“Four years ago, I stuck a fictional film review on the door of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Development Cooperation in Holland. The film that was the subject of the review would be very controversial because for the first time it would show an Africa that is more than just sad,” says Simone Heemskerk, a co-initiator of the film Surprise! which is not only a comic road-movie but also a Dutch government initiative to change their youth’s perception of Africa.
The film stars up-and-coming Dutch actor Frank Lammers as Frank Meutstege, an arrogant perfectionist who is a director of commercials and about to get married to a “nice” Catholic girl. Before the wedding he reluctantly travels to Africa in order to accept an award for the hard-hitting, heartrending Help Malinda commercial about the plight of poverty-struck Africans that he made 15 years ago. But, when he arrives a dark-skinned teenager who claims that she is his daughter confronts him.
The self-important director immediately thinks that this is a con trick, yet the youngster seems to have valid documentation and proof that she is indeed his daughter. Frank believes this revelation could not only be a disaster for his upcoming marriage but also to his entire reputation as a leading director of top commercials.
In order to find out the truth, he has to go to the village where he once filmed the Help Malinda spot. He sets off together with the young girl but their journey is interrupted by strikes and civil unrest so they’re forced to take an improvised route through the wilds of Africa to get to the village, where it turns out 15 years ago Frank was once madly in love with Malinda, the leading lady of his famed commercial.
The low-budget movie, which was shot for around R6 million in many diverse locations around Gauteng from the informal settlement of Diepsloot to Nash’s Farm in the Magaliesburg, was an initiative of the Dutch TV company Palazzina and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Development Co-operation, and it is the first time that charity financiers in Holland have helped produce a feature film. Financial partners included The National Postcode Lottery, MTV, the National Commission for Durable Development (NCDO) and PSO Capacity Creation in Developing Nations amongst others.
In their proposal the producers say that many Dutch youth have ideas about Africa that are stereotyped: Africans are hungry, make war and die of Aids by the thousands, so why pour money into a bottomless pit? Their challenge, they believe, is to make this target audience aware that Africa is more than that.
Simone van den Ende, creative director of Palazzina, claims that: “In order to reach young people, you have to surprise them. They have to leave the cinema confused and enthusiastic, having laughed at something you’re not supposed to laugh at. They will have recognised themselves in the Dutch and in the African characters. And we hope that the film has shown them a different Africa … in other words Surprise! is not specifically about development aid, but it will make sure that young people will think about the issue when they leave the cinema.”
The film was written and directed by Paul Ruven who was responsible for one of Holland’s most successful films Filmpje, winner of three Golden Calves, the Dutch equivalent of the Oscar. Ruven is dedicated to taboo-breaking — after finishing the shoot of Surprise! the iconoclastic writer/director conceptualised a live television show Your New National Anthem — a hit reality series where citizens and celebrities sing their choice of national sacred song.
For the shoot of Surprise! Ruven and actor Lammers were joined by a small crew from Holland, including the director of photography, art director and production manager. The rest of the cast and crew were made up of South Africans. They are hoping for a release in the Netherlands early next year and the distribution will involve extensive marketing and educational campaigns aimed at capturing the youth audience, reinforcing the film’s aim to give development cooperation a new and refreshing face.
What’s more, all earnings from the film will be put into a foundation whose aims are to give real development aid. Whether that will involve building a school in Diepsloot or investing in equipment for a community radio station will be decided at a later stage, but the producers are hoping that the film can have a positive impact not only for Dutch audiences but also for the very Africans the movie focuses on.
In fact Surprise! seems to be much more than a movie, it’s a real attempt to mix contemporary culture in the form of cinema entertainment with practical idealism on the ground. And who knows, this biting, constructive satire might even end up playing at a Cinema Nouveau near you next year.