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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

COMMANDO (article first published : 2007-12-23)

Howling wind. Freezing cold. You’re tired. Your body aches from hiking up hills and through mountains all day. You’re sore from horse-riding and filming non-stop. What you’re really looking forward to most is a nice, hot shower. Instead, as such thoughts swam around his head, actor-musician Jacobus van Heerden got buckets of cold water hurled into his face and around him. The scene called for a storm - and Van Heerden was made to feel its fury and force from every direction, he recalls now, with a laugh.

The incident took place recently in the Drakensberg, where the charming Durban actor, under the direction of his young film-maker friend, Stephen de Villiers, a final-year film/media student on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, were shooting Commando. It’s a short film commissioned by M-Net for its annual M-Net Edit project, showcasing short films by upcoming local talent. Expect to see it on the M-Net Movie channels, in several time slots over eight months, from late January or early February, when all five similarly commissioned films will be selected.

Van Heerden, one of the stars of Tokoloshe Come and Go and also seen on Durban stages in such diverse offerings as Sleeping Beauty, Popcorn, Abba Maniacs and Macbeth, is hugely excited about the project, which he and De Villiers are hoping will one day be expanded into a full-length feature.

Earlier efforts on the big screen have seen Van Heerden as an extra drinking coffee in a film titled Take the Cake and playing a best man at a wedding who makes a go for the bride. The latter, titled Three Cigarettes, was made last year by De Villiers, as a promo work for a portfolio which clearly impressed M-Net enough for the company to award him R40,000 to make Commando. Inspired by the book of the same name, by Deneys Reits, the film is centred on true events from Reits’s Boer War memories and focuses as much on Boer and English soldiers finding a tentative friendship as it does on them being at war.

Starring Van Heerden as the young Reits, Commando was shot at lightning speed in just one week of shooting on location in the Drakensberg (Lotheni) and Lesotho. “It was really intense but incredibly rewarding. I had to ride horses and withstand sub-zero temperatures, wearing nothing but a thin shirt and torn trousers. And I was wet! And it was a night!,” recalls Van Heerden, shaking his head. “For most of the shooting we had to hike up to four ‘kays’ to get to locations. The crew had to carry their cameras and we had a wrangler to take care of the horses. The fact that we managed to shoot what we did on so small a budget is nothing short of miraculous.”

He, De Villiers and a crew of between 16 and 22 worked most days from 5.30am to 6.30pm on the film, which also features seasoned actor Ian Roberts as the older Reits. Van Heerden was also commissioned to do the soundtrack for the film, which was now in final editing stages to be ready for submission to M-Net on November 20.

“I’m doing it with Douglas Proctor from Durban, who is very clued-up technically. We’re going for a sound built on guitar, African percussion and strings.” De Villiers says he had long wanted to enter the M-Net Edit initiative, having first heard about it in 2004. “But it's only open to film/media students in their final year of studying, so you essentially get one shot at it - and it just turns out that they liked my proposal. If you're one of the five finalists chosen, you get R40,000 to make a 15-minute film based on the proposal you send through. They give the grant without seeing a script. I had, however already written a short script, but when it became a reality, I had to do some redrafting. I got rid of a few train explosions, a few scenes of the 300-strong commando, et cetera. I reduced the film to its essence. So at this stage it's really a tight, mythic, archetypal journey.”

Next project for De Villiers? “Holiday in Mozambique,” he says, adding quickly: “I wish.” he continues: “I’ve been commissioned to direct a documentary at the end of the year, which will keep me busy for a few months.” He is also devoting a lot of time early next year to begin writing a feature idea he has been toying with for a few years. “I won't say much right now, but it'll be something new. New in terms of my own work and new in terms of the South African local film scene.”

Then, of course, there are inevitable plans to develop Commando. “In his journal, Reitz left such an account, that the contemporary storyteller would have to be blind to overlook the potential for narrative and conflict and epic adventure. I'm anxiously awaiting ‘the’ Boer War film. Maybe I'll make it, maybe not. In some ways, I think I'll need some time before I can re-approach the Boer War as a narrative backdrop. It is both an incredibly foreign and an incredibly personal time and space. And like all narratives of conflict, the Boer War is riddled with wanton destruction and senseless misery. But then it becomes the responsibility of the storyteller to find the essence and function of the story, offering it to a contemporary audience, so as to perhaps communicate something with topical current value. But we'll see.”

And next up for Van Heerden? He’s currently in rehearsals for the fun musical Guys and Dolls, to be seen at Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from December 1 to January 6. He’s filling the role of Rusty Charlie, one of the sidekicks of central character Nathan Detroit, played by Quincy Fynn. The production is directed by Catherine Mace, produced by Bradley Marshall, choreographed by Mark Hawkins and offers costumes by Andrew Verster. Others in the cast include Donnagh Roberts, Janna Ramos-Violante, Lyle Buxton, Liam Magner, Clive Gumede, Michael Gritten and Ian (Ewok) Robinson.

Van Heerden is also writing a one-man show he intends premiering at Durban’s next Musho Festival, highlighting solo and two-hander plays. To be directed by Liam Magner, with whom Van Heerden performs as Neon Anthems, it will see Jacobus playing two roles – that of a 22-year-old rock god-wannabe called Felix and a nerdy 12-year-old called Fred. Titled Felix and Fred, it’s a madcap romp revolving around the two befriending each other in Knysna then finding themselves in a pickle when they discover a Thai druglord’s cocaine.

Van Heerden and Magner are also working on a new show, fans will be glad to hear - tentatively titled Neon Anthems: Felix and Tommy Strike Up. It is to be built around their zany collection of original songs and will showcase characters from each of their solo shows. Van Heerden will play Felix the rocker and Magner is set to portray his outrageous New Age deejay Tommy Guns, from his early solo success, Spun. Van Heerden is hoping it might even develop into a supper theatre entertainment.

Before that, however, the team plans another fortnight’s run of Tokoloshe Come and Go! at DHS’s Seabrook’s theatre, in May. That show is then set for its swansong at the 2008 Grahamstown Arts Festival, says Van Heerden. He is also keeping himself busy planning and presenting drama workshops for school pupils in Grade 10 or above, focusing on physical theatre, “thinking out of the box” and exploring both larger-than-life and subtle approaches to performing.

Any schools anxious to book him for such workshops should contact him at 084 637 1345 or jacobusvanheerden@yahoo.co.uk




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