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SATURDAY PROFILE | Oscar nominated SA director René van Rooyen: ‘My mother tongue gave me competitive edge’


South African director René van Rooyen, whose film ‘Toorbos’ has just been selected as South Africa’s entry for the Oscars, says part of the reason she decided to film in her mother tongue Afrikaans was so that she could compete internationally. She speaks to News24 about her eight-year battle to turn ‘Toorbos’ into a film, how pregnancy earlier on in her career would’ve set her back, and her hopes for her baby daughter. 


Fourteen years ago, a defiant 22-year-old René van Rooyen – hailing from the countryside of Paarl in the Western Cape – was on a gap year in London when she decided to write a letter to her parents informing them she was coming back to South Africa to study filmmaking. 

And this month, her dreams have finally taken flight after the film she wrote and directed ‘Toorbos‘ was chosen to represent South Africa at the Oscars in the United States, eight years after she felt compelled to turn the book by acclaimed South African author Dalene Matthee into a film. 

Van Rooyen, who has worked on a number of well-known titles the past few years such as ‘Vaselinetjie’, ‘Trackers’, and ‘Fluiters’, is believed to be only the third South African female director whose film was selected to head to the Oscars. 

Seated in her study with dark green painted walls, situated in Jamestown just outside Stellenbosch, Van Rooyen smiles in disbelief. 

“I was working in London, one of those gap years. And we had this team building exercise and I had dreamt of being a filmmaker. And they were like: ‘Okay, tell me your five-year-plan like what do you want for a five-year-plan,” she says in English, with an Afrikaans accent. 

“And everyone was [saying] where they want to go with their career, and I’m like: ‘I’m going to study film and by 2012 I want to have something big happen with my film career that needs to be the Oscars or something.’”

Looking down, Van Rooyen pauses, gently tucking a loose strand of her long brown hair behind her ear. 

2012 was not the year she would get an Oscar nomination, but it was the year her film ‘Nantes’ won best short film at the Silver Skermfees film festival in Cape Town. 

It was also the year she got married to her partner, fellow director Corné van Rooyen, and the year she first read Matthee’s ‘Toorbos‘ about a young woman’s journey of love in the Knysna forest. 

She said:

The weirdest thing with this project is when everything felt like it was going wrong, when I was told no by funders, and when writers and producers told me to change the script, there was something still telling me to keep going.

“I kept on thinking to myself, there was something weird in my mind, like that this is going to reach some global arena. And I don’t know why, like, I couldn’t let go of that feeling.” 

She smiles, perhaps indicating gratitude, but maybe partly relief. 

She said:

And I think I always felt that this project has a purpose, and I just couldn’t let go of that. So like with every disappointment, I’d be on the floor. But it’s because I just felt like there’s a destiny for this project that I kept on going.

Van Rooyen is speaking to News24 in a video interview just days after ‘Toorbos’ was nominated for the Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars, by the National Film and Video Foundation. 

As sunlight enters the window, her face lights up, while black-framed grey photographs adorn the right-hand corner of the screen during our interview. 

Aside from the award nomination, Van Rooyen, dressed in a black top (her favourite colour), is also celebrating the expansion of her family. She is 36-weeks pregnant. 

She says since the news of the Oscar nomination, ‘Toorbos’ – which cost R7.8 million to make – has climbed to the top of South Africa’s box office. The film industry, however, is still hampered by a hesitant audience due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. 

René van Rooyen during filming of Toorbos (supplied)

‘Toorbos’, an Afrikaans film set in 1930s South Africa, revolves around the story of a young woman, Karolina Kapp – played by Elani Dekker – who was uprooted from the Knysna forest to marry a man, but who always felt a calling from the forest to return. 

Resting her head on her arm, Van Rooyen says she read Matthee’s book for the first time shortly after she was married in 2012. 

“[Karolina] was unlike female characters that I’ve read before. Something about it was very raw and honest [and I could relate to] what I have experienced as a woman in my 20s at the time, and then compounded with that I was just married.

She said:

It’s a very honest telling of what marriage is, and how people sometimes [become] disconnected. And I thought to myself, it’s a beautiful story about whatever happens in the future, it reminds me that I would always find my roots back to, you know, the love of my life.

“And I thought that whatever obstacles we overcome, when we are meant to be together that the roads will always bring us back together.” 

She pauses, and takes a sip of her tea from a blue and white china mug. 

“But the whole film is about what will happen if you as a woman aren’t standing up for your voice and your authentic self and who you are: you never can have a healthy whole relationship. 

She said:

And I just thought a lot of times we are taught as woman to compromise, which also happens in ‘Toorbos’, compromise in your beliefs and don’t stand up for [what] you believe and then you will get love and happiness.

