A World Apart, A Dialogue in Three Parts: Shawn Slovo by Liza Béar

A World Apart explores apartheid through the eyes of the young daughter of political activists in Johannesburg in 1963. This interview is the first in a three-part dialogue with screenwriter Shawn Slovo, director Chris Menges, and actor Linda Mvusi.

BOMB 25 Fall 1988
025 Fall 1988
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Shawn Slovo. © 1988 by Kevin Smith.

May 9, 1988, the week before Cannes. A gray, misty Monday morning in Central Park, across the street from the Mayflower Hotel. Exiled South African writer Shawn Slovo has just returned from a screening tour of A World Apart. As we walk down the narrow twisty path, Shawn tells me how responses to the film differed in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and amongst men and women. After a while, we reach a dark green wooden bench overlooking a sandy baseball field where kids are playing. We stop.

Liza Béar Is this okay?

Shawn Slovo Sure. It’s nice to be out of the hotel. The only reason I’m staying there is because I used to work for Robert de Niro and he keeps a suite there. (I turn on the machine and pick up the thread.)

LB The events upon which the story is based took place in Johannesburg in 1963. You started writing the screenplay some 20 years later. Was it just the pressure of time passing that made you take the plunge or something specific?

SS It was my mother’s assassination on the 17th of August in 1982. She was assassinated by a parcel bomb…. she was working in Mozambique at the University, as the director of the department of sociology. The parcel bomb came into her office. We’d had quite a volatile and intense relationship, like most mother-daughter relationships, but we were beginning at this point in both our lives to talk about the past, about the guilt and the anger. And suddenly she wasn’t there anymore…. So that was the main spur. If she was still alive I don’t think I would have written this particular script.

LB Had you done much writing previously?

SS I’d been working as a story editor and script fixer for about ten years. I’d done a lot of rewriting.

LB You felt pretty comfortable with the medium.

SS Yes. When I wanted to write, it was always scripts I wanted to write. I had been preparing myself for quite a long time, learning and reading other scripts.

LB What made you select this particular time period for the story?

SS You know, I wanted to tell the story through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old because I thought it would make the situation of apartheid more accessible to Western audiences. A 13-year-old can ask the (right) kinds of questions…. At the same time, 1963 is quite a crucial period because that was when the repression that we have today began. The African National Congress (ANC) became outlawed and banned in the early ‘60s, the Communist Party had been banned, the leaders were arrested and detained, or else went into exile. It’s quite a crucial period in South African history. I’m not sure whether I’ve succeeded…. I know I haven’t succeeded in placing it in its context from the reaction of audiences, but I think if people’s curiosity is aroused by the setting, then that goes part way towards what I hope the film will do, which is to focus attention on South Africa.

Molly’s attitude to her mother’s activism is a mixture of curiosity and resentment. The script uses both these attitudes as vehicles for incidents that trigger the plot. Her desire to know is partly a desire to not feel excluded from her mother’s world, even though she cannot really shoulder the consequences of knowing, or the attendant need for secrecy. It’s also partly a desire to assert her own developing ego against her mother’s. The resentment is created by the effect of the Barbara Hershey character on their relationship. Her mother is too busy to hear her, even when Molly has something politically relevant to relate to her. Molly sees her mother’s work as taking precedence. She feels shortchanged when the constant and mounting demands of the struggle reduce their brief snatches of time together to perfunctory conversation. It’s a classic dilemma, not exclusively a filial one. Molly wants attention on her time and on her own terms. But the struggle cannot wait and an activist must live at an accelerated tempo, feels an urgency far removed from the normal routines of domestic life.Molly wants to know and yet cannot quite assimilate this knowledge into her world of private school and Spanish dance lessons. By the same token, Molly’s growing political awareness, which is not acknowledged by her mother, alienates her from the other thirteen-year-olds, supporters of the apartheid status quo. Ironically, as the plot tightens its screws, Molly becomes more and more isolated. Her father’s flight from the country and her mother’s arrest under the 90-day Detention Act make her the object of ridicule and insults at school, and eventually lead to the loss of her closest school-chum. Yvonne, who had vigorously defended her from her schoolmates’ taunts earlier on, now abandons her at the point when her mother is in jail and Molly needs her most. Molly increasingly turns to the housekeeper Elsie for companionship and solace, accompanying her to the township where her family is confined.

