Krotoa, the Khoi Princess

I’m often thinking about women in history. The ones we know and the ones we don’t know, the ones lost beneath times sand. Last year, I stumbled across a short write – up about a historical film inspired by the life of Krotoa. Krotoa or Eva as she later became known, was a Khoi princess and a translator for Jan van Riebeeck. She is considered the mother of the coloured people in South Africa, her story has been brought to life  by award – winning legend, Roberta Durrant. Roberta and I had an exclusive interview about this film, and what encouraged the desire to tell this true – life story.

Roberta Durrant has a deep voice that pauses often, as she quietly contemplates the answers to my inquisitive questions. I am struck by this woman with her blonde hair and desire to be a granny. She reminds me so much of the women in my family and yet Roberta is a pioneer, a powerhouse of creativity and one of South Africa’s most distinguished directors and producers.  Her work as creative director, producer and show runner has earned her awards, nominations and special mentions at award ceremonies around the globe. In Lucerne, Roberta’s sitcom Madam and Eve won bronze at the Golden Rose Festival. Roberta ‘s popular sitcoms include, ‘Sgudi ‘Snaysi (It’s Good It’s Nice); Going Up, About Us; Madam & Eve; SOS; Fishy Feshuns; Going Up Again; Mazinyo dot Q, Stokvel and Home Affairs. She is a past President of Women in Film South Africa, and in 2012 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa for her contribution to the film and television industry. She currently serves as co–Chair for South Africa’s annual film and television awards THE SAFTAS. Her passion is female films, and her latest feature film Krotoa, a film about a Khoi princess struggling with her identity, is evidence of Roberta’s unending passion. Her interview is exclusive.

Your female based series Home Affairs, was a finalist in the drama category at the International Emmy’s (for all programming outside of North America). The film itself was nominated twice and the actresses were nominated twice. The series itself captured the lives of 6 different South African women, all in search of their identity. What drew you to this kind of story?

Women experience life differently, our experiences are unique but also there are realities present in our experiences which are also universal as mothers, wives, daughters, career women. What we were trying to do with Home Affairs was show the universal nature of women, although these women were from separate universes, much of their experiences were the same. A lot of what we wrote in to the series was based on fact, based on experiences someone had or heard of, so we brought all these experiences in to one room and that was very interesting. In that series; we were also looking at how people connect so randomly, but with the thought of how random is this really. Doing Home Affairs was particularly fulfilling, I felt we were doing something that had significance.

That sounds like a great experience to have had, and it contains real depth for women. Are you personally led to produce and direct women’s stories?

Yes, I always have had! I’ve always found an interest in that and largely if you look at what we’ve done, it’s largely been about women’s stories. A lot of our dramas have featured central female characters. For sure, I want to tell women’s stories! Most of the things I’ve been involved with have been about women.

What unique struggles have you experienced being a woman involved in film, as this is a topic which will continue for some time, the representation of women in film. Greater exposure for female film directors and more female driven creative teams, can you relate to some of these issues?

My involvement in film first started off with acting, I was an actress for a good ten years after graduating and as an actress you learn a certain resilience. The entertainment industry is incredibly tough as you face a lot of rejection, so you learn to be resilient. when I first got involved in the television industry, there were always perceptions about women. The key thing is to forget about being a woman and thinking people will handle you differently. Do not assume people will treat you differently, just go for it. I had quite a domineering father, and from early on in my life I made a decision to not allow myself to be domineered by any man. My father though domineering, he was also encouraging, with three daughters and no son, he expected us to do the things a son would do, that was his expectation. Along with the expectation to have a career, he never brought us up to have an expectation to marry and settle down.

Let us talk your latest feature film Krotoa, which is an incredibly moving true life story about a Khoi woman who becomes a translator for Jan Van Riebeeck. The film really follows her struggle with identity, being a Khoi woman but also living between two worlds, the European culture and the culture of her own people. How did you first come to learn about Krotoa?

Kaye Ann Williams worked for me for about 6 years, heading development and then she moved to making documentaries. Kaye Ann had heard about Krotoa as being one of her ancestors, and she began researching this woman’s life. At the time SABC was making a documentary series called Hidden Histories, and Kaye Ann suggested we make a documentary about Krotoa and pitch it to them as part of the series. So, we made the documentary and we both recognised that within this story was actually a feature film, which Kaye Ann wrote the script for eventually and she is one of the producers for the film. Kaye first heard about Krotoa during a sermon in church, where the pastor used her as an example of caution with alcoholism. The research was extensive, but a large part of Krotoa’s life is based on speculation, there are just a number of things we won’t know. But the fact that she was elevated to the position she was back in the 17th century, was incredibly extraordinary, she enjoyed stature as a woman and that makes her very interesting. With this film; we’ve told a narrative account of her life, which is why we say that it is inspired by her life.

People have connected with this film on a number of different levels, and you have received some inspiring feedback, can you share some with us?

Well, Casper De Vries wrote me a letter saying how happy he was that we had made this film as Krotoa is actually his 9th grandmother. Another individual wrote me a letter with a documentation of his ancestry showing Krotoa as his 15th grandmother. This shows Krotoa as a common ancestor for a number of people and that is interesting.

This film must have been a challenge to make as it’s a period piece, set over 350 years ago, what were the challenges to make something like that?

We took dramatic licence with our limited budget we had for the film, for that reason we kept our story very focussed. While Van Riebeek lived here he lived in the first fort he built, which was made from turf, wood and stone based on the castle plan but it was a fort. We rebuilt that fort along the coast along the Agulhas coast, which is an area of fynbos. The basic, primitive environment was what we chose for our film, this was a decision based on research but we chose to give the film a certain look. Our story is very much told from Krotoa’s point of view, it’s very focussed, it’s not a sweeping film that shows the Cape at the turn of the century.

What kind of lessons can we draw from Krotoa’s life?

Hopefully one of the things people take away is that people have a right to identity and to ownership of that identity. Krotoa was an abused woman who went through a lot of struggles, but one thing that could not be taken away from her, was her identity. In those times, identity was not respected and it is important to allow the past to inform the future. I believe the film will create a lot of dialogue, to open up conversations and I hope the symbolism and the messages are seen by people.

The film has already been selected for a number of awards already, why you do think the international community has gravitated towards this film?

In terms of the film being a small independent film, it has been recognised for its degree of excellence, and the strong performance given by Crystal-Donna Roberts has raised awareness around the film. I have to say, I don’t see this film as a commercial film, it’s a thought provoking film instead.

What advice would you give to women wanting to direct film?

For me personally, I am more of a performance director but I was involved in a number of different elements of film, and it’s important to know and understand your craft. To direct film, I feel you need to have an in-depth understanding of each aspect of film. I’m a big believer in the reality of 10 000 hours, you need to be a master at your craft.

Thinking about legacy, what is it that you want to leave behind?

I would like to be remembered as a person who gave women opportunities. That is something I believe in, I use female script writers, and female producers, I want to help other women. I would like to be remembered for giving others opportunities, to help others grow and further their careers. I’d like to believe that I’ve left something worthwhile behind. At this stage of my life, I walk passed baby stores and look at the booties with such love, I think I want to be a grandmother now, but don’t tell my children that!