Daniel Dercksen, founder of the training initiative The Writing Studio and well-known movie journalist, shares a few thoughts with 30-year-old writer-director Joshua Rous, whose film Discreet  is now released in South Africa and is guaranteed to stir up some controversy.

You were born in the USA. What made you come to South Africa?

It's a bit complicated. I was born in the states while my father was studying there but we left when I was 2 years old. As such I'm the only American Citizen in my family and was for many years the butt of "resident alien" jokes.  After growing up here my whole life I returned the America at to age of 19 to study. I spent seven years abroad studying four years in Boston (one of which was actually done on exchange to Oxford in the UK) and then three years in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California where I did my master in Film Directing. Then I returned to SA about four years ago and have been working in the television and film industry here ever since.

The reason I returned is that I truly love South Africa. I feel I am the best version of myself here, and all the stories I'm interested in telling are right here. I can't wait for the rest of the world to wake up and discover what a rich story heritage we have here beyond the very two dimensional topics they would prefer we stick too.

Tell me about Discreet

Discreet is an independently financed South African feature film starring James Alexander and Anel Alexander, that follows the one night a Christian and prostitute spend together. It's a film that pushes the bounds of how honest we could be with a complete stranger, specifically a stranger holding diametrically opposed viewpoints to our own. And ultimately it's a movie about sex, honesty and love.

You wrote Discreet as a play with James Alexander. How did your partnership with James begin?

James and I date back to high school, so having the odd decade and a half friendship under our belts made things significantly easier. We initially met as actors, both sharing the stage. When it became evident that my tremendous good looks were detracting from his performance, though, I moved behind the camera.  Having a shorthand with James and Anel, built on our years of friendship, made for very quick communication on set, a similar mindset and sensibility and most importantly, a level of trust you usually spend years forming with strangers. It was a pleasure and an insight to get to work with such close friends. I was more able to ask them to take risks, and our work environment was open, honest, non-judgmental, and most of all fun. It's always great to get to go to work with your best friends. I highly recommend it.

Why did you write Discreet?
Writing and directing Discreet was the opportunity for me to start a discussion about the two topics our society is obsessed with - sex and honesty.  Sex has become commonplace. We use it as a punch line; in advertising, music, films, and everyday conversation. Honesty is the opposite. We've become a society embarrassed by honesty. It's the dirty secret relegated to the hopelessly naive who don't know how to cut it in a world run by sarcasm, wit and duplicity. I wanted to make a movie that pits these two issues against one another in an attempt to show how closely linked they are. Adam and Eve's fig leaves have been moved from below the waist to in front of the eyes.  No longer is shame associated with nakedness and sexuality. These days we are afraid to expose our souls to one another.

Discreet was just the vehicle to explore this fascinating paradox. Set almost completely in one location and playing out in real time, the film is an exercise in placing one very pertinent issue under the microscope and then peeling back layer after layer of it. After all, who better to talk about sex and honesty than a prostitute and a Christian - the two people most often thought of as hypocrites in their own field of expertise?

Did you know then that it would be a film?

James and I initially wrote it as a play. However, my approach to theater was always as a filmmaker, and as such the play was always hyper-realistic and intimate. Ultimately, it was a play that wanted to be a film. As such, after two years of touring with the play around the country, it was just so logical to make it into what I'd always subconsciously conceived of it as from the start - a film.

Synergy between the writer and director is vital. Your views on this?

Absolutely, but then being both the writer and director kind of takes care of that. I have wonderful synergy with myself.

What attracted you to direct Discreet?

The thrill of directing a film like this lay in it never being just a theoretical discussion. The questions Thomas asks about sex are interesting, but they become riveting when he's putting them to a prostitute whose primary defense to answering them honestly is to tempt him into having sex with her.  In the same way, Monique's overt sexuality is provocative, but it becomes intriguing when it's constantly revealed as nothing more than a performance by an innocent whose only defense is blunt honesty.

