Zola Maseko peruses the Pan African Literature section of a popular chain book store.
The well-known director is looking for Pumla Gqola’s experimental autobiographical essays collection, Reflecting Rogue. Before he can find it, something else catches his eye. “Hey,” he stops to exclaim. “Just look at that.”
He grabs the book and shows it to me. It’s a promo picture of Sello Maake Ka-Ncube and Amrain Ismail-Essop on the cover of Zakes Mda’s The Whale Caller. Now a major motion picture is the text running across the top of the book.
On the day I am to interview the producer and director of The Whale Caller, which opens at South African cinemas today, the restaurant we’d agreed to meet at was closed and so, being early, Maseko decided to find Gqola’s book while he waited for me.
It’s cosmic (and hopefully unplanned) that we come across a version of Mda’s 2006 novel that now bears a cover of Maseko’s newest film.
“I saw it on a tweet but this is the first time I actually see a physical cover of it,” he says.
Then he smiles: “I wasn’t expecting that.”
There was a tight-knit relationship between Maseko and Mda – who is also the screenplay writer.
“It was a unique and very special relationship because I have read a lot about writers adapting their own books for the screen and it’s usually a very traumatic exercise for the writer because they get very defensive and protective of their story and don’t understand the film,” Maseko said.
“Zakes was completely different. He understands film and understood that these are two different mediums. He said to me: ‘I can’t lose. If you make a bad adaptation of my book, then the audience is going to say Zola Maseko made a bad adaptation of a good Zakes Mda novel. If you make a good film, then people are going to say Zola Maseko made a good adaptation of a good Zakes Mda book. So I can’t lose.’ That was very generous of him.”
And here’s a spoiler alert. As Maseko said: “The first thing I said to him was I am changing the ending. He was like: ‘you know what? Anything you want. This is your vision’. His generosity blew me away.”
The Whale Caller is about a boy who discovers that he can communicate with a Southern Right whale through the blowing of his kelp horn. He falls in love with this whale, which he names Sharisha, and this is the cause of great conflict between the whale caller (he has no name in the story) and his eventual lover, Saluni.
The whale caller is played by Maake Ka-Ncube who, as Maseko says, didn’t have to audition because Maseko had him in mind the entire time he read this book.
Saluni is played by Ismail-Essop. Over 19 days, they filmed on location in Hermanus and the result is a magical realism movie that could have done with better CGI.
Maseko is not immune to criticism of the film. In fact, during the interview, he points out some of it and seems to understand the critique.
He explains: “When (the whale caller’s) parents died, he felt abandoned. People don’t understand death and take it to be the greatest desertion.
“As a child, he felt defenceless against the death of his parents. So he fell in love with the whale because he wanted something certain in his life. He says: ‘whales always come back, just like clockwork’. So he doesn’t want to be vulnerable to being in love. That’s why he had no connection with human beings.
“Someone commented that there was no synergy or chemistry between Sello and Amrain. It was said as a criticism that they were miscast. I think the person who said it expected that in films, you must see why the love interest could fall in love with him.
“If you understand the whale caller’s background – this is a man who is misanthropic and has no human relationships – that man is going to be awkward in any social circumstances. That’s why there’s no chemistry between them. Saluni is a lovechild, a gypsy almost. And he is the complete opposite.”
Maseko read the book when it was published a decade ago. He was instantly enamoured and contacted Mda.
With Mda being a revered author, his fans may expect the film to follow the book closely. But Maseko has news for them.
“Books and films are two different mediums,” he says.
“Books take place in the mind and each individual forms their own picture based on what they read. A film is more direct in the sense that it is visual.
Whenever I adapt a story, the first thing that gets me is: can I translate what I have read, visually?”
* The Whale Caller opens at cinemas today.