Interview with 'Poppie Nongena' Director Christiaan Olwagen

12th November 2020


Interview with Christiaan Olwagen, director of Poppie Nongena, by Rasha Hosny for Africa in Motion's Notes Unbound

At the time you made this film, was it a decision to make a film based on a novel, or was it just a coincidence, and why this novel?

CO: I've always maintained that certain projects choose you and Poppie followed exactly that trajectory. I was approached by the producers, Helena Spring and Karen Meiring, who asked me to read a draft of the script and see whether I’d be interested in coming on board. I wanted to get to know the source material first and I knew of the book but had never gotten around to reading it.

'Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena)' happened to be one of the novels I filched from my mother’s library, part of a plethora of promise-to-reads gathering dust. I grabbed it off the shelf, decided there and then that it was as good an excuse as any, and dove in.  I devoured it in one sitting - completely blown away. 

Did you know about the true story before reading the novel? What is the first thing that came up to your mind after finishing reading the novel?

CO: The novel is quite a famous classic in South-Africa, so I was aware of its biographical nature. It only truly hit home, after we showed the film to the family of Eunice Ntsatha (the women whose life the story is based on). Her children are all still alive and living in Cape Town and seeing them reacting to their mother's story was profoundly moving.

The novel is a political piece but told through a very personal prism. Its unique stance on the student riots, wholly viewed from the perspective of a concerned parent, was something I hadn’t read or seen. It was very much the story of a mother’s struggle and I fell in love with the eponymous heroine. After re-reading the last page several times, I phoned Helena in tears asking: “When do we start?"

Do you have any personal experience that made you linked to the story, for instance, did you meet women like Poppie?

CO: Growing up, my single mother was working three jobs to get by and so my upbringing was entrusted to a strong-willed, god-fearing Ndebele woman who had claimed my care with such tenacity I could easily have been one of her own. Although I was raised without a father, I had the privilege of having two mothers instead. Under one roof, these women determined the type of man I am today. The one gave me a life, the other gave me love and together they gave me a home.  

When I read the novel, I saw my other mother, on every page, in every prayer, scold, heartache and defiant gaze.  My Poppie.  Any reluctance to get on board was swept away when the film became my personal love-letter to her and all the "other" mothers of South Africa.


What was the most important idea that you were keen to explore in the novel and wanted to make the viewers see or feel through your film?

CO: I wanted a reflection of the spirit of the film both on the screen and behind the camera and therefore insisted on surrounding myself with female collaborators. We ended up having more women head of departments than men. It made all the difference. The environment on set was incredible - less ego more acumen.
I’ve always gravitated strongly towards female collaborators (possibly because of my all women upbringing) and for this film it was the perfect collective of creative conspirators.

Was it easy to direct a film based on a novel and adapt it rather than finding an idea, then creating its characters and start the whole storytelling process from scratch?

CO: It’s two very different processes. Both equally rewarding. But I do love adaptation, I've always had a proclivity towards it. I even did my master's thesis on adaptation and appropriation. In theatre I often gravitated towards re-imagining the classics. I think because the story has been tried and tested I find the structuring part of the process easier. But there is also something very rewarding in almost creating a world from scratch and populating it from imagination.

Why did you decide to make this story now, did you want to reflect something happening now through showing this story? Do you find similarities between the time of the story and what happened to Poppie and her family and modern time now?

CO: It’s concerning that the troubling issues the film deals with haven’t changed at all. Involuntary migration and displacement affect millions daily. Poppie’s story could easily be transposed to a current-day Mexican migrant in USA, a Syrian refugee in Europe or even an African asylum seeker in South Africa. The film serves as a modern-day reflection in an apartheid-era mirror. It’s a cautionary tale. A global reminder of my country’s not so distant past. And an appeal to learn from our mistakes or be doomed to repeat them.

Did your theatrical background benefit you while making the film? If yes, how?

CO: Coming from a theatrical background I’ve always believed that performance takes precedent. To me, rehearsals are key and the performers are my most important collaborators.  I’ve grown fond of long uninterrupted takes because they highlight the performance and give the audience a sense of “real-time". With this project I particularly wanted to highlight the aspect of time because it ties into every theme in the film - being a prisoner of a time, the ticking time-bomb that is Poppie’s passbook and the "time’s up!” aggression and urgency of the student movement. 

How did you decide on the visual style that you wanted to direct the film with, did you have any references regarding the set design, costume design, colour palette and framing in your mind after reading the novel, and did the novel itself give you any inspirations on this level?

CO:  Visually, my cinematographer, Vicci Turpin and I were torn between sweeping epic and kitchen sink realism. Although the film is set in the 1970s,  we wanted it to be a look into the past from the standpoint of the present. 

We went to the Italian Neo-Realists for inspiration - particularly Vittoria Di Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and the contemporary naturalists, the Dardenne Brothers. We wanted the film to be a hybrid between a documentary, the cinema of the Italian Neo-Realism and a Baroque painting. Vicci achieved the “look” with an emphasis on natural light and the “feel”  with an Easy Rig, especially designed for the film, giving us the hand-held, eye-level sense of a war documentary but with the precision and control of “Steadicam", allowing us to shoot uninterrupted sequences of up to 8 minutes.

 Although the feeling of the film is visceral, we aimed to juxtapose the political and emotional upheavals with the tragic beauty of a biblical baroque painting. The depictions of domesticity by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, who painted milk maids with the same reverence as the Madonna, greatly influenced the visual poetry of the film. 

The music in the film is so distinctive, how did you choose the music?

CO: On my previous feature films, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted the music to be/ film to sound like. With this one - I had no idea. Everything I earmarked felt wrong. I decided to let the process guide us organically. 

Throughout the film, there were lots of singing, praying, worship. It happened naturally during rehearsals. That set the tone for the music of the rest of the film - a combination of hymns, chants and protest songs from the era. 

How did you choose the cast, did you know them from before or did you made a casting call, and what was the process like to make them seem like a real family?

CO: I did not know any of the actors who portrayed the Nongena family. We found all of them through an extensive casting process. It took months of multiple auditions and callbacks. It was either by sheer luck (or destiny) that we came across Clementine Mosimane. She's actually a South-African industry veteran but we had no idea that she could speak both Xhosa and Afrikaans. 

She's an absolute force of nature. Throughout the process she ran the whole gamut of human emotions, A to Z. She’s not only an exceptional actress but an incredible human being. Whereas the script gave the lead character its bones, she was the beating heart, pumping the blood of her own experiences into Poppie.Ultimately, she was key to bringing the whole film to life. But honestly every single person played such an integral part. From doyenne, novice to non-actor - everyone brought their own unique set of life experiences to the project.

Rasha Hosny is an Egyptian film critic/programmer and producer. She studied Egyptology and has been working in cinema and film criticism field since 2008. Her writing productions have been published in several publications and outlets in Egypt. Rasha was the first Egyptian and Arabic film critic to participate in "Berlinale Talent Press" program during Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016. Currently, Rasha is one of the main programmers of the Cairo International Film Festival and programmed The Asian films and The Midnight Screening Section films. She has also been the president of the board at the Egyptian Film Critics Association (EFCA) since August 2020.