LB The bits of background information that were presented were used very skillfully as plot elements—actually it’s one of the reasons I enjoyed the script. It seemed everything was necessary and had a place.

SS I’m glad to hear you say that. We minorities also need films.

LB You still think of yourself as a South African?

SS Well, in my heart, yes. I have British citizenship and I’ve never been back, but once you’re born there… It is the most beautiful country in the world…. And when you have the kind of history that I do, it’s hard to detach emotionally from it.

LB Were you born in Johannesburg?

SS Yes, in 1950.

LB So you were probably your mother’s age in the film when she was assassinated.

SS Pretty much, a few years older.

LB And you were exiled after your mother’s release from jail?

SS My father went underground because the ANC was having to regroup and this was the time that they made the decision to switch over to armed struggle…. My father went in this capacity to get international support.

LB Did he support armed struggle?

SS He does, yes.

LB He does still.

SS Yes.

LB And did your mother?

SS Well, yes. You know. I mean, it’s… Yes. (pause)

My father left the country illegally. He went away to do his work, fully intending to come back. While he was away there was the Rivonia raid. They arrested Nelson Mandela and the others….

LB For treason.

SS …And tried them for treason. As (my father) Joe Slovo was part of that group, he became a wanted man. It was purely by coincidence that he was out of the country. And he tells the story that there was a meeting of the (ANC) executive where his leaving the country was an issue. There were seven of them. Three of them said he should go on this particular mission, three of them said he should stay in the country, and Mandela as the chairman-leader cast the vote that sent him out of the country. Otherwise he would have been with them serving a life sentence. But for him there was never any choice about what he was going to do for the rest of his life. A lot of South African political exiles went on to build up other kinds of careers, but he has steadfastly committed himself to the African National Congress and to the struggle. And my mother was given the burden of bringing up… Of being the breadwinner. But anyway, while he was away they introduced the 90-Day Act, and she was the first white woman to be interned under the Act, and after 117 days when they released her… She wrote a book about it called 117 Days…. They banned her, which meant she couldn’t work as a journalist and be quoted. So she applied for exile and they gave her a one-way exit visa and we joined my father in exile in England.

LB You were telling me earlier that you really feel men have a different response to the film?

SS Some do, yes.

LB In what way?

SS Some are extremely moved. It depends on their history, I suppose. I think men feel quite uncomfortable, don’t know how to relate to the Barbara Hershey figure because she’s not the stereotyped… It’s actually not a film about a woman who wants to get laid. Some of them had a bit of difficulty with that. They find her cold in the first part of the film. I think that shows a lack of understanding of the sorts of pressures that were operating on a woman like my mother, who was not only a mother but a journalist and an activist. It’s quite rare to see that portrayed in film.

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Barbara Hershey and Jodhi May in A World Apart. Courtesy Atlantic Entertainment Group.

LB At one point the interrogator tells her, we saw you, we followed you, you were the only woman there. Was she unique in this respect?

SS Yes she was, for those times. The African National Congress was quite a sexist organization. My mother (whose professional name was Ruth First) had a lot of difficulty as a woman being in the ANC because a lot of the black members of the ANC held that tribal traditional view of women walking ten paces behind them. But she was quite unique in the extent and scope of her activity because of the kind of woman that she was. She wasn’t the only one….

LB But there were very few.

SS Uh huh.

LB How significant is it that your mother was a member of the Communist Party?

SS The Communist Party has worked alongside the ANC—it’s part of the liberation struggle. My father is now both the Secretary-General of the South African Communist Party and the only white member of the executive of the ANC. You know, he’s known as public enemy number one, as a KGB colonel, the bogeyman who gets his orders from Moscow! CBS recently did a 20-minute segment on Joe Slovo, I don’t know if you saw that….

LB No, I didn’t.

SS Oh, you should see it. It was really interesting. One of the things that kept coming up was, “Where d’you get your orders from?”….

LB American paranoia.

SS …And then even they had to admit that a recent CIA-FBI investigation of the Communist role in South Africa concluded that the Eastern European countries are helping the ANC with financing and arms, but that there is absolutely no evidence that they are behind or masterminding…. It’s a fabrication by the Bothas and the Thatchers…. A conspiracy.

LB A lot of the events presented in the film are based on memory, but not entirely. Was it a natural, organic transition for you to go from memory to imagination, or was that a struggle?

