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Hanneke Schutte on 'Meerkat Maantuig'


Hanneke Schutte's film, Meerkat Maantuig (Meerkat Moonship), is a coming-of-age fairy tale drama about overcoming fear, growing up and pouring light into darkness. Spling now ranks it as one of his favourite South African films of all-time... and caught up with Hanneke to find out more.

Meerkat Maantuig - Hanneke Schutte

When did you envision Meerkat Maantuig - can you tell us about the journey from conception to final draft, how did the original idea evolve?

The film is based on a youth novella called ‘Blinde Sambok’ by Riana Scheepers. I’ve changed the book quite considerably, but I retained the central idea of a little girl living with a cursed name. When I read the book the first time I fell in love with this strange, dark tale of a young girl who thinks she’s going to die because of this old wives’ tale that she, and many people around her, believed in. It made me think about all the beliefs we cling onto that limit our lives.

Anchen du Plessis is a real find... such a fascinating face, am I correct in saying she was discovered quite recently - how did she come to be in your film?

You’re right, Anchen was an absolute blessing. She wasn’t originally cast as Gideonette, but we lost our lead two weeks before principal photography and we had to scurry to replace her. I’m a firm believer that if you can embrace these kinds of challenges/happy accidents during production and pre-production, they always end up making the film better.

Anchen played Young Killer in Vaselintjie so it was her second film and her first lead role.

The casting is superb... are the actors close to how you imagined them in your head?

The magic of great actors is that they bring so much of their own life stories and world perspectives to their roles. They imbue the characters with idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities that help us to identify with them. So yes, each one of them brought something special to the role and they exceeded all my expectations.

There's a Studio Ghibli air of sentimentality and blend of nature/technology in the design of this production... is that an influence or a coincidence? Did any other films give you inspiration for the look and feel?

You’re the first person to pick up on that! I sent our Production Designer, Waldermar Coetsee, a picture of Hal’s Moving Castle as inspiration for the moonship. We wanted to create something magical, whimsical and childlike. It was important that the design felt like it originated in the mind of a child.

He sent me this tiny drawing of the moonship (we still joke about how terrible the drawing was) and I thought that’s it, that’s the naiveté we’re going for!

The farm setting is sun-dappled and magical... how did you come upon this beautiful eco-forest location?

I found that location online while I was still writing the film. The farm belonged to this amazing guy who was an avid gardener and blogger. I followed his blog for about two years and I completely fell in love with the farm. When it came time to make the film I had my mind set on that location. He was in the process of selling the farm and the sale fell through about three times, so we kept negotiating with people and then losing the location. Our producers wanted me to find another location because time was running out, but that was the one thing that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. Finally, after some long and skillful negotiations on the part of our producer, the new owners gave us permission to shoot on the farm.

There's a horror element at play, was this film meant to be darker or more in the realm of fantasy at any point?

From the start the intention was for it to be a fairy tale. A story that is set in no particular place and in no particular time. Fairytales, especially the very old ones, have very dark and macabre elements because they deal with children’s fears. I didn’t want to shy away from that - if you’re going to deal with fear, it should feel real. But I didn’t want it to tilt into a full on horror or fantasy either, which is the tricky line I had to tread.

You did a great job of obscuring story elements, keeping the sense of mystery and intrigue at the fore - how tricky was it writing it this way?

With every draft I tried to take out elements that were too obvious or gave things away too early. Looking back I realise I made some mistakes and I could’ve done even more to make it subtler and more mysterious, but that’s the lesson you learn with every film.

Willie Nel's cinematography is lush, sumptuous even... composing some beautiful shots, using textures such as mesh netting and glade sunlight... is the finished product close to how you imagined it?

Absolutely, it’s exactly what I’d imagined, which isn’t something you can say very often. We had a hidden Pinterest board with tons of reference pictures that we worked from. Inspiration for the mood, the tone, the textures etc. I still love revisiting that board because Willie really managed to capture exactly what we had envisioned.

Do you keep a scrapbook of ideas for film... there are subtle touches throughout the film that make it seem so?

Yes, back to Pinterest! While I write I collected hundreds of pictures that help me create the mood and tone and bring the film to life. I’m a very visual person and it really helps me to see the film while I write it.

I’m doing it again on the script that I’m working on at the moment. Whenever I feel stuck I just go back to the references and I immerse myself in that world.

What do you see as your greatest strength as a director?

I’m actually not sure, but I think it helps that I approach a film with no ego, which means that I stay open to people, to challenges and to my own mistakes. I’ve found if you stay open and vulnerable it creates a space where magic can happen.

What was the most enjoyable part of making Meerkat Maantuig?

Our time in Magoebaskloof was absolutely incredible. It felt like we were a bunch of kids at Veldskool. We laughed and cried and struggled through the rain and mud, it was truly a life changing experience.

What was the most challenging aspect of making Meerkat Maantuig?

It was the same thing that made it so memorable! It was incredibly tough shooting in a rain forest and dealing with spiders, snakes, mosquitos and mudslides. We constantly had to change the shooting schedule to work around the rain and we lost hours every day waiting for bakkies to get pulled out of the mud, but it helped us to band together and it created a wonder spirit of camaraderie.

Meerkat Maantuig informs the buoying tone of this movie, was this the original title?

The book was called ‘Blinde Sambok’, but we thought that Meerkat Maantuig captured the spirit and whimsy of the film a bit better.

How did South African audiences respond to this film?

To be honest, I think many people were a bit baffled by it! It’s not the type of local film audiences are used to watching and I think it probably leaned too far towards being an art film for it to really reach a wide audience. But that being said, I received so many emails from people, young and old, who told me that the film had deeply affected them. A few moms who told me that the film helped them to open up conversations with their kids about their fears. One mom even told me that it was the first time she’d seen her sixteen year-old son cry in a movie and that he wanted to watch it a second time! And that’s more meaningful to me than anything else.

How has the film been performing on the festival circuit?

We’ve been overwhelmed by the success Meerkat has had internationally. The film has been selected to screen at 17 international film festivals and we’ve received wonderful feedback. We’re incredibly grateful that our small South African story seems to really resonate with international audiences.

What's next for Hanneke Schutte? Have you got any upcoming projects that you'd like to mention?

I’ve just finished a final(ish) draft of my next screenplay called The Poem.

Unfortunately, it’s another sad one!