Who Fears Death? mockup
The Next District 9?
Given the global success of District 9, it’s surprising that we haven’t seen more African science fiction films, especially considering the literary surge that saw The Guardian tip South African speculative fiction as “this year’s Scandinavian crime novel scene.”
That could be changing, with two high-profile book adaptations and a host of other science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction features in development on the continent.
South African producer Helena Spring has just bought the film rights to Zoo City, Lauren Beukes’ Johannesburg-based 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, which was also a finalist at The British Science Fiction Association Awards, The World Fantasy Awards and The John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer, as well as being long-listed for The IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Spring produced the Oscar and Emmy nominated Yesterday and just wrapped the Disney South Africa co-production, Mad Buddies, with South African box office legend Leon Schuster.
American Kisha Cameron-Dingle of Completion Films has scooped the rights to Nigerian author Nnedi Okorafor’s 2011 World Fantasy Award winner, Who Fears Death?, which was also a 2011 Tiptree Honour Book and a 2010 Nebula nominee.
Cameron-Dingle, an associate producer on Sometimes in April and Bamboozled, is also the director of The Focus Features Africa First Short Film Program and has a first-look deal with the studio.
Zoo City is a gritty urban noir fantasy about Zinzi, who has a sloth on her back, writes email scam letters, and has a magical ability to find lost things. When she’s hired by a reclusive music producer to track down a missing pop star, she hopes it’s her ticket out of the slum she calls home.
In contrast to the mixed genre Zoo City, Who Fears Death? is a more traditional, coming-of-age fantasy story, set in a rural, far-future, Africa where a female sorcerer reshapes her desert dystopia.
Cameron-Dingle described it as “Lord of The Rings in Africa” but that’s misleading: a more accurate description might be Lord of the Rings written by a post-colonial feminist, inspired by the brutal Sudanese genocide, with a love story against a backdrop of female genital mutilation.
Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu (From A Whisper, Pumzi) is slated to write and direct Who Fears Death?, while Beukes, an experienced TV writer, has first look to adapt the Zoo City screenplay.
Cameron-Dingle and South African producer David Horler are also developing Tok Tokkie, a futuristic Cape Town ghost thriller written by Jenna Bass, a graduate of both Africa First and Story Camp, Focus Features’ invitation-only laboratory and workshop for low-budget, under $1 milllion projects.
Tok Tokkie, which Bass says developed from the idea of “an SPCA for ghosts,” won the 2010 Durban FilmMart, taking home The Hubert Bals Fund Award for the most promising African project.
Told from the POV of a ghost, Tok Tokkie is the furthest along of the three projects: it has local production funding from The National Film and Video Foundation and is looking for additional money to shoot in 2012, with Bass directing. Zoo City and Who Fears Death? are both still at script development stage and looking for co-production partners.
A number of other South African genre projects are also underway. The first to shoot is likely to be Etienne Fourie’s The Windmill, a love story about a small group of aging friends who discover that the water pumped into a pond by an old windmill restores youth, but only temporarily, and with unexpected consequences. The 52-minute post-graduate version won Best Film at the recent AFDA Awards, receiving the highest audience rating in the film school’s history. It will resume shooting in the first quarter of 2012 with ZenHQ Films producing.
Originally published in Variety, January 2012