The challenges for me as a director lay in intricately mapping out the power struggle these two diametrically opposed characters would travel together whilst all the while drawing them closer and closer to each other. After all, what greater directing challenge is there than a love story between two people unable to fall in love with one another?

Was it difficult to get the film to the big screen? Explain?

Difficult is a relative term. I imagine giving birth is difficult. So yes, getting this film on the big screen was extremely difficult. The surprising thing was that despite how difficult it was, it is imminently do-able. To all those embittered 'filmmakers' out there complaining about the industry as they sit on their fat asses not doing anything, I'm here to tell you it's possible. Hard - yes, impossible - no. We decided to go the indie route of selling 200 shares in the film at R5000 a share to raise a million rand. The hard part was swapping my creative hat for my salesman hat. No creative I know wants to be a salesman, but that's exactly what you have to do to get a movie made by yourself in this country. But anyone can do it. Will it be a good movie, well that's a whole different question. Discreet was a labour of love that caused us to call in just about every favour along the way, but it was worth it. And yes, it's a superb movie!

Do you think it is important for local filmmakers to spread their wings and gain experience internationally? How did this foster your career?

No, I don't think this is necessary in regards to becoming a good filmmaker. In regards to becoming a well rounded individual with a healthy view of the world and your place in it, then yes. But I think we have all the know-how and expertise here to make superb films. My seven years in the states and Europe influenced me as a human, and so I guess also as a filmmaker, but I'm sick of aspiring filmmakers flying the coop in the hope of gleaning some sort of magical knowledge abroad on how to make movies better. If you ask me it's an excuse to postpone that most terrifying of all deadlines - actually making a movie yourself. Everything you need is here, stop delaying the inevitable and get to work.

Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker? Where does this desire come from? What was the spark that ignited it?

I started as an actor. I've always loved telling stories, which I think I got from my dad. But no, it only dawned on me to become a filmmaker in my mid 20s. I was a late bloomer, but like to think I'm more well rounded because of it. That said, I think filmmaking is the single greatest communication medium of our day. If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be making movies.

You are comfortable writing and working in theatre and film. Do you have a preference?

I prefer film simply because you can get it closer to perfect than theater and you have more control as a director. Also, film is more realistic. Theater is by nature, theatrical, which I love, but has its limitations. It's rare to go to the theater and feel like the director reached into your soul and ripped your guts out. Movies and reality are, in my opinion, the most closely intertwined.

Your views on the state of the film industry in South Africa?

It's really sad. We have no movie-going audience, but that's largely because we don't make movies that the audiences want to see. As much as Leon Schuster is ridiculed by 'real' filmmakers, the guy has paid his dues in terms of making something like 17 films all for the same audience. And he wasn't an overnight success. It took time to build that audience, but he's done it and he's making a killing off it. If the SA film industry is going to grow it needs to employ similar methods, building an audience, hopefully bolstered by savvy directors willing to take calculated risks.

What do you think can be done for South African films to break into the international arena?

Make them a helluva lot better! And stop pandering to what we think the rest of the world wants us to make movies about, namely Aids and Apartheid. Seriously, we're a splendid nation with a lot more to us than those two issues.

What do you hope audiences will get from watching Discreet?
I hope they're challenged to re-evaluate how honest they are in their own lives. I hope they leave with a host of questions in their minds that won't let up for weeks afterwards. And I hope their stereotypes of prostitutes, Christians, love, sex and honesty and vastly challenged.

Any comments you would like to share?

Go see my movie. It's really, really good. We've made it elegant, of an international standard, and compelling. It's a great night out. Thanks.

Source: Re-printed with the kind permission of Daniel Dercksen.  For more information on  Dercksen's The Writing Studio and on correspondence courses for scriptwriters, go to  www.writingstudio.co.za.

Discreet is showing at Cinema Nouveau, Brooklyn Mall, Brooklyn, Pretoria. For more information visit www.sterkinekor.com