“But this is a story that’s saying: ‘You have to stand up for what you think about, you have to be strong in that opinion, like go take the risk, walk away from the man'”. 

Aside from the balance between the masculine and feminine, Van Rooyen says she also found the book’s themes about what happens if humanity loses its connection to the environment very topical in light of the political conversations taking place globally. 

“It had all those elements for a really good cinema project,” she says, smiling. 

Moving to modern day South Africa, and responding to criticism that the country’s film industry is patriarchal, Van Rooyen says she wonders if female directors are simply under-represented because there are fewer heading into the industry. 

She said:

For example, I’m pregnant now. But if this had happened to me early in my career, it would have been very challenging for me to continue and make this film and get to where I am.

She nods her head slowly as if she is agreeing with herself. 

“So luckily, I waited quite a long time before, but I think there’s a lot of factors that’s involved when you’re a woman and you are a director, that kind of may set you back. 

“And they’ve done a lot of studies about this, you know, like something like becoming a mother. It does set you back for five, six years, and by that time your gap is almost gone to break into an industry and so there’s a lot of reasons for that.” 

René van Rooyen and Elani Dekker during filming (s

René van Rooyen and Elani Dekker during filming (supplied)

Van Rooyen says after she read Matthee’s book she immediately started work on a script, and pitched the film to a number of potential funders. At this point in the interview she sighs. 

“Everyone was telling me, ‘now this is way too ambitious’. They said to me, on several occasions, ‘This is never gonna happen. Just forget about it, we’re not going to do a period film like this. Just don’t even pursue it any further. It won’t ever happen.’

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“I was in other screenwriting development programmes, and they were just like, ‘No, my take on the story is all wrong. She needs to be like a Warrior Princess and fight for the forest workers’. It was this epic adventure they were pitching to me. 

“And I was like: ‘No, this is my story.’” 

It was only after working on the film script for nearly six years that well-known South African producer Andries Scholtz showed an interest in making the film. 

“By that time, that, you know, I was kind of embarrassed. Like people have told me already: ‘This isn’t gonna happen.’” 

She said:

But the industry had changed at that point. And then all of a sudden, they were looking at these types of films.

Filming started in 2018 in Knysna where an entire set was constructed in the Knysna forest, and in nearby McGregor and Cullinan where it rained for the first time in many years. 

The release of the film was postponed three times because of Covid-19, and a large premier at Monte Casino in Johannesburg planned for May had to be cancelled. 

It finally opened in cinemas in November – a week before it was nominated for the Oscars. 

René van Rooyen during filming of Toorbos (supplie

René van Rooyen during filming of Toorbos (supplied)

Van Rooyen believes it is because she stayed true to herself as much as possible, such as filming in her mother tongue, that the film ultimately was successful. 

“When you want to really compete internationally and still where I am like in the beginning of my career, it needs to be as truthful and authentic and different to everything else,” she says. 

“Because I can’t compete in terms of budget, or scope or anything with big internationals, but what I can give is something that’s truthful and different. And I can only do that when I can be competitive in my mother tongue. 

She said:

That’s why what’s so upsetting in this country is that often, we undervalue the power that we have when we create, whether it’s art or anything, when we’re doing it in our mother tongue.

 

“If your mother tongue is English, that’s great. But then you’re also competing with big international English titles. It’s [sic] got millions and millions of dollars behind them.” 

Near the end of the interview, Van Rooyen walks around holding her laptop to show me her husband’s study which has been turned into a pink baby room ahead of the arrival of her daughter. 

“I told him: ‘Sorry my dear, I am carrying this child, so you have to give [up] your study,” she says laughing. 

Aside from taking ‘Toorbos’ to film festivals, she is also working on a psychological horror which takes place on a farm, and another television series. 

Van Rooyen says she and her husband, who was her lecturer while she was studying at AFDA in Cape Town, plan to name the baby Hannah. 

René van Rooyen and her husband Corne. (supplied)

René van Rooyen and her husband Corne. (supplied)

And if her daughter could learn anything from ‘Toorbos’? Van Rooyen says it is to always stand up for herself. 

“That there’s power and importance in what her outlook in life is and that she will succeed and that she will belong – she never has to compromise on her own beliefs.

She said:

Because that is what’s going to make her happy, and have healthy relationships in life and also going to aid her in making the world a better place.

Van Rooyen takes a breath, playing with the mug in front of her. 

“And also not to get caught up in the mayhem and rush of life, and be authentic and connect to nature, because that’s what it’s all about, and be truthful to who she is.

“And take your time because we are in society, we are in a space which is completely instant everything.

“And I think ‘Toorbos’ teaches us and the filmmaking process and the character and everything [that it] is just with patience and honesty and staying truthful and fighting for what you believe in – that it’s actually in the long term much better.”

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