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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Presenting his film 'Goodbye Bafana' at the International Haifa Film Festival, Oscar-winning director Bille August speaks to 'The Jerusalem Post' about respecting reality in the filmmaking medium.
It's not easy to impress a director who's won an Oscar (for Pelle the Conqueror) or the Palme d'Or at Cannes - twice - (for Pelle and The Best Intentions), but when Bille August talks about getting a message from Nelson Mandela, his face lights up.
The Danish filmmaker was in contact with the former South African president in connection with his latest film, Goodbye Bafana, which just had its Israeli premiere at the 23rd International Haifa Film Festival. He was in Israel last week with his family, both to present the film and to serve as chairman of the Israeli Feature Film and Drama Competition at the festival.
Goodbye Bafana, which stars Joseph Fiennes and Dennis Haysbert, is based on the memoirs of James Gregory, a guard at South Africa's notorious prison on Robben Island who was in charge of Mandela for most of the time Mandela was imprisoned there. Gregory's contact with the future president changed his life, as he began to question the legitimacy of the system of apartheid it was his job to uphold.
"I wrote a letter to Mandela before we started," says August. "I was told he never says no, he is so against censorship of any kind. What we heard back from Mandela was that we should 'respect reality' and not invent important moments that never happened."
August was immediately touched when he read the opening pages of a screenplay based on Gregory's book, because, "Gregory was a simple man, just trying to take care of his family...But through his story with Mandela, he becomes living proof of human beings' ability to transform themselves." Reading the entire screenplay, "my instincts told me that it is a story for the screen." He always saw it as a feature film rather than a documentary, though he kept Mandela's "respect reality" request in mind as he designed a structure that would work cinematically.
To prepare for making the film, August spent about half a year in South Africa, reading about apartheid and interviewing former prisoners and guards. Through this research, he came to understand that "Mandela was central to James Gregory's life, but Mandela was so busy thinking about how to create democracy in South Africa, that Gregory did not mean so much to him."
He also realized that though the end of apartheid in South Africa and Mandela's release and election to the presidency belong to recent history, many young people are unaware of who Mandela is. "There was a poll and some young kids thought Mandela was an American rap singer," August says. He knew the film would be an opportunity to teach people about this period, but that it would work "only if you can make the audience connect emotionally with the characters."
For August, this meant setting up a situation where "the leading characters are brought to a point of no return...they're much more vulnerable if you bring them to the state where they're like a newborn." This was how he approached his most famous film, Pelle the Conqueror, which tells the story of a Swedish widower (played by Max von Sydow) and his son, who immigrate to Denmark in search of a better life that proves elusive.
After the international success of Pelle, August has alternated between making smaller-scale films and much larger, Hollywood-scale international productions such as The House of the Spirits, based on a novel by Isabel Allende that starred Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder and Jeremy Irons. The biggest difference between these two types of productions, says August, "is the size of the trailer and the size of the crew...With 120 people working, it's like a big circus. You really need to know what you want because there's no flexibility."
In addition to all his awards, a distinction August holds that is even more prestigious in the eyes of many cinema lovers is the fact that he is one of a handful of filmmakers whom the late Ingmar Bergman allowed to direct one of his scripts. August filmed Bergman's autobiographical screenplay, The Best Intentions, based on Bergman's childhood memories of growing up feeling torn between his stern, clergyman father and his more free-spirited mother. Mourning the loss of his collaborator-turned-friend, August recalls that, "I could always call him. When you have to make big choices, you need to speak to someone you trust completely, and for me, that was him."
Currently, August is at work on a film about the explosion of a munitions ship off the coast of Halifax that killed nearly 4,000 people in World War I. It's the background of the novel he is adapting, Burden of Desire by Robert MacNeil. At the interview, he is holding printouts from the Internet Movie Data Base that he is studying to help him cast the film, but won't reveal which actors he is considering. Like his other work, this story mixes the personal and the political.
"Basically, it's an anti-war story...What film can do, like no other art form and no politician, is to go into the soul or heart of a given situation and illuminate the relationship among human beings and also their relationship to their country and their culture," says August.