories. He addresses students of all backgrounds, not shying away from flagrantly raising the most taboo subjects, educating them about “safe sex”. He talks with passion, and with his irresistible black humour points to a New Apartheid taking over – one where the South African government’s lack of leadership on health issues is leaving a young generation vulnerable to a virus without a cure. “Once upon a time, not so long ago, we had an apartheid regime in South Africa that killed people. Now we have a democratic government that just lets them die!” He believes that he can help to prevent South Africa’s teenagers from joining the ranks of the estimated 5.5 million citizens infected with the virus and has already brought his show to 1.4 million students. When the filmmaker Julian Shaw interviews the young people it becomes evident through their reactions, what a powerful effect Pieter-Dirk Uys’ charismatic and rousing performance is having on his audience.
Woven into the documentary is a glimpse of Uys’ private life, exploring the intense pressures he had to face within his own Afrikaans/Jewish family. He offers frank reflections on his past and present, once flippantly observing “I belong to both the Chosen People”. A happy laugh-out-loud sequence involves the good-humoured Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Another celebrity, Nelson Mandela, the nation’s hero, makes a memorable appearance too. These luminaries consider Pieter-Dirk Uys’ work important to the ongoing transformation of South African society and consider him their friend. With Darling! the 21-year old director received one of the three top prizes for documentary films at the Berlin Film Festival