Tuesday, December 29, 2009


This is Oliver Stoltz, producer of the film version of Chanda's Secrets. Unfortunately, he had a serious stomach ailment during the first phase of the shoot when I was in South Africa, so this photo is taken from his website. (Oliver, you're way more attractive in person! Get a new photo!:))

I first met Oliver in 2005, when he was in Toronto promoting his Emmy-nominated documentary Lost Children, about child soldiers, at the documentary film festival Hot Docs. (It also won the German Oscar for Best documentary, and a host of other international awards.) I contacted Oliver as a research lead for my then-upcoming novel Chanda’s Wars. Oliver had first-hand experience with former child soldiers, having filmed in Uganda’s Gulu and Padr provinces, barely escaping attacks from the Lord’s Resistance Army. (He's WAY braver than me. Also a little crazy. 'Ask my mother,' he says.)

Despite his hectic schedule, Oliver took time to meet me twice and had me as his guest at the screening. I gave him a copy of Chanda’s Secrets and we said so long. A little later, I was in Germany doing a reading tour for my German publisher, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, and Oliver and I reconnected in Berlin. He still had that rumpled just-rolled-out-of-bed look -- which I had first thought was because of all the press he was doing for Lost Children, but turns out to be just the way he looks.

(BTW: Here's the German cover of Chanda's Secrets. They titled it "Things We Don't Mention" in German. Apparently it's an expression used in Germany to refer to WWII; the publisher thought it would resonate with the German audience, and communicate the hush-hush nature of Chanda's struggle.)

Oliver told me how much he loved Chanda, and that he hoped to film the book in an international co-production with his German film company Dreamer Joint Venture Productions. On my next reading tour for dtv, this time for the German edition of Chanda's Wars (Chandas Krieg), Oliver introduced me to director Oliver Schmitz. Those of you follow this blog will know him already, but to newcomers, here's a shot of Oliver at work with Chanda and Mama:

And here, BTW, is the cover of the German edition of Chanda's Wars I was promoting:

Schmitz is an expatriate South African whose work has shown at Cannes and been well-received throughout Europe and Africa. (He was part of the directing collective with the Coen Brothers on Paris je t’aime.)

The commitment of both Olivers to my work, and their personal familiarity with the world and life of the novel, gave me utter confidence. I was also pleased that they took my suggestion of screenwriter -- the wonderful Dennis Foon. I gave them the contact info for the publisher, Annick Press, a deal was negotiated with Annick's film representative, and Oliver (Stoltz) went and got financing and a distributor. (He's co-producing with South Africa's Enigma Pictures; Bavarian International is the distributor.)

I have been treated so well. The Olivers and Dennis listened carefully to my notes on the adaptation -- something rare and to be treasured in the world of filmmaking. Maybe I'll chat about a few of the differences between book and film at a later date -- but all of the slight changes make sense in terms of film and completely adhere to the vision and story of the novel.

Next time, some candid shots around Elandsdoorn. Then home!



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.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


In an earlier post, I mentioned that a staggering 40% of the population in the area where Chanda's Secrets is being filmed tests positive for HIV/AIDS. Indeed, you hardly see anyone over fifty. As a result, the local HIV/AIDS committee has posted the following safer sex billboards along the highway. They're the only billboards you see, and star a male condom called "Dickie" and a female condom called "Fanny". Not exactly Disney, but they get the point across.

Pope Benedict, as you know, forbade the use of condoms in his recent trip to Africa. He maintains that the only approach to combatting the spread of HIV/ AIDS is sexual abstinence ("loving celibacy") or fidelity within marriage. Well, decades of global sex scandals have shown that abstinence doesn’t even work for the priesthood. And given a 20 - 40% infection rate in areas of SubSahara, you can be faithful in marriage and, depending on whom you marry, still have a 20 - 40% chance getting the virus. (Incidentally, Benedict has even forbidden the use of condoms in marriages where one of the couple has HIV/AIDS. )

"Why doesn't everyone in Africa just get tested?" people ask me. I tell them to picture a married couple in the West sitting down at the breakfast table. One says, 'Uh, honey, why don't we get tested for AIDS?" Can you imagine the rest of the conversation? As for individual testing, I lived in New York in the early eighties when the virus was rampant. I was terrified I might be infected, but I didn't get tested. Why? Because there were no drugs or treatments available. Far better, it seemed, to live in hope, however false it might be. It's the same reason people didn't get lumps checked in the days when cancer was a death sentence. And that's why it's so important to get cheap, generic anti-retroviral drugs available immediately. Including the combination drugs that make compliance easier.

