Friday, December 11, 2009


Deciding to shoot Chanda’s Secrets on location was a gutsy move by the producers. Take financing. Even though South Africa is a relatively stable and prosperous country, the word ‘Africa’ makes bankers twitch: They don’t seem to understand that Africa is a continent, like Europe and North America, and that countries within the continent can be doing just fine, thank you very much.

But shooting a film in rural SubSahara has other headaches besides financing. There are electrical outages. Heat and dirt can gum up cameras, monitors, cables and mikes. And getting consistent outdoor light in rainy season is a trick and a half.

Plus, while most exterior on-location shoots have complications with traffic noise, I don’t know of too many others that have to deal with Spirit Doctor Schools. There's one around the block from Chanda’s house. It's not like anyone's been threatened with a spell or anything, but the drumming can be a problem. Especially when it kicks in during a quiet, intense scene like Mama's return from Tiro.

Still, who can resist the countryside at the top of this post? Or imagine a more authentic contrast between Chanda’s place and that of her wealthy neighbour, Mrs. Tafa, than the real-life homes below?

Here, by the way, is Mama’s bedroom before she leaves for Tiro. (A real room worked on by the art department.)

And here’s Chanda’s school. (The school’s real-life principal, shown here, is the only person around right now, aside from the cleaning staff. In South Africa, students are on summer break during December.)

You’ll recall that in Chanda’s Secrets, Esther and her brother and sisters were split up after their parents died. Esther was forced to live in a shed on the property of a very strict auntie and uncle. Here it is in real life, and as you'll see it on screen:

Below is the local cemetery where Mrs. Tafa's son and Chanda's little sister are buried. It goes on forever, even though Elandsdoorn is a village of only a few thousand people. (The current HIV/AIDS infection rate is 40%, Yes, 40%. That’s one of the reasons that everyone involved in the production, especially local extras and crew, are so committed.)

And here are the ruins in the country where Chanda goes in search of her mother.

Chanda can’t find her anywhere. Then she sees the tree. I don’t know how to describe it, but when I was at this ruins, I was filled with a sense of the otherworldly. It’s a holy place. You can feel it in the film, too.

I'm told that in the countryside around here, people buried their relations under a tree close by so they could live with the spirits of their ancestors. I can’t help but feel the pain of the last family members who disappeared, and of their dear departed left behind.

* * *
If you've read Chanda's Secrets, you'll know that many of the locations shown above are a little different than the way they’re described in the novel. (You can see the difference in the grave sites, for instance, by going to my website,, and clicking Photo Gallery next to Chanda’s Secrets.) The reason is simple: The film is being made in and around Elandsdoorn and the nearby town of Groblersdal, South Africa, whereas my novel is a fictionalized version of Francistown, Botswana.

Yet no matter how different the specifics, I think the locations are a perfect match for the spirit and imaginative space of the novel. They hold a truth that no constructed set could possibly manage. That’s why the producer's decision to shoot this film on location in SubSahara, no matter how problematic, was so utterly right. The honesty and authenticity of it all leaps off the monitors and daily rushes.

There are so many other locations: the shabeen (local pub), the dam, the herbal doctor's place, the truck stop where Esther works (in the novel, Hooker Park), the evangelical church, but I hope these give you a flavour of things. In the near future, I’ll be blogging about how Chanda’s Secrets came to be transformed from novel to film. I’ll talk about my meetings with the Olivers: producer Oliver Stoltz in Toronto and Berlin, and director Oliver Schmitz in Berlin. I’ll also be going into the bush with you on safari! For now, I leave you with some happy ducks at the side of the road.

UPDATE: The film adaptation of CHANDA'S SECRETS is called LIFE, ABOVE ALL and will premiere as an Official Selection at the 2010 Cannes International Film Festival.


  1. i am mesmerized by this experience.
    thank you for sharing so much of it with your readers!

  2. Erin, hi --
    I'm having fun writing this. And so glad you enjoy it. Please pass on the word! (The same for anyone else out there who's enjoying it.) It's certainly fun to write. :)

  3. Love it! I will start using Chanda's Secrets in the coming semester and have the students follow the blog about the making of the film. reminds me a bit of Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis. Wow! What a truly amazing experience you are having - what important work you are doing! Hats off to you!

  4. Great stuff Allan. I check it each day!

  5. Man, that first photo could be the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan. Well, not today, it being -38 and all...