SS It was a struggle. The first drafts of the screenplay were kind of therapy. You know, Molly was the victim, and it was messy and emotional and self-pitying. That was the struggle within the writing and getting it to some control, some detachment.

LB How long did that take?

SS I did it over a period of about 18 months. I wasn’t doing it exclusively because I was working at the same time. It took about five drafts before I felt it was in any condition to take out and show the world and then there were major rewrites even after that once Chris had become attached.

LB The film was shot in Zimbabwe. Were you involved in choosing the locations?

SS Oh yes. I had a very unusual experience for a writer. It’s partly because the director Chris Menges and Sarah Radclyffe the producer have a lot of respect for writers, partly because it was an autobiographical story. So I was there on every single reccy—…

LB What is a reccy? Reconnoiter?

SS Yeah. And I was there throughout shooting, both in a consultative and in a writing capacity.

LB Was there much rewriting done on the set?

SS Not really. I think the script was ready to shoot by the first day of principal photography. It wasn’t that there were problems. It was always a little bit too long. But I was there also for the actors who were uncomfortable with certain parts of their roles. There weren’t any major changes, the script was in pretty good shape by the time we started. And Chris wanted the film to be as real and as authentic as possible, so he cast all those subsidiary roles….

LB He cast them himself?

SS With Susan Figgis, who’s an amazing casting director. A lot of credit must go to her. They worked very well together. Chris wanted the people from the region who had had experience in the liberation struggle, not only in South Africa but in Zimbabwe, to be involved, and I think that’s what contributes to the emotion and the authenticity…. The woman who played Elsie is a South African exile who’s actually an architect living in Harare. She had a brother who was murdered by the racist regime. So when her brother Solomon in the film died, the feeling that came up was real.

LB What do you think of Barbara Hershey’s take on the role of Diana Roth?

SS Without being like my mother, what she’s done that’s quite extraordinary is that she’s created a very believable and sympathetic and compassionate portrayal of the character.

Molly’s parents in the story had been activists since she was born. Knowing how children imbibe values from their parents, how come Molly didn’t take it more for granted, by the age of 13, how come she wasn’t completely acclimatized… The reason is, because of the history of the liberation struggle. During the fifties, when Molly was growing up… Apart from a period in 1957 and a period in 1960 when we went into exile, we actually had quite a normal middle class upbringing. My parents were arrested for treason in 1957 and held for a week, and then they were acquitted….

LB But otherwise there was no visible disruption of daily routine.

SS Not really. It was a very different, exciting kind of childhood. My parents were really involved with what they were doing. People like Nelson Mandela would come to the house and visit them….

LB So the threat and the menace and the danger weren’t already there….

SS At times, but ’63 was the first time I really felt that my world was going to be turned upside down. Also, Molly would have been ten in 1960 and the increasing demand and dissatisfaction and the fear comes with age….

LB Molly feels more comfortable with the maid Elsie than with her mother….

SS Well, her mother tends to be absent, and Elsie’s always around.

LB An activist also has to work under conditions of ironclad secrecy. I like the way the secret drawer in Diana Roth’s study functioned in the plot.

SS Oh yes, (secrecy) was a constant theme. My parents were continually having meetings in cars. Someone would come to the house and then they’d walk out into the street…. Questions were met with vagueness and evasion. (The early morning mist has still not dissipated. The air feels cool and damp. We relocate to the restaurant.)

LB Have you always seen yourself as an activist in relation to the South African situation?

SS No… In fact, one of my prime motivations for wanting to work in the film industry was to get further away from my parents’ area of activity. But I identify very much with the liberation struggle.

LB As the film clearly shows. But are you interested in the concept of an activist—other than as part of your autobiography or making the screenplay work?

SS Well, it’s something I think about all the time…. I’m a member of the African National Congress and I participate as much as I’m able when I have the time, but I’m certainly not what I would describe as an activist. I would like to be able to bring the skills that I’ve developed in my own life to (the struggle)… To somehow tie the two things together. And the film is one way of doing it.

LB How significant is the ANC now?

SS It exists only in exile. But all the organizations within South Africa like the UDF, the trade union organizations, have all adopted the ANC charter. They just can’t call themselves the ANC. I don’t see how anyone could not embrace the Freedom Charter of the ANC.

LB They set the agenda, is that what you’re saying?

