The name Racheltjie de Beer is one that conjures up many memories and emotions for those who have heard her story and this beloved folktale has been given a fresh breath of life by a local filmmaker.
The Story of Racheltjie de Beer is an adaptation set in the 1800's and tells the account of the De Beer family who, after their wagon breaks down, are forced to find shelter on a local farm in the Eastern Free State. Winter is on it's way and, as dark clouds laden with snow roll in over the Drakensberg, tragedy strikes the family.
The novel has been written by first-time author Brett Michael Innes, a Johannesburg based filmmaker who also wrote the film script on which the novel has been based. As he headed into pre-production on the film, Cape Town based publishers Naledi approached him to see if they could release a book based on his screenplay. Seeing the opportunity to write a novel, Innes agreed on the provisor that he be the one who wrote it.
“Traditionally a book is written first and then the movie is made or vica versa.” Innes says. “The funny thing here is that, even though the book is complete and now available in stores, we are still only in the early stages of pre-production on the film, even though it came first.”
One of the challenges that this story carries is that many South African readers already know how it ends. This is something that Innes has taken and used to strengthen the narrative, believing that the emotion or nostalgia that the readers already attach to the story is something that works in the favour of his adaptation.
“It's like Titanic or Passion of the Christ.” Innes says. “You know how it's going to end but you still go on a journey with the characters because you want to see how they get there. It allows me to plant omens or clues in the story that pre-empt the ending, leaving the reader feeling as though they know something that the characters themselves have yet to discover.”
The irony of this entire project is that the story, one of the most treasured Afrikaner folktales, is being brought to life by an English-speaking South African. This is something that Innes is well aware of and respects greatly.
“It was really important that I honoured both the story as well as the culture and language that gave birth to it.” Innes says. “That is why, from the early stages of production on the film and book, I was in contact with key people from the ATKV, The Heritage Foundation, The Voortrekker Monument and genealogist DW de Beer. I wanted to make sure that I did not tell an Afrikaans story in an English way and, by keeping their voices close to me, I believe I was able to do so.”
Innes first wrote the novel in English and then Cecilia Kruger, Chief Professional Officer at the Heritage Foundation in Pretoria, was brought in to handle the translation of the manuscript into Afrikaans.
“It's a gripping story with a lot of emotion.” Kruger says. “With very few facts at his disposal, Brett has been able to create a story that speaks with sensitive insight in and empathy with the characters.”
Already the novel has been shortlisted by the IEB as a set work for 2013 with the goal being that students would be able read the book as the film is being made.
“This folktale is national gem, an Afrikaans story for all South Africans.” Innes says. “It carries a message that we all need to be reminded of and my hope is that this will be an adaptation that readers embrace. One of the main themes of the story is “remembrance” and I believe that this translates beyond the narrative and into our lives as South Africans. We are at a place in time where, if a historical story is not made into a novel or a film, it is in danger of being forgotten by future generations. In the same way that a wall needs to constantly be repainted if its colours are to shine brightly, a story needs to constantly be retold if it is to be remembered.”
Production on the film is set to begin in the winter of 2013 and is expected to hit the big screen at the end of the year. Running alongside the film will be a live show entitled The Words & Music of Racheltjie de Beer in which original songs inspired by the film will be performed at the Voortrekker Monument by some of Afrikaans music's top artists.
“This story just wants to be told.” say Judy Prins from Deloitte Media & Entertainment, the financiers behind the hit films Semi Soet and Spud. “The energy and excitement around the project is undeniable.”
The Story of Racheltjie de Beer is available in both English and Afrikaans at leading bookstores and can be ordered online through Amazon and Kalahari in both print and eBook formats.