Two questions, and I promise to get off my political hobby horse, and back to the more fun Chanda film posts:

1) If 20% - 40% of Canadian, American and other Western populations were infected with HIV/AIDS, how long before our governments would demand that multi-national drug companies provide generic medications? One second? Two?

2) So why don't we make the same demand when the affected continent is Africa?

I leave you with a photograph of some of the 3,500 AIDS orphans who live in this small rural area. They've come to the Elandsdoorn stadium for a concert and Christmas party. Fear and stigma is still so bad that few will acknowledge the real reason their family and friends are dying. May they live in our thoughts and prayers. Till next time --



Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Santa rules at the Shoprite in Elandsdoorn, South Africa. Outside? Not so much. Today it's over 30 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit). Out back, a few 'kids' decide to open their Christmas presents early.

As you can see, today I’m taking a break from the longer “Chanda film” and safari posts. After Boxing Day, I'll be posting on the safer sex campaign being done on billboards around the town. Then back to the film for stuff about the producer, Oliver Stolz and some final candid shots on set.

Happy holidays,


Sunday, December 20, 2009


Normally you don’t even see this much of a hippo. You just see the tips of the ears and snout. Also, normally, you’ll see hippos in family pods of five or more. Clearly, this loner is socially dyslexic. Within minutes, he went from watching us to warning us. Check out the jaw and spray.

Hippos can crush a crocodile in their jaws. Curiously, this explains their co-existence. The hippos don’t mind the crocs, and the crocs... well they’re fairly lazy and disgusting. If they haven’t nabbed something at the water’s edge, they’ll happily lie underwater by the hippos rump and eat, well... Gives a whole new meaning to “Day Old”.

Anyway, we were fairly far back, so we didn’t feel too threatened. This pissed off our friend who decided to impress us with the following:

For more on hippos, the meaning of ‘hippo highways’ and other bush curiosities, check out the last half of Chanda’s Wars, in which Chanda and Nelson, a young tracker, go into the bush to rescue Chanda’s young brother and sister, who’ve been kidnapped by a warlord to become child soldiers.

In the meantime, let’s see a few more of the animals I promised in the last post. Here’s a warthog.

Lions generally avoid people. But when I was in Botswana seven years ago, a lion leapt into our encampment and took down a grazing warthog. It dragged it to the edge of the compound and dispatched it. (BTW, lions tend not to kill by ripping and tearing with their teeth. Instead, they choke their victims with a heavy paw pressed down on the victim’s neck. Check out the jungle in your little kitty cat when it rests its paw over your arm.)

How about something colourful? The yellow horn bill. When it gives birth, the female moults its feathers to make a nest in a tree hole. The male seals the female and chicks inside with a mud covering, leaving only a small hole through which he slips food to feed the brood. When the babies are able to fly, Mom grows back her feathers, pecks away the mud seal, and re-emerges into the world.

As the sun went down, the animals moved toward the river to drink. Here’s a water buck, a cousin of the impala antelope. Not nearly so cute, but much more less plentiful. Luckily for the water buck, it’s not a popular game animal. It has adrenalin glands running all over the place; if it’s panicked by a hunter, the secretions make its meat taste foul.

Dusk brought us to a herd of water buffalo.

But let's leave this safari in daylight, with one of my favourite animals: The giraffe.

Hey, take another bough.

In Chanda’s Wars, Mrs. Tafa makes the case for hunting -- an understandable position from her point of view, though not my own. But what I truly find appalling is that so-called ‘hunters’ can go to private game farms and shoot these magnificent animals while they are tethered to a post. They even ‘hunt’ endangered species like rhino. (I gather a rhino kill can be bought for $20,000 in South Africa, with the horn fetching massive amounts in non-African countries practicing traditional medicine.) Let’s close with another look at what future generations may lose.

