‘A lot of people don’t know history from the other side,” said Roberta Durrant, director of Krotoa. “When I was at school, we didn’t learn about the other side, we learned about Van Riebeeck. It’s a hidden history.”
The story of Krotoa, a 12-year-old Khoi girl who worked in Dutch colonial leader Jan van Riebeeck’s household, is an unfamiliar one to many.
After being offered to Van Riebeeck by her uncle, Autshumato, a Khoi leader and trader, Krotoa excels in the Dutch setting and eventually grows to become Van Riebeeck’s translator and interpreter
Her ascension to that role was an exceptional feat.
“She must have been a very attractive and intelligent woman for Van Riebeeck to elevate this woman to be standing and translating in what was a man’s environment,” said Durrant. “European women had no voices then. I mean, it’s a little over 100 years ago that women in Europe got to vote for the first time. Women did not have a voice, yet he had her work as his interpreter and translator in this quite male environment and that tells me that they had some kind of a relationship, a sort of special relationship, otherwise why would he have taken a woman because there were quite a few Khoi people who could speak the languages.”
Crystal-Donna Roberts. Picture: Supplied
Their relationship in the film, which is released nationwide today, is portrayed as one of mutual respect.
Van Riebeeck’s diary proved an important source of information in putting together the script. A number of historians and people who are familiar with the Khoi culture were consulted to draw perspective on Krotoa’s life.
Despite this, Krotoa is bound to spark controversy. “Which is good because it’s going to spark debate and that was the intention of the film,” said Durrant. “To open up a debate around the land issue, around identity. These are important issues. With her, she had real identity issues. She was fully integrated into the Dutch yet she was a Khoi woman at the same time.”
Durrant told of how she directed a film titled Felix which had a brief local run a couple years ago. Then, when it got on to the international circuit of youth festivals and won 17 awards, people back home started asking about it.
This time round she thought to test the waters with a couple of festivals around the world. It won an award wherever it was screened.
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Durrant and Krotoa scriptwriter Kaenne Williams had a few years ago successfully pitched to SABC a documentary about Krotoa. They realised when they made the documentary that there was a strong narrative feature possibility with the story because of the dramatic life she lead.
Armand Aucamp and Crystal-Donna Roberts in scenes from Krotoa. Picture; Supplied
“I think that in making a feature film you’re going to have a broader reach, in a way. And you’re packaging the content in a way which might be more attractive to an audience because it’s also in an effort to get her story out there and give Krotoa a voice, because females haven’t had a voice, historically. She was a very important woman in the sense that one believes she was quite visionary in that she did believe even way back then in the beginning of the beginning of colonialists coming here that there was a middle way between these two cultures.”
In the end, Krotoa finds this was not the case. Because she grew so close to the Dutch, she found herself distrusted by her own people and, eventually, after Van Riebeeck left the Cape, even the Dutch abandoned her.
In the end, Krotoa’s life spirals out of control. Disillusioned by not having a home and losing her children, she deteriorates rapidly into alcoholism. Despite this, even in the painful circumstances she experiences, Krotoa emerges in this film as a