The haunting, far-off quality, like the voice of one’s conscience, was to be the central element of What abou’ de lô?.
What abou’ de lô? by Adam Small (21 December 1936 – 25 June 2016) is an iconic poem in the Afrikaans language; published in 1961 it addresses the inhuman racial segregation laws under Apartheid, which, amongst other things, criminalised love across ethnic boundaries. Adam Small was the first ›coloured‹ voice in Afrikaans literature to be published and to criticize the political system.
In 2014 I managed an animated poetry project, funded by the ATKV (Afrikaans language and cultural organization). We asked a panel of three prominent literary experts to compile a list of representative Afrikaans poems for this purpose. The presence of Adam Small on this list was a given – and this specific poem was selected unanimously. What abou’ de lô (What about the law) is a South African Romeo and Juliet tale: »Diana was a white girl, Martin was a brown boy. They fell in love, they fell in love, they fell in love …«
Charles Badenhorst is a musician and animator who grew up during the last years of Apartheid. From an early age he felt an affinity with the poetry of Adam Small. When he became involved with the Filmverse project and had to select a poem, Adam Small was for him the obvious and only option. The original concept for the film was loaded with metaphors and imagery alluding to the Apartheid years. It was going to be a political film, condemning the inhuman political system which was Apartheid.
I am not partial to poets reading their own work on the soundtrack of a film: Unless the poet is also the filmmaker, the poetry film will be made by an artist with an own take on the text, a ›second reader‹, and I feel one needs a voice artist with some distance from the text as well. Also, poets are not necessarily accomplished at performing. With Adam Small it was different: he wrote in a very specific Afrikaans ›dialect‹, nowadays called ›Kaapse Afrikaans‹ (Cape Afrikaans) for lack of a better, and all-round politically acceptable, term. Adam Small performed his poetry on radio so many times through the years that the sound of his gentle voice was virtually synonymous with his poetry. We decided that it would be apt for the poet to read the poem himself. Already frail at the time, getting Adam Small to a recording studio was difficult. A prior recording of the poem could, strangely enough, not be found anywhere in the South African Broadcasting Corporation archives. Margot Luyt, a well-known Afrikaans radio presenter of especially poetry programs, a friend of Small and member of the poetry panel on the project, took it upon her to get the recording made. Several attempts to get him to a studio failed due to his health, and in the end the only option left to Margot was to record him over the telephone.
When Charles and I received the recording via e-mail from Margot, we were awe-struck. We both immediately realised that Charles’ preparation for his envisioned film was going into the waste basket. The haunting, gentle voice was calling as if from the past – it was calling for a different kind of film. It was not aggressive, accusing or judgmental, as Charles’ film was bound to be. It was full of pathos, telling a story of a very human tragedy, and ultimately of the human condition. Charles decided that the focus of the film should be the poem, and the way it was delivered. The haunting, far-off quality, like the voice of one’s conscience, was to be the central element of the film. Around that he constructed an open-ended world in which this message is received – a listener, without identity, without gender, without emotion, in a timeless domestic environment, listening to the radio, making tea, smoking a cigarette. The rest of the sound design in the film is minimal – a kettle boils, a drawer is opened, the scraping when a chair is moved. They have no meaning in terms of the text being delivered; they underscore the mundanity of the activities of the impartial, unemotional listener.
I think it is meaningful that this film was made now. If made in the sixties, it would have been a different film. It would have been more aggressive and political, addressing the injustices of the Apartheid system, like Charles’ original intention. As it is now, it quietly delivers poignant social commentary of its own, relevant for our times, and related to the social comment of the poem itself. The voice over the radio calls us from the sixties, reminding us of injustices which once existed, before many of us were even born. And reminding us that injustices still happen daily all over the world, in the name of ›the law‹. We allow them to happen, as we docilely listen to the reports of them on the radio.
About the author
Diek Grobler was born and grew up on a farm in the northern part of South Africa. He obtained a BA Fine Arts degree from the University of Pretoria in 1987, a MA in Fine Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1996, and is currently reading for a Phd in History of Art at the University of South Africa. He has exhibited professionally since 1988 and his work is included in several major public and corporate collections in South Africa.
Grobler’s art practice covers a variety of media and disciplines. Aside from his fine art practice, he has illustrated children’s books, and has directed and produced several short animated films which has garnered 4 international awards and has been included in the official programme of more than 40 international animation festivals.
Since 2014 he has been creatively managing Filmverse, an animated poetry project which aims to advance Afrikaans poetry and animation. Films from this project has won awards at Annecy, the 1st Weimar Poetry Film Prize and the Silencio Poetry Festival in Lisbon, Portugal. He lives and works in Pretoria, South Africa.