SS Yes, and they’re recognized by every country in the international arena as the spokespeople for the mass democratic movement in South Africa. The charter opens with the declaration that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, both black and white…. Of course, factionalism is quite a problem too.

LB Does the ANC see divestment as desirable?

SS Not only desirable, they see it as the only thing to avoid a bloodletting in South Africa. The racist regime will not be able to exist without…

LB …The support of the multinationals. So is it actually making some headway? Because a lot of companies have pulled out.

SS Yes, but it’s got to be total to make any headway. This country (the US) is where the hope of the ANC lies. Margaret Thatcher has such a regressive attitude towards South Africa. Her people, the Foreign Office, have been talking to the ANC, because they know the future of British investment in South Africa depends on their forming a relationship with the ANC. Suddenly, Margaret Thatcher, who is intent on taking the whole country back to the Middle Ages—anti-gay legislation, by cutting inroads on the Health Service and education—has been branding the ANC as terrorists in public. There’s a big contradiction in British policy, a real short-sightedness on their part. The ANC sees a lot of hope in the activism in America, what’s happening now in isolated pockets, but it has to be a concerted legislative national effort for it to have impact. Not only in Britain and the US, but also in Germany and France and Japan.

LB Why did the Abelson father (the father of Molly’s best friend) develop such incredible hostility towards Molly after her mother’s arrest?

SS Out of fear. He’s a businessman and the people that Diana Roth, the Roth family, represent he regards as a complete threat to…

LB …The established economic order…

SS …The economic order, and (he thinks) after the revolution he’d have to leave. Which is actually a misreading out of ignorance. Because it’ll be a mixed economy. The big fear, again out of ignorance, is that it’ll be a totalitarian communist dictatorship state. The Botha regime preys on (the fear among white South Africans) that they’re going to lose all of it. (pause) You know, I’m not under any illusion that this particular film is going to change anything….

LB Well, it’s pretty hard to change things…. But the South Africans are portrayed as warm, humorous, lively, and you feel that in spite of the conditions, they find their own ways to survive and enjoy life, maybe even have fun….

SS Well, it’s very interesting you should say that because one of the criticisms I had while I was doing this publicity student tour was, how could I portray black South Africans—you know, that scene where Molly finds a foot in the chicken soup…

LB That’s a great scene.

SS It’s my favorite too. And I love the way Chris directed it. It was shot exactly the way I had imagined it when I wrote it. But people said, how can you show happiness, isn’t this a kind of Uncle Tom representation. And the answer is, just because people are oppressed, it doesn’t mean… That’s the amazing thing about South Africans, they have the capacity of space and love and warmth and spirit, an indomitable spirit….

LB …That can’t be crushed…

SS …No, so victory is certain.

Beyond the Frame: Dialogues with World Filmmakers (Praeger, 2007; 336pps), a collection of Liza Béar’s interviews with 55 filmmakers from 23 countries, is available from select bookstores or online at www.amazon.com. For more information go tohttp://lizabearmakingbook.blogspot.com.

Liza Bear’s first feature, Force of Circumstances, is now in distribution through Double Helix Films. She teaches film at Columbia University.

A World Apart, A Dialogue in Three Parts: Linda Mvusi by Liza Béar
Mvusi 01 Body
A World Apart, A Dialogue in Three Parts: Linda Mvusi by Liza Béar
Mvusi 01 Body

A World Apart explores apartheid through the eyes of the young daughter of political activists in Johannesburg in 1963. This interview is the second in a three-part dialogue with screenwriter Shawn Slovo, director Chris Menges, and actor Linda Mvusi.

A World Apart, A Dialogue in Three Parts: Chris Menges by Liza Béar
Menges 01 Body

A World Apart explores apartheid through the eyes of the young daughter of political activists in Johannesburg in 1963. This interview is the second in a three-part dialogue with screenwriter Shawn Slovo, director Chris Menges, and actor Linda Mvusi.

The Same Now: Johannesburg to New York by Brittnee King
Mocada11 Body

Johannesburg to New York, a joint exhibition by Samson Mnisi and Cannon Hersey, at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts succeeds, ultimately, at inspiring unity.

Originally published in

BOMB 25, Fall 1988

Stockard Channing, Frederic Tuten, Dorothea Rockburne, Shawn Slovo, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe & Stefanie Hermsdorf, Gary Stephan, Chris Menges, and Linda Mvusi.

Read the issue
025 Fall 1988