Johannesburg - Nosipho Roto was watching TV last Friday when she saw an advert for a film, Poppie Nongena, which is based on her mother’s life.
It was the first the 62-year-old had heard of the award-winning film adaptation of the celebrated novel, The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena, by Elsa Joubert, which has been translated into 13 languages and performed on stage locally and abroad. The film was released in cinemas on Friday.
“I was sitting with my mother’s youngest sister. When I saw the ad for the movie, I jumped up and shouted, ‘that’s my mother, that’s my mother’. Then the excitement went away and the tears just rolled out of my eyes. I couldn’t sleep that night,” recalled Roto.
Over the next few days, her relatives would take to Facebook and Twitter, aggrieved that the film-makers did not consult with them.
On Monday, the filmmakers responded on Facebook that they were “so pleased you have reached out to us on our page. When the film process started, the producers learned from Elsa Joubert’s family that they lost contact with the Nongena family after Poppie/Eunice passed away in the early ’90s, and subsequently had no way to reach out to any of her family”.
On Thursday evening, they arranged a private screening for the family at the V&A Waterfront with its cast and crew, including Clementine Mosimane, who plays the role of Poppie Nongena in the film.
It narrates the story of domestic worker and resilient Afrikaans-speaking Xhosa mother Poppie Nongena, whose real name was Ntombizodumo Eunice Msutwana-Ntsata, who desperately tried to keep her family together under the brutal pass law system in 1970s apartheid South Africa.
“My mother was an unsung hero, who was humiliated by the apartheid government,” said Roto. “She was separated from her husband because of the pass laws. It affected us as children, to be separated from our parents because of the pass laws.
“It was deeply emotional watching this movie This movie is not just a story that’s been created. It’s a true story. It’s about our lives. We suffered a lot as Eunice’s children.”
Her mother died of cancer in April 1992 in Khayelitsha. “My mom stayed in a two-roomed house in Khayelitsha and she died in that house. Even if you go there to see Elsa Joubert’s house and my mother’s house ,you’ll be ashamed. My mom lived in poverty.
“The people who wrote the book did attend her funeral. In an interview, they said that they lost contact with Eunice’s family. Yes, I agree, but she stayed in Khayelitsha and you could go to the municipal office or to the newspapers to find us.
“The film’s producers did not look for us. If they wanted to find us, they could have done more. They could have gone to Home Affairs - we all have IDs and they knew she was staying in Khayelitsha.”
Roto’s brother, Menzeki Ntsata, said the family had initially felt “hard done by for not even been consulted as to how we feel about the film.
“In newspapers and on TV we hear about the book and the film. It’s our mother’s story but we are kept at arm’s length and thought of as non-existent ...Elsa and family did attend the funeral of my mother and we had a land line telephone at that time, which they used to get directions on the day. How we all lost contact baffles me."
Since his mother’s death, “we never heard from Elsa Joubert/Steytler or the publishers. The overall feeling is that our mother was exploited. Now for her story is to be made into a film and her next of kin kept on the sidelines is a continuation of that exploitation.”
Attempts to reach the publisher have been unsuccessful.
“Quite honestly, I don’t blame them for feeling that way,” said the film’s producer Helena Spring. “Their feelings are justified.
“But it is necessary to contextualise. The real Poppie sat down 45 years ago with Elsa. Poppie told a story and Elsa recorded it and put it into book form. At Eunice’s request, aliases were used. The names were fictionalised. In those years, it would have been dangerous for the family and for Eunice to be identified.
“When Eunice died, Elsa and the entire family did lose contact. I’m so sorry we didn’t manage to connect earlier. We did ask the question over and over, ‘is there anybody left?’ But of course, there’s a 28-year gap in contact. How do you pick it up? We didn’t know where they were or who they were because we didn’t know their real names.
“When I heard the family reached out I was devastated because it was happening so late in the day but, on the other hand, I can’t tell you how grateful and thrilled I was.
“I’m deeply grateful we could show the film to them, to share memories with them. As a producer, I can only apologise and say I wished we were able to connect earlier but by the same token, I’m very grateful we did connect.”
Joubert is 97 and in poor health, she said.
“I can’t speak on behalf of the publishers but she was very fair and shared royalties equally with Poppie. What happened after Poppie’s death, I don’t know.
“I’m sure there’s a conversation to be initiated with the publishers. I think everybody will do what is correct and if I can contribute in any way to that, I will be delighted to do that."
The story of Poppie Nongena “is as important today as it was 40 year ago”.
“I’m very proud of the film we made and I hope the family is also proud of their story that’s been told. They can be very proud of their mother, grandmother, great grandmother, sister, all of the generations that were there (at the preview).
“This is just such an intimate story about one woman who had enormous courage to keep her family together and was really driven by her love for them. It’s the story of hundreds of thousands of South Africans.”
Ntsata said Joubert had now requested a meeting with them next week.