Andrew Worsdale takes a look at the inventive comic Dutch road-movie Surprise! which is also a foreign affair development initiative for the Netherlands.  The film wrapped in Gauteng last month.

“Four years ago, I stuck a fictional film review on the door of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Development Cooperation in Holland.  The film that was the subject of the review would be very controversial because for the first time it would show an Africa that is more than just sad,” says Simone Heemskerk, a co-initiator of the film Surprise!, which is not only a comic road-movie but also a Dutch government initiative to change their youth’s perception of Africa.

The film stars award-winning up-and-coming Dutch actor Frank Lammers as Frank Meutstege, a perfectionist and arrogant director of commercials who is about to get married.  But before that, he reluctantly travels to Africa in order to accept an award for the hard-hitting, heartrending “Help Malinda” commercial about the plight of poverty-struck Africans that he made 15 years ago.  But when he arrives a dark-skinned teenager who claims that she is his daughter confronts him.  The conceited director immediately thinks that this is a con trick, but the youngster seems to have valid documentation and proof that she is indeed his daughter.  Frank believes this revelation could not only be a disaster for his upcoming marriage but also to his entire reputation as a director of top commercials.

In order to find out the truth, he has to go to the village where he once recorded the “Help Malinda” commercial.  He sets off together with the young girl and their journey is interrupted by strikes and rebellions so they’re forced to take an improvised route through the wilds of Africa to get to the village, where it turns out fifteen years ago Frank was once madly in loved with Malinda, the leading lady of his famed commercial.

The low-budget movie which was shot for around R6 million in many diverse locations around Gauteng from the informal settlement of Diepsloot and bustling Marabastad in Pretoria to Nash’s Farm in the Magaliesburg was line produced by prolific independent South African producer Richard Green (Soweto Green, M-Net’s New Directions Series, The Wooden Camera amongst others) for Endemol Productions based in Lonehill.  It was an initiative of the Dutch TV company Palazzina and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Development Cooperation, but it is the first time that charity financiers in Holland have helped produce a feature film for cinemas.  The partners on the movie include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs/ Development Cooperation, Plan Nederland, The National Postcode Lottery (NPL), Llink, MTV, CoBo Fund, National Commission for Durable Development (NCDO) and PSO Capacity Creation in Developing Nations.

The producers say that many Dutch youth have ideas about Africa that are stereotyped: Africans are hungry; make war, die of AIDS by the thousands, so why pour money into a bottomless pit?  Their challenge they believe is to make this target audience aware that Africa is more than that.

Simone van den Ende, creative director of Palazzina who co-produced together with Dutch Mountain Movies, claims that, “In order to reach young people, you have to surprise them.  They have to leave the cinema confused and enthusiastic, having laughed at something you’re not supposed to laugh at.  They will have recognized themselves in the Dutch and in the African characters.  And we hope that the film has shown them a different Africa.  Shocking and demolishing taboos, but always with humour.  In other words Surprise! is not specifically about development aid, but it will make sure that young people will think about the issue when they leave the cinema.”

The film was written and directed by Paul Ruven who was responsible for one of Holland’s most successful films Filmpje which also won 3 Golden Calves, the Dutch equivalent of the Oscar.  He and actor Lammers were joined by a small crew from Holland, including director of photography Goert Giltay, executive producer Jean-Pierre Claes, art director Mares Thomassen and production manager Bernadette Bout.  The rest of the cast and crew were made up of South Africans, in fact director Ruven spent considerable time holding extensive auditions and call-backs to find local talent with the help of Johannesburg-based casting director Christa Schamberger.

They are hoping for a release in the Netherlands early next year and the distribution will involve extensive marketing and educational campaigns aimed at capturing the youth audience and also reinforce the film’s aim to give development cooperation a new and refreshing face.  What’s more is that all earnings from the film will be put into a foundation whose aims are to give real development aid.  Whether that would involve building a school in Diepsloot or investing in equipment for a community radio or TV station will be decided at a later stage, but the producers are hoping that the film can have a positive impact not only for Dutch audiences but also for the very Africans the movie focuses on.

In fact Surprise! seems to be much more than a movie, it’s a real attempt to mix contemporary culture in the form of cinema entertainment with practical idealism on the ground.