BTW, I’ll be doing a short Christmas-in-Elandsdoorn post later this week, then a post on the pandemic here, one on producer Oliver Stolz, then back to the Chanda’s Secrets set, and all all the people and things you never see on the movie screen, but without which movies would never be made. That’ll bring us into the New Year and a whole new batch of stuff.

Oh, and I haven't forgotten about the hyena-scat-and-19th-century-missionary factoid I promised. But I'm a bit tired.Later, I promise.

Till Thursday,


Thursday, December 17, 2009


There’s a national park twenty minutes from my country cottage here in Elandsdoorn, South Africa, where I've been on location for the film shoot of my novel Chanda's Secrets. The owner and his son-in-law were kind enough to take me. They reminded me of the bush guides who taught me about tracking when I was in SubSahara researching Chanda’s Wars: Instead of looking at the bush, they see through it.

I’d seen all the Big Five except rhino when I was in Bostwana, Malawi and Zambia researching both Chanda books. So you can imagine my excitement when I saw a rhino in the bush to the right of me, and it decided to stoll out into plain view. And my further excitement when it turned sideways and blocked the road.

The rhino stayed like that for a few minutes. As it turns out, he wasn’t posing for me. Or threatening me. Check out his tail. Yup. A bathroom break. Within minutes, his ten-pound contribution to global warming was swarming with dung beetles: nature’s cleanup crew. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

After they’ve worked the dung into balls, the beetles move it to nests just under the ground where they lay their eggs. The dung provides insulation and food for their little ones. Ah The Circle of Life. I can almost hear Elton John.

BTW, there are cattle around the farm where I’m staying. I’m told that some days the dung beetles are so busy, it looks like the entire field is moving.

Anyway, having looked to the ground to be careful where to step, let’s look up. It’s an incredible feeling to be moving slowly through the bush and to suddenly spot a little guy like this looking down from a tree.

How about a closeup?

Monkeys are cute, but if you leave anything lying around, they’ll snach it. Even salt shakers! No fear of people at all. Equally cute, but hot-wired for fear are antelope. There are so many species bounding about that it’s hard not to get jaded. (Oh, another antelope, ho hum.) Still, who wouldn’t go Ahhh at the sight of these impala? They’re Bambi times ten.

During the heat of the day, impala, like other animals, like to stay in the shade. Who wouldn’t? I’m afraid Dad, here, isn’t so keen on the attention.

Impala like to graze under trees housing baboons. The baboons sit up high and break off leaves the impala couldn’t reach. From their height, the baboons can spot and smell predators from great distances. When they do, they howl like crazy, giving the impala a head start in its race for life.

Note the “M” marking on the impala’s behind. (Black tail and lines on haunches.) Everything eats impala. Because of the ‘M’ it’s known as The McDonald’s of the Bush.

We stopped for lunch. Butterflies everywhere.

None of us have any idea what this is -- even my host who’s lived with the bush for forty-four years. Whatever, it sure looks cool.

It takes eight minutes to upload a photo over here, so I’m going to break my safari into two sections. Next time -- giraffe, a yellow horntail, water buffalo, water buck, warthog, and a grumpy hippo. Hippos kill more people than any other animal in the bush -- even lions. You’ll see it leap out of the water, and understand why Chanda and Nelson feared it in Chanda’s Wars. Till then,



Tuesday, December 15, 2009


It's lunch break, and the Three Musketeers, aka Iris, Esther and Soly, are enjoying the time off in pink bathrobes. Barbecue sauce and ice cream have a habit of ending up on costumes. Wardrobe thinks of everything!

Meanwhile, Martin Hamer stands on the road outside Chanda’s house:

Martin is a little bit crazy. Well, a lot crazy. If he weren’t so tall he’d be an elf. If he weren’t so young he’d be Gandulf. The lunatic gleam in his eye is because he’s the line producer. That means he’s responsible for budgeting; in other words, he’s guy who tells the director what he can and can’t afford to do. He negotiates salaries (“If you pay actor X this salary, you can’t afford to hire Y”); has a say in script development (“No we can’t fly a plane into a volcano”); and is involved with assessing the costs of various locations. If you ever want to lose weight be a line producer: The job is a guaranteed stress diet.

BTW, see the empty road Martin is standing in? Well this road looks almost exactly the same as the road immediately behind Chanda’s house where the makeup and wardrobe tents and trucks, drivers cars, and dressing rooms all hang out. Notice a difference?

