Sands of the Skei Queen

Anton Burggraaf

Sands of the Skei Queen by Ryley Grunenwald is one of 25 projects to be presented in May at the prestigious Hot Docs Forum, a pitching platform that runs during the annual Hot Docs international documentary festival in Toronto. This fascinating documentary-in-the-making is produced by her company Marie-Vérité Films. The idea behind Hot Docs Forum is to showcase projects with market potential to the world’s documentary top brass. The dream outcome is a commission, and with it, the funds to make the film.

This documentary is right on the money.

It’s about a controversial mining venture and its potential effect on a rural South African community. A young Eastern Cape eco-activist who wants to protect her tribe's land and titanium-rich beaches is fighting the authorities on all fronts: the Australian mining company that has no road access to the sand dunes, and the South African government that has approved a fenced highway to pass through homes, farms, and graveyards. The tribe’s king and queen have publicly protested this plan, only to be dethroned. Two of the activist’s anti-mining neighbours have been murdered and the community’s UN-sponsored eco-tourism lodge has been sabotaged. The story is dramatic in its scope and shrouded in complexity and contradiction. Perfect stuff for a feature documentary.

Grunenwald is extremely fortunate. The Hot Docs festival ranks alongside its European counterpart, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam as the top go-to documentary film festival in the world. Both these festivals are geared towards “creative documentary” content and so-called passion projects. This differentiates them from other platforms where content is more run-of-the-mill, the kind of documentary programming that proliferates on satellite TV. Hot Docs takes itself seriously. Content is punchy and combines with high-end production value with exceptional integrity.

Hot Docs is in its 19th year. This year’s slate has 189 films from a record 51 countries, chosen from 2 085 submissions.

“This is a big year for Hot Docs,” says festival director of programming Charlotte Cook. “With the largest country representation the festival has ever had, we will be hearing many new voices from all over the world. It’s wonderful to be able to bring such a great range of films to Toronto audiences, to champion documentary in a city that truly supports documentary as an art form.”

Grunenwald is ecstatic about pitching Sands of the Skei Queen to the Hot Docs Forum. It’s a big sell. “You have an audience of top broadcasters and commissioning editors, about 20 of them, and an audience of around 450,” she says with a nervous laugh. “It feels a bit like you are on Idols, and the presentation room is like the Harry Potter dining hall, long table and everything!”

She is not joking. To get a taste of what Grunenwald is in for watch the Forum promo video of proceedings here:

The high-pressure experience is only seven minutes long. In that time Grunenwald will play a three-minute teaser trailer and follow up with a verbal pitch.

But a tease worthy of generating international interest does not come cheap. Grunenwald and business partner Pascal Schmitz therefore turned to the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) locally, and to the Alter-Ciné Foundation in Canada for international support. This enabled research, development and a three-day location shoot to produce a very elegant promotional tool.

Watch the make-or-break international trailer for Sands of the Skei Queen by Gauteng filmmaker Ryley Grunenwald of Marie-Vérité Films:

The film is deeply personal and comes from a familial love of the Transkei wild coast.

“My family has been going there since the 1930s,” says Grunenwald. “My great-grandfather was a tradesman and sold skins in the area. We’ve been going there on holiday regularly since then.” Her great-uncle was stationed there during World War Two, ostensibly to hunt Nazi U-boats. “So I was pretty horrified when I heard about the [mining] developments. I was intrigued. Then I met the activist Nonhle [the film’s protagonist]. Before this I was coming from the idea that my holiday paradise was going to be obliterated and then I realised that this is about a whole community’s life. Their spirituality is embedded in this landscape. When I figured it out, it felt very Shakespearian, with murders, family intrigue and plots. And very serious too.”

She is cognisant of the complexities. “This is not a simple issue. [So it will be] really important to hear all voices. The one argument is, why aren’t these people being consulted? Another is that a lot of the people are unemployed, they walk six hours to school, have no electricity, and travel a whole day for the hospital.”

So the mining venture means both exploitation and development simultaneously. It’s a dilemma, even for the local inhabitants. “But how do you define development?” Grunenwald asks. “And how do you define poverty? These people would be horrified if you told them they were poor. It’s insulting. They see us from the city as poor.” This is meaty stuff.

Grunenwald began her career in the camera department, working as a drama cinematographer. But after Journey to a Dream (Safta Best Documentary, 2006) got her a special mention, she fell in love with the documentary genre and the idea of telling her own stories. She soon decided to complement her cinematography with directing. Her directorial debut, The Dawn of a New Day (2011) dealt with access to healthcare through the eyes of three West Africans in need of specialised surgery. It won international Best Pitch, Best Documentary, Best Director and Best Cinematographer of a Documentary at the 2012 Saftas.

Grunenwald will be attending Hot Docs along with a relatively large South African delegation, representing the Documentary Film Association, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the NFVF. “Our industry is small because our market is fragmented so international sales is important. One way to get out there is to go to international festivals like this one,” says Grunenwald. The DTI Export Marketing and Investment Assistance scheme is responsible for most of the funding. This incentive scheme is aimed at developing export markets for South African products and services abroad, and recruiting new foreign direct investment and potential customers into South Africa.

With a story as good as this and the means to make it happen, Grunenwald seems certain to charm her way to an international commission. Inspiring stuff.