Black & White
Filmink caught up with British director Anthony Fabian when he was in Australia recently and chatted with him about his new film Skin, a fact-based drama about a young girl who was born black to white parents during apartheid.
How did you get into contact with the real life Sandra [the girl] and to what extent was she involved in making the film?
It was actually quite hard to track Sandra down. She was living in a township in the middle of nowhere without a telephone. Initially the BBC, who had done the interview with her that I had heard, didn't want to give me her contact details so I had to go to a journalist in South Africa who gave me the neighbour's telephone number. And I rang her and explained that I wanted to make a feature film.
She was concerned about whether the project might improve her life in some way and I became determined early on that some kind of reparation needed to be made to her because she had suffered tremendously through no fault of her own. It was simply the colour of her skin that divided her fate from her family's. It really became a dual mission to try and make a difference to her life as well as bring her story to the public.
You actually adapted the script over quite a long period?
Well the book (When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race) was written simultaneously with the screenplay. One of the things I was able to do for Sandra early on was to negotiate a very good advance with the publisher and all that money was able to go to helping Sandra buy her first home. And the writer of the book then went out to South Africa and she was very generous and shared all her research with us as she was writing the book.
Could you tell us a little bit about the casting?
We needed to have names, but it was very, very difficult to try and persuade name actors to play supporting roles in an independent feature set in South Africa with a first time director. So we struggled a bit.
Sophie Okonedo was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Hotel Rwanda, and I suddenly realised that she was perfect casting for the part and she had quite a lot of heat around her from the nomination... And then Sam Neill, I've always admired Sam as an actor. And Sam had made three or four projects in South Africa, so he was very familiar with the country; he was familiar with the accent. Also, Sam's wife is Japanese and they have a child, and his wife has a child through her previous marriage and I think he, on a personal level, understood the dilemmas that would be faced by a child of a mixed race.
Skin has been embraced in South Africa but I heard you have had distribution problems in the US?
Look, the starting point of the problem is that drama is struggling generally in the marketplace. Unless you've got very big names attached, either in terms of the actor or director, it is extremely hard to get distribution at any level of independent film, so it feels as if the bottom has fallen out of the independent film market in terms of actually being able to make proper money back from these films. We have a respectable cast but it's not Charlize Theron, it's not Julia Roberts. That in itself made it difficult, and then allied to which the perception that audiences have problems with a black cast.
Films like Precious and Invictus have received financial backing; do you think that something has shifted to allow those films to be so embraced?
No, I think if you look at Invictus it's Clint Eastwood, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman. If you look at Precious it's Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, you know, these are not small names. Monique is a big name in the black community in the United States. These are not little independent movies with no backing, and you need a champion to really get a film going.
I'm very concerned, because I think in Australia the film has huge potential, I think it would really speak to people in this country. The issues that it's addressing, the massive South African population that is in Australia right now, the parallels between this country's history and how it's dealt with its indigenous population. These are all things that I think Australians would respond to in a huge way, but unless we get the word out I don't think anyone is really going to know that the film is out there.
What do you hope the audience will take away from Skin?
In South Africa there is a concept called ‘Ubuntu' which means we are all bound together by our common humanity. And I think that's really the message of the film; the things that are used to divide us are actually less important than the things we have in common as human beings.
Skin premieres in Australia at Lotterywest Festival Films http://perthfestival.com.au/Events/Lotterywest-Festival-Films/skin/ , as part of the Perth International Arts Festival from February 22, and will then hopefully travel around Australia.
For more on Anthony Fabian, check out the issue of Filmink Magazine out March 15, 2010.