Coet­zee clas­sic on big screen

Award-winning Aus­tralian cou­ple steer new film

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOOD MOVIES - DANIEL DERCKSEN

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.

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