When vi­sion meets generosity of spirit

The Whale Caller makes a splash at South African cin­e­mas to­day, so Helen Her­imbi caught up with di­rec­tor Zola Maseko

Cape Argus - - Tonight -

ZOLA Maseko pe­ruses the Pan African Lit­er­a­ture sec­tion of a pop­u­lar chain book store. The well-known di­rec­tor is look­ing for Pumla Gqola’s ex­per­i­men­tal au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal es­says col­lec­tion, Re­flect­ing Rogue. Be­fore he can find it, some­thing else catches his eye. “Hey,” he stops to ex­claim. “Just look at that.” He grabs the book and shows it to me. It’s a promo pic­ture of Sello Maake Ka-Ncube and Am­rain Is­mail-Es­sop on the cover of Zakes Mda’s The Whale

Caller. Now a ma­jor mo­tion pic­ture is the text run­ning across the top of the book.

On the day I am to in­ter­view the pro­ducer and di­rec­tor of The Whale

Caller, which opens at South African cin­e­mas to­day, the restau­rant we’d agreed to meet at was closed and so, be­ing early, Maseko de­cided to find Gqola’s book while he waited for me.

It’s cos­mic (and hope­fully un­planned) that we come across a ver­sion of Mda’s 2006 novel that now bears a cover of Maseko’s new­est film.

“I saw it on a tweet but this is the first time I ac­tu­ally see a phys­i­cal cover of it,” he says.

Then he smiles: “I wasn’t ex­pect­ing that.”

There was a tight-knit re­la­tion­ship be­tween Maseko and Mda – who is also the screen­play writer.

“It was a unique and very spe­cial re­la­tion­ship be­cause I have read a lot about writ­ers adapt­ing their own books for the screen and it’s usu­ally a very trau­matic ex­er­cise for the writer be­cause they get very de­fen­sive and pro­tec­tive of their story and don’t un­der­stand the film,” Maseko said.

“Zakes was com­pletely dif­fer­ent. He un­der­stands film and un­der­stood that these are two dif­fer­ent medi­ums. He said to me: ‘I can’t lose. If you make a bad adap­ta­tion of my book, then the au­di­ence is go­ing to say Zola Maseko made a bad adap­ta­tion of a good Zakes

Mda novel. If you make a good film, then peo­ple are go­ing to say Zola Maseko made a good adap­ta­tion of a good Zakes Mda book. So I can’t lose.’ That was very gen­er­ous of him.”

And here’s a spoiler alert. As Maseko said: “The first thing I said to him was I am chang­ing the end­ing. He was like: ‘you know what? Any­thing you want. This is your vi­sion’. His generosity blew me away.”

The Whale Caller is about a boy who dis­cov­ers that he can com­mu­ni­cate with a South­ern Right whale through the blow­ing of his kelp horn. He falls in love with this whale, which he names Shar­isha, and this is the cause of great con­flict be­tween the whale caller (he has no name in the story) and his even­tual lover, Saluni.

The whale caller is played by Maake Ka-Ncube who, as Maseko says, didn’t have to au­di­tion be­cause Maseko had him in mind the en­tire time he read this book.

Saluni is played by Is­mail-Es­sop. Over 19 days, they filmed on lo­ca­tion in Hermanus and the re­sult is a mag­i­cal re­al­ism movie that could have done with bet­ter CGI.

Maseko is not im­mune to crit­i­cism of the film. In fact, dur­ing the in­ter­view, he points out some of it and seems to un­der­stand the cri­tique.

He ex­plains: “When (the whale caller’s) par­ents died, he felt aban­doned. Peo­ple don’t un­der­stand death and take it to be the greatest de­ser­tion.

“As a child, he felt de­fence­less against the death of his par­ents. So he fell in love with the whale be­cause he wanted some­thing cer­tain in his life. He says: ‘whales al­ways come back, just like clock­work’. So he doesn’t want to be vul­ner­a­ble to be­ing in love. That’s why he had no con­nec­tion with hu­man be­ings.

“Some­one com­mented that there was no syn­ergy or chem­istry be­tween Sello and Am­rain. It was said as a crit­i­cism that they were mis­cast. I think the per­son who said it ex­pected that in films, you must see why the love in­ter­est could fall in love with him.

“If you un­der­stand the whale caller’s back­ground – this is a man who is mis­an­thropic and has no hu­man re­la­tion­ships – that man is go­ing to be awk­ward in any so­cial cir­cum­stances. That’s why there’s no chem­istry be­tween them. Saluni is a lovechild, a gypsy al­most. And he is the com­plete op­po­site.”

Maseko read the book when it was pub­lished a decade ago. He was in­stantly en­am­oured and con­tacted Mda.

With Mda be­ing a revered au­thor, his fans may ex­pect the film to follow the book closely. But Maseko has news for them.

“Books and films are two dif­fer­ent medi­ums,” he says.

“Books take place in the mind and each in­di­vid­ual forms their own pic­ture based on what they read. A film is more direct in the sense that it is vis­ual. When­ever I adapt a story, the first thing that gets me is: can I trans­late what I have read, vis­ually?”

● The Whale Caller opens at cin­e­mas to­day.

The Whale Caller, above and right, is played by Sello Maake Ka-Ncube, and his lover Saluni, right and bot­tom right, by Am­rain Is­mail-Es­sop.

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