Andrew Worsdale gets the low-down from producer Diony Kempen about the making of Meisie, the opening night film at this year’s Durban International Film Festival.

The great director Francis Ford Coppola said: “I never ask people for permission to make a film. Instead I present them with the fact that I’m making a film. If they’re wise, they’ll get in on it early.”

Johannesburg-based filmmaker Diony Kempen embraced this philosophy and with no cash but heaps of responsible recklessness and a credit card he produced Darrell James Roodt’s new no-budget feature film Meisie.

The film tells the story of a gifted young girl whose father forbids her to go to school, insisting she rather stay at home to look after the goats. But she has a genius-like natural talent for maths and it’s only when a young replacement teacher arrives in town that she realises her unfulfilled potential.

This simple story is set in Riemvasmaak, a town in the remotest part of the Northern Cape, on the edge of the Kalahari. This mountain desert wilderness covers 75,000 hectares and is owned and run by the Xhosa, Nama and Coloured communities. The area was used as a training ground by the South African Defense Force between 1973 and 1994 and it was here that Kempen first met Roodt more than twenty years ago while doing their national service.

Little did the 17-year-old troops know then that they would go back there to make a feature film on a wing and a prayer with a credit limit in the New South Africa. Local television was not even four years old then. In fact, Diony remembers growing up in Johannesburg without a TV: “My folks used to take me to the drive-in on Saturday nights, so from about three or four years old I was watching double features. Then on Saturday mornings we went into town and watched movies in the Colosseum and His Majesty’s with the little balconies and awesome stars on the ceiling. So I’ve always had a romantic fascination with the movies. Something magical happens when you go into a cinema, the lights go down, everyone goes silent and we all wait to jump into another world.”

Kempen started his career in television as an assistant floor manager. “My first job was to roll autocue and make sure the sets were clean. I really learned a lot during this time, working on end-of-year TV extravaganza stuff for people like Ken Kirsten and Anne Williams. After a few months I began handing in proposals for shows but it took three years before someone took a chance on me producing a show.”

His decision to make Meisie without a proper script and to go straight into production was the result of years of disappointment trying to get bigger projects off the ground. “I have spent so many years writing scripts and even longer rewriting scripts and I guess out of frustration decided to commit to making a movie and not writing a script. I am not a writer, but I make television programmes – actually craft stories and physically make stories and programmes. I wanted to take those very practical, hands-on skills and use them to make a movie. I went with the idea of making Meisie for three reasons. Her story could be told on our tight budget, the location would add tremendous value, and the film showcases the important role education and teachers play in society. I would not, however, have attempted this without Darrell. He understands story and character and his strength is his ability to tell dramatic stories on screen.”

Armed with the bare bones of a story, the two set out for Riemvasmaak last December on a scouting expedition and fate smiled on them when they got stuck in the hired car. “We were exhausted from hiking back to the main road, covered in sand and sweat, when we met this man who was walking back from work. He knew a guy who could drive a tractor – the only tractor for miles – to help tow our car. We walked into the village and Abrina ran up to greet her dad and wow, there she was!” The little girl was Abrina Bosman, who ended up playing Meisie herself. The filmmakers had found their captivating lead.

The teacher is played by Renate Stuurman (known for Scandal and Isidingo) who came on board the night before the skeleton-crew were leaving to begin production. “At short notice another actress became unavailable and Renate stepped in,” Kempen says. “She is perfect for the role and was superb working with local non-actors. Not only was it an issue of budget, but it was also relevant to the story – an outsider stepping into a tight-knit community. She interacted beautifully and got the best out of all the other actors. She worked in 40-degree heat and incredibly dry, dusty conditions. She was a gem.”

The crew was kept as small as possible. “Firstly our budget did not allow for any luxuries and secondly we kept numbers down out of respect for the community. We were barely noticed and made very little impact on the delicate environment. A smaller crew also meant faster setups.”

And how did they finance the basics? “The first stage was my credit card. The second stage was Darrell’s credit card. Then some friends and family came on board. Once we had completed production and began post-production SABC 2 became interested. We are still in negotiations with them. Importantly though, a lot of people bought into the idea of Meisie – the Riemvasmaak Trust, actors and crew. They liked the notion of jumping into the story with blind faith, passion and a dream.”

After the screening in Durban, Anant Singh’s Videovision came on board to distribute the film worldwide. This means that more money will be forthcoming to finish the movie and then launch an advertising campaign to support distribution.

Does Kempen think that micro-budget filmmaking is the solution for a vibrant local feature film industry? “Yes and no. Yes for people with no or small budgets who have a story to tell. This might be the way for first-time writers, directors and producers to go out on a limb, make mistakes and learn without the pressure of big studios. No for the industry at a national level. We still need the big investors who come in and champion filmmakers and their stories. Give them the money to make big movies that the world will look at to see South Africa in a new light.”

Kempen is enthused at the moment, like any filmmaker who defied the odds to make his movie. “Standing on a rock in the middle of the desert Meisie had a particular energy. We were trying to tell her story to the best of our ability and you are up against the elements, with just a handful of us involved in telling the story. When you’re on that shoot your focus is absolute and you’re just trying to make it work to get it all done. Then there is a shift when you see the mechanics of the film begin to work. You feel thrilled at the way it comes together with very few people involved. Then you begin showing other people and this tiny little movie is up against huge odds. When we heard that Durban was going to screen it we were thrilled. To open the festival was like the cherry on top.”