As a filmmaker I am deeply drawn to making Snake, a psychological thriller that, unusually, is told entirely from the child’s point of view. The child’s perspective distinguishes it from other films in the genre and gives the story a refreshing tenderness that stands in stark contrast to its sinister undertones.
In terms of my filmmaking journey, Snake in a natural continuation from my first feature, Tess, 2016, a gritty story of a sex worker who must face her past to find her inner power. Notably, Snake is written by Tracey Farren, the author and screenwriter of Tess. Farren has a gift for diving deep into the hearts of ordinary people while astutely setting the South African socio-political context.
In South Africa our past feels very raw. Our story still hurts. Even personal narratives have political and historical subtexts. As a white South African, I am constantly re-examining my own place in this country, trying to come to terms with our violent colonial history and continued inequity. So the film is also a personal exploration of inequality and privilege, about the damage we wittingly or unwittingly inflict upon others.
Stella, an ordinary ten-year old with extraordinary tenacity, is the film’s protagonist. Her deepest desire is to keep her family intact. Her arch-antagonist is Jerry. From the get-go, the film tantalizes its audience with the question: who is this stranger Jerry and why does he insinuate himself into Stella’s life – charming her and her family? As the film nears its climax, the truth finally unravels: Jerry is Stella’s half-uncle, hell-bent on revenge for his own childhood abandonment. He is the offspring of a female servant who was raped by the farm owner. To bury his shame, the farm owner dumped baby Jerry at an orphanage and Jerry’s mother subsequently committed suicide. Jerry’s psychopathic behaviour is rooted in a violent colonial history, whereby black women were particularly violated; and by the cruel machinations of Apartheid, which saw him being separated from his mother. This backstory gives the audience some empathy for Jerry’s rage, and adds to the complex psychological layers: no one in this film is wholly good or bad.
Notably, politics frequently play a role in the thriller genre, and in many ways, the politics of the characters’ private lives in Snake are a metaphor for our unsolved politics of land. Snake is set in the Overberg region, with its lush orchards and vineyards. But the Overberg is also a site of social unease, having seen a number of farm workers’ strikes – reflecting the inequality that prevails in South Africa as a whole. Stella’s family live in poverty, as squatters on their ancestral land. They pin their hopes on a small government grant for previously disadvantaged farmers to buy land. But their dream is tenuous, relying on the ‘‘willing-seller’’ principle, whereby land can only be re-distributed should the current owner be willing to sell it. In Snake, this inadequate policy allows Jerry to slyly scupper their plans, by lying to the owners, warning them that their land will all be ‘grabbed’ should they willingly sell any bit of it. Persistent land inequality is a ticking time bomb, and Snake both taps into white fears and gives a voice to the landless. The peril of evading land and economic redress is the film’s grave sub-textual warning.
Despite its local subtext, Snake is also a universal story of hope. Like my previous film Tess, Snake is an exploration of humanity and personal choices and strives to be neither clichéd nor superficial. Like the character Tess, Snake’s protagonist Stella is initially voiceless, and her journey is to finding her own power. Once she fully grasps the predicament her family is in, Stella knows what she has to do. She survives because she believes in herself and identifies her own way of conquering extreme violence: speaking the truth, even when it is life-threatening to do so. The film’s tagline is When lies start to kill, truth is the only serum – a profound principle in the Age of Trump and fake news, where truth is so terrifyingly under siege.
Beyond being a statement about poverty, inequality and truth, Snake is also a deeply spiritual film. Stella has an intuitive connection with the land and with animals. She knows every inch of the farm, and embraces it with a fearlessness that only children can do. Along with speaking to the truth, it is Stella’s bond with nature that eventually helps her overcome catastrophe and save her little sister. Defiant and courageous, Stella restores order in her own universe and in that of the adults around her. Snake is an ethereal film, a lyrical story that embraces the human condition in all its darkness and lightness, that tells us that sometimes we can’t settle for the easy way out. Eventually, the magic wins out and the inconceivable becomes reality.
In terms of visual style, I would like to build on the methods that cinematographer Bert Haitsma and I used for Tess – what we call a “constructed documentary” look. We wanted the viewer to feel as if they are there, with the protagonist Tess – living and breathing with her. So we used a lot of hand-held camera and tracking behind or alongside the character, to give the audience the sense of experiencing the world along with her.
The cinematography for Snake will go even further in allowing us a close look at Stella’s world. Unlike in Tess, we will use a lot of point of view shooting, with the camera actually becoming the character and taking on the child’s unique perspective. When we are with Stella the camera can’t pre-empt the action; it has to react in the same way Stella does. This really defines the look. A useful reference is the exceptional Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012). The cinematography in Snake will similarly capture how a child balances magic and realism – without any clear divide. However, unlike Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Stella doesn’t envisage imaginary creatures, but rather connects to the magic and innate power of the natural world. Imagine our cutting from a wide shot of the farm in the morning mist to extreme close ups from Stella’s point of view: drops of water dangling from leaves; a spider on its web; a nest of wriggling baby snakes rich in detail and colour. These are the minutiae of Stella’s private universe, where she can escape from the world of poverty and violence.
The story contains an enduring image that clearly captures this sense of the otherworldly in the midst of the everyday world. This is of Stella high in a tree, tapping out music on wine glass bottles that she has hung from the branches. The tree is a place where Stella retreats to reflect, seek solace and to manage her fears and anger. The empty bottles are testimony to her father’s alcoholism that threatens to tear the family apart. Yet, Stella uses the bottles to tap out an ethereal music, transforming them into an object of beauty – a motif that works on both visual and aural levels.
Given that Stella is such a musical, auditory child, the sound design needs to capture her heightened experience of the aural world – without overwhelming or alienating the viewer-listener. Sounds are often uncannily close, to create discomfort and tension, but are not unnatural. The slow cracking of eggs; truck wheels growling; Jerry snapping the neck of Stella’s pet rooster; a belt buckle clacking against the car window as Jerry murders a policeman: these all create layers in a riveting yet unobtrusive soundscape. The absence of sound too plays its part: silence and ‘synonyms for silence’ – small detail sounds such as taps dripping – often create suspense in the lead-up to a frightening moment.
Music is part of this film’s DNA. Stella is constantly singing, alone and in the school choir. Stella and Jerry are notably related by blood, and share an innate talent for music. When Stella asks Jerry how he plays the flute, he touches his chest, replying, ‘It’s in my body.’ Stella replies fervently, ‘Me too.’ Jerry smiles, ‘You and me are the same’. Stella’s enchantment with Jerry is broken when she finds him being intimate with her mother. Furious, Stella smashes the hanging wine bottles with the flute Jerry gave her to blackmail her into silence – showing her burgeoning defiance. On the school stage before her entire community, Stella shrinks from Jerry’s flute, and the control it represents, instead finding her own voice to belt out Amazing Grace, clear and true – preempting her climactic triumph in speaking the truth at long last and so saving her family.
As a story about truth, as a chilling tale that nonetheless offers warmth and the possibility of transcendence, Snake remains indelibly etched on one’s mind. On the one hand Snake is a stark and timely political parable; on the other, a dreamlike tale that needs a directorial touch as delicate as Stella’s unfeigned receptivity.