Premiered under the Un Certain Regard banner at Cannes Film Festival 2018, Die Stropers (The Harvesters) is the directorial debut of Etienne Kallos, set in the flat farmlands of the central Free State province…
A tale of two foster brothers – enormously different – in a silent fight for power, The Harvesters is a moody, moving, brilliantly-shot Afrikaans and English language drama reminiscent of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. It’s a coming-of-age story of masculinity, explored within the realms of the Free State’s conservative Christian white-Afrikaner community.
“Director Etienne Kallos had the seeds of the idea for many years,” producer Thembisa Cochrane comments. “As a South African director, he had worked with some Afrikaans actors who came from a farming background and saw resonances of his own experience. Etienne got into his car and simply drove out to farms to explore further. He was warmly welcomed by Afrikaans farmers and the story emerged organically from there.”
While developing the story, Kallos – who also wrote the film – began to unpack ideas of masculinity in a heavily patriarchal culture “and the fractures in identity that can come from being a product of post-colonial South Africa,” says Cochrane. “It emerged as a Cain and Abel-type story, in which the spiritual and cultural fractures manifest as a fracture between two characters: two young men who are mirrors for and of each other.”
The film follows Janno (15), a young Afrikaner who feels out of place in his fiercely religious community, where young men are defined solely by their strength and masculinity. Though his body is well-developed due to working in the fields from a young age, Janno is different – he is guarded and emotionally frail, partially due to his emerging homosexual desires. One day his mother, Marie, takes in a boy named Pieter – a tough street orphan; the son of a prostitute and a drug addict. Marie asks Janno to bond with Pieter as his brother, but the two boys, different in every aspect, begin an on-going fight for power, heritage and parental love.
Brent Vermeulen (Janno) and Alex van Dyk (Pieter) were cast as the leads, delivering nuanced, tempered, vivid performances in their very first film roles. “Alex had never even been in a play,” explains Cochrane, who says that casting the two lead roles was one of the biggest challenges. “We couldn’t start too far in advance because the boys had to be in exactly the right physical and emotional space between childhood and adulthood. Then when we were finally greenlit, we faced the massive challenge of finding enough boys to audition, since it’s still a conservative culture and there are themes of sexuality in our film. The good news is that times are changing – a few years ago it would have been much harder to get Afrikaans boys in high school to sign up for this material, but we found many of them didn’t mind,” she comments.
Cochrane adds that the real challenge was getting into schools and getting permission from parents and principals to have the boys on the shoot: “It was always clear we wanted these roles to be played by authentically Afrikaans boys, and – on top of this – it was critical that the chemistry between them worked. We only found Alex two weeks before the shoot, which you can imagine was very stressful for everyone. Luckily, it worked and the performances are incredible and have been widely applauded.”
Vermeulen and van Dyk were supported in their preparation and on screen by the talents of seasoned local actors Juliana Venter (as Marie) and Morné Visser, who plays their father (named Jan).
The Harvesters was shot in June 2017 in KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State by Polish cinematographer Michal Englert, who – together with Kallos and production designer Barri Parvess – developed and flawlessly delivered the earthy yet hostile look and feel of the film, which – according to Cochrane – was inspired largely by the land itself.
“The physical presence of the land was always an important driver for Etienne and so the style he developed with cinematographer Michał Englert emerged from their preparation time together on our shoot locations,” Cochrane expands. “That landscape, in KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State, with its koppies and striking flat-topped mountains, was the starting point. Etienne wanted to create the feeling that the landscape was more important, or more powerful, than the characters. In the film there is also a strong sense that God is watching. God, in many ways, is the land – and in the film questions are raised around duty to the land, and what duty means in order to be good. In some ways, Etienne wanted the camera and the music to be part of ‘God’s judgement’.”
With a very small budget and a very complex international financial setup, the crew were forced to make some innovative decisions when it came to gear. This included shooting a lot of the outdoor scenes with natural light. “We were lucky to have an extremely skilled South African gaffer and dedicated grips and lighting teams who were very small, but managed to make it work,” Cochrane explains.
The film was shot on the Arri Alexa XT, “as we felt it was a flexible and robust camera which could deliver the quality of image our cinematographer wanted and perform well in the remote conditions of our shoot,” she adds. The Alexa XT was paired with Zeiss Super Speed lenses, which were selected for their maximum flexibility with exposure conditions.
The aim was to be as small and mobile a unit as possible, shooting mainly handheld and using a tripod only when necessary. This meant that for a long time Kallos and his team tried to resist the use of a dolly, “but it became clear that some of the smooth, carefully composed and moving shots Etienne wanted would need heavier grips equipment,” says Cochrane. In the end they used both a Filmair Squirrel and Fisher 10 dolly.
The Harvesters is an official co-production with four countries – South Africa (Spier Films), Greece (Heretic), France (Cinema Defacto) and Poland (Lava Films) – and thanks to its international partners, image and sound post-production were carried out in France and Greece. “On the shoot we had crew from Poland, France, Greece – these were very flexible artistic people who were used to the independent sector in their own countries and it was great to see them work with our South African crew, who get fewer opportunities to work in a less hierarchical way on smaller films for international film festivals,” Cochrane comments. The film’s score – percussion-heavy, utilising a traditional Japanese instrument to create sounds that mirrored the landscape – was composed by celebrated French composers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine, who were nominated for the Cannes Soundtrack Award for their work on The Harvesters.
Financing and festivals
Conceived as an art house film, financing the project took a few years: “We had a lot of European financial support, mainly the CNC in France, other public French funds, the Greek Film Centre, the Polish Film Institute and Eurimages,” says Cochrane. In South Africa, the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission supported the film, “which we were incredibly grateful for and this really gave the film its home base,” she adds.
Pyramide International also supported from the very beginning and subsequently handled international sales of the film and distribution in France – where it has already achieved great success, going on to win the Grand Prix at the much-lauded Chéries-Chéris Film Festival. In South Africa, Indigenous Film Distribution released Die Stropers in local cinemas on 15 March.
The film has enjoyed a successful run on the international festival circuit, starting with its world premiere in the Cannes: Un Certain Regard section – where it received a standing ovation – and going on to play at festivals in Melbourne, São Paulo, Mumbai, Taipei and Morocco, to name a few. It also won the Rome Film Festival’s jury prize for Best First Film and has just had its North American premiere at the Miami Film Festival on 8 March.
Applauded for its exploration of toxic masculinity, sexuality and cultural identity, Cochrane says that there is enough space in the film for viewers to generate their own meaning, and she hopes that local audiences will find resonance in the questions the film poses about masculinity, religion, sexuality, ownership of land and cultural identity.
“The themes in the film have a lot of universal relevance for both South African and international audiences. Questions of identity and culture are very much at the forefront of the conversation worldwide, so on the most basic level for South Africans this opens up a hard and nuanced question about the place of the white Afrikaner, but that question can be expanded more broadly for anyone who experiences fractured identity, anyone who feels they do not belong firmly to any place or people. There are other very universal themes in the film, too: the critical view of religion as a fortifying force in a loveless and unforgiving world; sexual confusion as a part of adolescence. We hope audiences will appreciate being challenged to respond to the film, and so far the experience has been that mostly people do have an emotional response and ask questions. That’s what we want,” she concludes.