Courtesy of an invitation by the press agents of Senator Film I met for an interview with Oliver Schmitz, the director of Life, Above All, at the Hyatt Hotel Hamburg. Here is an excerpt of my conversation:
Birgit Schrumpf: You are South-African born but now live and work in Germany where you have been very successful with your TV series Türkisch für Anfänger (Turkish for beginners) and Doctor’s Diary for which you received numerous awards. What gave you the idea for an African film set in Africa, acted by Africans only?
Oliver Schmitz: The book Chanda’s Secret by Allan Stratton was sent to me by the producer Oliver Stoltz who knew that I was looking for an African theme. We have similar likes and wanted to do something with meaning and content. I wanted to tell a story of substance on a qualitatively high level – not the Western image of it. I liked the story told from the child’s perspective, showing the courageous fight for her mother, concentrating on the mother-daughter relationship.
BS: How realistic is the story of Chanda, a child who is taking responsibility for her sick mother and smaller siblings? Did you ever encounter any such situation personally?
OS: Oh, yes. Whilst filming we met a 14-year old caring for her siblings already for the last four years after her mother had died of AIDS. Only occasionally a neighbour helped out with some food. Unfortunately, it is a fact that there is an increasing number of so-called AIDS orphans left to their own devices. They are stigmatized and often shunned by their own families. It was not AIDS that I intended to high-light in my film but to show that the courage of an unprejudiced, caring and educated young girl can make a difference in her society, that attitudes can be changed.
BS: Was it difficult to receive permission for this film to be realised in South Africa as you are handling a theme that is treated as a taboo in large parts of the country? How did the African crew react to it as they must surely have known the story?
OS: It was no problem to receive permission from the local authorities to film on location in Elandsdoorn, north of Johannesburg. We had chosen a small town community rather than a slum area around any big city. Everyone involved was enthusiastic and extremely helpful. But apart from the main actors, not all the crew and extras on set knew the details of the script.
BS: After an overwhelmingly positive reaction at the Cannes Film Festival, has the film been shown in South Africa?
OS: Not yet, except at this year’s Durban International Film Festival where it was awarded Best Feature Film and Best Actress for the girl Khomotso Manyaka. We are awaiting the outcome of the Best Foreign Film Oscar® nominations as it has been awarded Best South African Feature Film.
BS: Where were you born and how long have you lived in Germany?
OS: I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, where I received my BA in Fine Arts. I worked for the WDR in Germany in 1985/1986 but returned to South Africa for my debut film Mapantsula in 1987 which showed in Cannes in the section “Un Certain Regard” receiving numerous rewards. After that I travelled to various festivals around the world. For the last nine years I have lived in Berlin and was very busy with TV work.
BS: You were brought up by German parents, educated in an Afrikaans school, studied in English and work with German television. Are you not torn between Germany and South Africa?
OS: Not at all. I don’t feel this is a conflicting situation as I am comfortable in both worlds. I consider it an advantage to be brought up bilingually. It broadens your horizon.
BS: What are your future plans?
OS: At present I am working on Russendisko a film based on Wladimir Kaminer’s bestselling novel set in Berlin. It is due to be released in 2011.
After our interview I presented Oliver Schmitz with an issue of our last year’s edition of the Filmfest Hamburg 2009 and the Berlinale 2010 copy. He said that his wife would be very thrilled to read our magazine in English as her German is not very fluent.