Following last week’s launch of A United Kingdom – a cinematic production chronicling the romance of Seretse and Ruth Khama in an era where inter-racial fraternization is frowned upon, Voice journalist, Tumi Tlhabiwe, probes the mind of one of the movie’s producers – Motswana, Arthur January.
How long have you been in film production?
I’ve been producing for about 20 years now. It all started with theatre. I was in the States for about five years which is where I gained my experience in film making. I then came back to Botswana in 2002 and set up a company called Clockworks Studios which did television and film locally in Botswana.
Where did you go to school?
I went to North Side Primary before doing my high school in South Africa.
Where did you go for University?
I attended Columbia Film School in Los Angeles, Hollywood.
Can you list some of the projects you’ve produced in Botswana over the years?
Quite a few hey. I did a documentary series on BTV titled Boswa. It was about prominent personalities in Botswana. So we covered Mogae, Masire, Seretse, Dr Chiepe and other activists.
I also did a game show series, a drama series and mostly television commercials for private companies here in Botswana. I also had a recording studio for musicians.
What musicians did you work with?
I worked with Vee, I worked with Helen, Eric Ramco – I don’t know if you remember him.
Yeah I do.
Would you say it was difficult to break through into the production industry in Botswana?
Look we have to admit that we have a growing industry, a very small but growing industry. It will take a lot of time to get to the levels that we want to get to.
But that’s why when a foreign production like A United Kingdom comes, you have to really go for it and try to get involved in the production process.
There’s been a favourable response to the movie internationally but not so much locally, why do you think that is?
I have a problem with Batswana who actually don’t know much about their history. Also with filming, you can only tell so much in a short period of time.
You can’t tell the entire story of what unfolded back then. This is something Batswana need to grasp. As a film maker, you are limited to what you can show because although we would like to cramp everything into 90 minutes we can’t.
What challenges did you face during the production of the movie?
I would say some of the workforce here in Botswana. This [production of the movie] was something new to them.
A lot of the workforce was not used to the long hours that accompany a production like this but that’s what comes with film making and I hope that everyone who was involved in the film now understand that 16 hour work days are required even in the heat.
Do you know what the budget for the movie was?
I do know the budget but I’m not at liberty to discuss that.
Local critics have highlighted the lack of Batswana citizens in the movie, how would you respond to that?
When it comes to a script you are given certain characters that come with the script. It goes back to me saying that a thousand people that want to be involved in the film can’t be involved in the film.
For example, they maybe only five characters in the script and you can’t change that just because a thousand people want to be part of the film.
So the parts that were available in the script, we certainly made a call out to our local talent in Botswana to audition, which they did.
Those auditions resulted in 10 actors being chosen from Botswana and the others were used as extras.
How long did it take to shoot the entire movie?
We were in production for six weeks in Botswana and four weeks in London.
Is it historically accurate that Seretse Khama proposed by the River Thames, right under Big Ben as depicted in the movie?
I’m actually not sure.
Many say it was for historical effect.
I’m really not sure so I can’t be quoted.
Do you think the main character – Seretse Khama, could have been played by a local consequently propelling his career, much like Sharlto Copley in District 9?
Very much possible. In this particular film, David Oyelowo [main character] was involved 7 years ago and this was a passion project for him.
That is how he ended up starring in the movie. He wanted to play Seretse and that is how we ended up making the film.
Did he [David Oyelowo] invest any of his money?
Certainly so. He’s credited as one of the producers.
Do you happen to know who the primary historian who informed the movie was?
The film is based on the book Color Bar which is written by Susan Williams so much of the content she did the research for.
Critics of the movie take qualm with the fact that throughout the entirety of the film, Seretse Khama is referred to as the King and not Chief of the BaNgwato, effectively misrepresenting him to the world. What would you say to them?
In my experience having travelled the world, a lot of people don’t know what a chief is. First thing that comes to mind to them is Red Indians when you mention it.
But the minute you mention king, they associate that with the leader of a tribe or government.
The term king is really just used to accommodate an international audience.
But don’t you think that now, for instance, they’re children who’ll watch this movie in the UK and think to themselves that Botswana had a king and that we were previously a monarchy? Which isn’t true.
I wouldn’t say so. I mean chief and king are really the same. I’m not defending the film; I just think it’s the same.
Also remember, this is not a historical film and so certain creative liberties have to be taken to ensure the profitability of the movie.
The funders have to see returns and so a more international approach had to be adopted.
Is it a BBC film?
Yeah it is. It’s Pathay – who are the financers, together with the BBC.
My final question; would you be willing to give motivational talks pertinent to producing at institutions like AFDA? The students there often talk of how the Cape Town and Jo’burg campuses get Mnet stars. You could be their inspiration.
I would be honored to give talks. Arrange it and it can certainly happen.
Thank you Sir, that’s awfully kind of you and I’m highly grateful for the interview as well.