Interview for: Independent on Saturday, by Ayanda Mabanga
In the beginning was the Word. Without it, there is nothing! These are words to live by for the award winning short filmmaker, screenwriter and AFDA Durban scriptwriting lecturer, Janet van Eeden. She recently returned from the UK where she attended and participated at the London Screenwriters Festival (LSF) 2014 that was held October. Last year she was invited to the LSF to the Meet the Experts panel for which she pitched her feature film A Shot at the Big Time. The short promo for the feature secured a number of nominations and won at eThekwini Film Awards 2013 for Best Cinematography. The short film was chosen to screened at the Cannes Film Festival 2014 which took place in May and support and mentorship was offered to Janet during this process by Anant and Sanjeev Singh.
This year, Janet went to the LSF to represent AFDA along with other international film schools, and to pitch her new feature project The Hyena in Petticoats. “At the London Screenwriters’ Festival, writers have just a few minutes at the Pitch Fest to convince high-ranking producers to take on their project.” explained Janet. It is no easy task but for the South African writer, it was enough to leave tears trickling down one of the producer’s faces after pitching her new project. “It’s a very topical subject and it has resonance around this world right now more than any other film I’ve pitched before. Within one minute of me pitching to her she was in tears. She couldn’t stop crying. When our five minutes were up she told me to wait after the whole session was over and to talk to her more” Janet explained.
The AFDA Durban lecturer was selected to participate in a number of sessions that included the Legal Clinic at which she had a one-on-one discussion with the Legal Expert, Julian Wilkins, regarding copyright issues which many filmmakers fall victim to. This particular issue involved someone assuming credit for a project which was all Janet’s work.
Regarding the position of writers, “there tends to be a lack of recognition of screenwriters within the film industry”, Janet elaborated. “Directors are given full credit for making a film and the screenwriters are often not even mentioned. I think this is remiss and those directors and producers who give credit to the writers usually have an incredible film as a result”.
The biggest challenge facing South African filmmakers is funding. To produce Shot, Janet opted for crowd – funding which is a relatively new concept in the country. “Making my short film A Shot at the Big Time with crowd-funding finally made people realise that I was serious about becoming a filmmaker. Before then I’d been told by many men who were older than me at the time that “a woman your age” should not be interested in making films” she said.
This goes to show that if one has a vision and is driven by passion, boundaries are limitless. With over 18 years of experience in the industry and still going strong, telling stories on film and changing people’s lives one film at a time is what keeps Van Eeden inspired. South African filmmakers have the expertise to match anything produced internationally in all areas. Janet stresses that our audience needs to be encouraged to value local productions before watching Hollywood’s outpouring. Also there need to be ways to fund filmmakers in a more equitable manner.
There was never a moment to be idle for this talented writer at the LSF. After all she was surrounded by the likes of Ted Tally, the screenwriter of Silence of the Lambs, William Nicholson, the screenwriter of Shadowlands and Gladiator and David Reynolds, one of the writers of Finding Nemo. She recalls her best moment being a full hour spent with Paul Bassett-Davies, who has co-written many British Comedies such as Have I Got News For You, Spitting Images and many more. She described it as both useful and inspirational. “After talking through the concept of my new project, I realised the best way forward to writing the script in the most engaging way possible, thanks to his suggestions”, she said.