Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Arriving on set was a blast. Everywhere I looked I saw the characters from Chanda's Secrets come to life. In all cases, their spirit was what I'd imagined. In other cases, the actors even looked as I'd pictured them. I'll leave those of you who know the book to tell me which actors you think most closely match their characters. (I'd really love to hear your impressions.)

But first, here's the director, Oliver Schmitz, an ex-pat South African living in Germany. (He fled to avoid the apartheid draft.) He's well-known in Germany and has shown frequently at Cannes, but is perhaps best known here for being part of the director's collective (including the Coen Brothers, Sam Rami et al) that did Paris je t'aime. I first met Oliver several years ago in Berlin on a reading tour for Chanda's Wars. He struck me then as absolutely straightforward, committed, sensitive, and intelligent. (My thought at the time: And he works in film???)

Oliver laughs that he and his crew started the shoot discussing technical matters in German. But unfortunately, German sounds like German. As a result, the entire cast thought they were constantly angry. At them. So Oliver banned German from the set and everyone now speaks English which most people, whose native dialects are Tswana, Pedi, Ndebele and Africaans, can understand.

Okay, then. to the actors. For those of you who don't know the book, the key thing to remember is that it's about the love of family, the fear of stigma, the pain of bereavement and the courage to live with truth. Lillian, Chanda's mom, develops HIV/AIDS, and Chanda is left to raise her little brother and sister. So the chemistry between them is vital. Here's a candid shot of Chanda (Khomotso Manyake) and her mama (Lizzie Soeketa). Did I mention chemistry?

And let's not forget little Iris and Soly. Iris is a bit of a brat who bosses her younger brother, Soly, a shy, vulnerable little bedwetter. When I first took this shot, Iris (Mapaseka Matheba) kept jumping up and down to see it on my camera screen. She screamed with delight and began kneading my arm. I'm told we're some of the first white people she's ever met, and the only ones she's been able to touch. For his part, Soly just grinned shyly and pointed at himself on the screen. Did I mention Iris has gold earrings that she plays with, and that Soly's front teeth have just come in? Too adorable.

In fact, Soly and Iris are so adorable I think they deserve another picture. Whadeya say? This one is of the kids at quiet play in the background of the scene where Chanda goes to ask Mrs. Tafa for her phone.

The last of the young people is Esther (Keaobaka Manyane). Esther is Chanda's best friend. She's lost her parents to HIV/AIDS and her brothers and sisters have been scattered among her aunties and uncles. Esther turns to the street to try and earn the money to get them back. She is raped and beaten and goes to Chanda, who takes her in.

I'd pictured an Esther about fifteen or sixteen whose loss has turned her self-destructive. Some ofn that would have been hard to capture on film, given the time limits on dealing with Esther's story. Casting her younger maintains the tragedy while focusing on the dream-denial kids have about the risks they take. Although Esther's rape and beating take place off screen. I imagine this will be a very hard scene to watch. Which is as it should be.

I know I haven't shown the adults yet , other than Mama -- I mean, where's Mrs. Tafe, Jonah, and the Lesoles? I hear you complain -- nor included any back of set material. Forgive me. It's just I'm terrified my photos won't load -- it's taken over half an hour already for these, and I think I should quit while I'm ahead. (Did I mention the Internet is slow here in rural south Africa?

But here's a sneak preview from the next blog: Oliver off to give notes during a break between takes of today's harrowing scene in which Jonah, dying of HIV/AIDS is dumped outside Chanda's home by his sister and brother-in-law.

OMG! Stay tuned.

P.S. If you want updates to get to you immediately as they come out, just press the little do-hickey either under this post or at the end of the blog. And if you think the blog's fun, please pass it along, especially to anyone who knows Chanda.

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. wow. this sounds incredible.

  2. Amazing photos, Allan! I've blogged about your blog (hmmm, is that meta-blogging?) over on the Annick blog (http://bit.ly/5v1Cw8). Looking forward to more updates and pictures!

  3. Erin, coming from you that is quite a compliment. Thanks!

    And Joanna, thanks for blogging about my blog! I'll chck yours out. tomorrow four interviews with S.A., German and French media, plus they're shooting Chanda's return rom Tiro with her mama. (Sob.) Then I play hooky Thursday to go on a day photographic safari.

  4. i just got done reading this book and it is amazing were could i watch this film