And here are the back neighbours' yards, rented to production:

Lost in this city of trucks is the catering tent. I’m standing behind Mr. Nylo the ragpicker (Vusimuzi Nyathi). Note the zombie look on Mr. Lesole (Tshepo Monyanye) to my left. “Eat. Must eat.”

Here’s one of the coolest and funniest guys on the production: Donovan Roberts-Baxter, the unit production manager. The production manager is in charge of organizing calls, locations, cast and equipment, and fixing screwups. He’s a combination Enforcer and Den Mother.

You may have noticed Donovan’s left arm: it’s the leg of a massive dragon that goes over his shoulder and across his chest. He also has a major tattoo of his name across his stomach. Presumably this is in case he forgets it after a late night party. (He’s from Cape Town, after all.) He won’t flash the stomach tattoo at the moment -- unless he’s done a hundred sit-ups first -- on account of “all the excellent catering that’s been going on.”

Donovan says his current tattoos are just the beginning: he plans to have his ENTIRE body tattooed. “Your ENTIRE body?” “Yeah.” (Hmm. I wondered about that too.) He’s leaving his hands and face, though, so his mother will recognize him. If anyone can carry off a full-body tattoo, he can. All the same -- Shout-out to Donovan: So maybe your plan’s not a crime against nature, like spray painting graffiti on a Michaelangelo. But if I looked like you I wouldn’t want people focussed on my tattoos! (Do I have a seconder? :))

Back to the tour. There’s a crowd of extras gathering in front of Chanda’s front door. This scene took eight hours to shoot and is unbelievably moving. I’m talking tears for days. Between takes, one of the catering guys was always around with sandwiches.

Director Oliver Schmitz has a bite while the crew set up for a tracking shot on Chanda’s porch.

Take a close look at this photo. In the background, Chanda’s makeup is touched up. In the foreground, the director of photography, Bernhard Jasper, sits on the track; the camera will move parallel Chanda as she walks out of the house. You’ll also notice Blid Alsbirk from the neck down -- she’s the stills photographer from the distributor, Bavarian International. And to the left are some of the extras who will confront Chanda.

Continuity is one of the most important jobs in any film. The fantastic continuity and script supervisor is Lorna Bennet. She’s responsible for making sure everyone, especially the extras, are in the exact same position, with the same accessories, in every take. Some scenes can have up to seventeen shots with five to seven takes per shot. Making sure everything matches in the editing room is critical.

(Behind Lorna is producer Oliver Stoltz’s assistant, Daniela Ramin. I want to do an entire post on Oliver, who is the reason this movie is being made. Unfortunately, he’s recovering from a nasty stomach problem which has laid him up in Germany. But he'll soon be good to go and joining the shoot.)

What makes Lorna’s continuity work so challenging is that the script is being shot in the language of Pedi (or northern Sotho) -- a world first. So being able to match word and image is incredibly hard. There are two translators on set. Each shot has quick file subtitles that go to the editors in Germany. Unlike movie-house subtitles which pare down the dialogue, these must include every word, frame by frame, so the editors don't cut dialogue in mid word or sentence. Lorna is astonishing for knowing when the actors leave out dialogue or fluff lines. She also uses a digital camera and monitor to double check crowd positions between takes.

Here’s an example of the kind of book Lorna creates, shot by shot, take by take, for the editors; it includes which takes had sound, line or other problems, which were ideal, and which have sections that can be salvaged with a cross cut.

Lorna and others need to sit away from the action. Here she and Freddy are posted at the back of Chanda’s house, observing a scene at Mrs. Tafa’s place on a monitor.

And here’s the audio mixer, Ivan Milborrow, with a take about to begin, fretting about cars, kids, drums, roosters and airplanes -- any outside sound that can wreck a take.

It’s never ending. Sixty crew plus catering security and cast. And I haven’t even mentioned the casting director, transport managers, set captains, drivers, camera assistants, production director, art director, set decorators, wardrobe, makeup and props personel, stunt co-ordinators, editors, or post-production, much less the producers! Even organizing a shoot for an intimate family drama like Chanda’s Secrets is staggering in its complexity.

So staggering, I think we all need a break. Next post, let’s go on safari!

Till then,


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.

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, www.allanstratton.com, 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.