Coetzee classic on big screen
Award-winning Australian couple steer new film
PROLIFIC South African author JM Coetzee’s awardwinning literary masterwork Disgrace is now immortalised on the big screen in an exceptional artistic adaptation by Australian husband and wife team director Steve Jacobs and screenwriter Anna-Maria Monticelli.
Disgrace is a poignantly poetic interpretation of Nobel laureate Coetzee’s Man Booker Prize winning novel, bringing the arid landscape of post-apartheid South Africa vividly to life.
Revealing a malevolent face of the new South Africa, the novel sparked controversy when it was published in 1999. At the time the African National Congress submission to an investigation into racism in the media by the South African Human Rights Commission named Disgrace as a novel exploiting racist stereotypes.
It tells of a Cape Town professor of romantic poetry (John Malkovich), who is disgraced when he has an affair with a coloured student (Antoinette Engel) and is compelled to move to his lesbian daughter Lucy’s (Jessica Haines) remote farm.
Although they rarely see eye to eye, the tentative emotional truce between father and daughter soon gives way to a more peaceful rural life … until it is ripped apart by a traumatic and violent attack which forces them both to re-evaluate their beliefs.
For Morocco-born Monticelli, who regards the novel as “extraordinary, brave and real”, it has always been a dream to make a film in Africa, and read widely among African writers.
Her response to Disgrace was “organic and immediate” and she challenged herself to adapt it into a script, no small task, given the calibre of the original material.
“Obviously Mr Coetzee had to approve the script. I was fortunate in that he liked the adaptation,” says Monticelli.
Disgrace is Monticelli’s second film with Jacobs as director.
The couple met 17 years ago when they were both aspiring actors, forming the production company Wild Strawberries in the 90s. They worked as director and writer on La Spagnola, which was completed in 2000 and was nominated for 11 AFI Awards, winning the award for Best Film at three international film festivals. It was also Australia’s official entry for Foreign Language Film in the 2002 Academy Awards.
Monticelli feels comfortable, following the writing of a script, to hand the material over to Jacobs. “I trust him, and we make the same film. I am amazed at what he brings to it.”
Jacobs says: “Anna-Maria felt this would make a powerful film, and I agreed it was a fantastic novel, so we set about securing the option and rights.”
The pair then became involved with South African-born, Australian producer Emile Sherman, who is a fan of the novel and who had independently gone to South Australia, where Coetzee now lives, to option the material, only to find the rights had already gone to the Australian team.
Sherman contacted them and asked if they could work together on the project.
Jacobs says he found the book realistic rather than bleak. “But realist cinema is not so popular at the moment, it’s basically escapist.
“I thought the novel was very cinematic. It examined individuals in a surgical and I think honest and realistic way. It didn’t give easy answers and its complexity was enthralling. I thought, like many readers around the world, it was a wonderful work.”
This response explains his approach to the style of the film. “It’s not what I would call a modern interactive style. I want the audience to make judgments themselves, so the camera stands back.
“I just did the magic tricks,” he laughs.
What excites Jacobs about film-making is “the storytelling art”.
“I think the cinematic art form is the art form that suits my peculiar abilities, if they are abilities, and I think that’s what excites me. I suppose it is the art form of the century we live in. It stayed at a very conventional narrative level for a long time.”
Asked when he realised that he was going to be a film-maker, Jacobs says he believes that “if you have a very strong visual instinct, it starts quite young”.
“It starts with looking at images and photographs and then you realise that the way of telling that is through the correction of those images moving rapidly through a lantern, and that’s exciting because you manipulate a view of the world to yours.
“You are basically asking people to dream with you, and that’s quite a privilege,” he says, adding that film is also “a very manipulative art form”.
“You have a very sophisticated audience that’s usually ahead of you, so you have to know what you are doing.”
As a child, Jacobs was always fascinated by “the elements that make up the cinema form, the visuals, music and sound”.
When he went to Charles Sturt University where he wrote and directed experimental films and theatre productions, he became enthused about “how editing could change people’s response to an image and for circumstances”, and he realised “that you can collect all those stills into one art form”.
A major inspiration in Jacobs’s work is the great Spanish-born filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
“I always loved Luis Buñuel films from the 60s. I thought they were incredible. They were wonderful films because they actually were not just about people but about society; they were about the craziness of thought. I think he was a great master.”
Of Disgrace’s effect on South African audiences, Jacobs says: “I hope the South African audiences embrace it as a work of art. It’s not representative or indicative of society, but of an aspect of that society.”
FALL FROM GRACE: John Malkovich plays a Cape Town professor of romantic poetry in the film adaptation of JM Coetzee’s novel.