By: Gillian Schutte
On 12 April 2018 we witnessed our dear friend, Odwa Shweni, tragically fall to his death while working as a cast member on our film. Odwa was a remarkable person who dedicated himself to his role because he believed in the social justice message of our story, which is a hybrid film that presents a searing critique of cyber trolling and racism. Little did we know how the tragedy of Odwa’s death would lead to further tragedy, and how our own lives would be further devastated by his loss in unexpected ways.
In the aftermath of the tragedy the media justly exploded in sorrow at the loss of an extraordinary person. However, there was also a dark and destructive explosion of speculation on social media where people, who did not know Odwa, or the facts of the case, wrote insensitive and derogatory slander about my partner Sipho Singiswa, and me. Rumors, untruths and conjecture also proliferated in the mainstream media and culminated in a City Press article that seemingly pronounced us guilty without any proof of guilt. Crimes and Misdaads in Rapport also published the same piece, again with no proof of guilt.
While Odwa’s family were grieving, and while investigations into the incident were underway, we believed it would be callous to comment. We did not want to centre ourselves in the narrative, and any attempt to correct the glaring errors in reporting felt as if we were putting ourselves and our feelings ahead of those of his family and friends. In retrospect, we should have done so because our silence led many to believe we were complicit in his death.
The time has come to correct the erroneous media accounts by stating what
we had in place for our shoot.
- Permission to film on the private location.
- Permission to enter through the Monks Cowl tourist route.
- Three medics on set, and a helicopter on standby.
- Two guides organized through the private location – the guides were
- also to be spotters on location.
- A safety and fight co-ordinator, along with Shweni and Singiswa as fight choreographers.
- Our safety person was also to act as Assistant Director for the fight scenes.
- Safety mats as well as extra safety gear.
- Contracts and insurance coverage.
- Accommodation at a reputable Berg resort that did our catering.
- Safe props including rubber knives on all our sets.
LOOKING BACK AT OUR PREVIOUS SHOOT
Our previous shoot at the Berg in December 2017 had been beset with logistical difficulties due to incessant rain. It was here that lead protagonist, Louw Venter, had seemingly decided to make an already difficult shoot much more difficult by throwing violent tantrums on our set and always when Director/Producer, Sipho Singiswa, was off set. Four sources report that he shouted and swore at them, telling them how useless and incompetent they were. A member of our crew told us that when Venter ranted and swore he thought he was being racist, but then he would joke with them the next minute, so he was confused.
A wardrobe assistant, who had been at the receiving end of one of his massive tantrums, says he accused her of spreading rumours about him being difficult to work with and of not performing her duties. She recalls that he called her useless and used the f-word repeatedly. In this instance I had heard loud shouting as I drove on to set and came in towards the end of this tantrum. I approached Venter when he stalked off set screaming expletives and he shouted in my face that they were all fucken useless. A witness to this particular explosion says he was totally out of control throwing his weight around.
When we spoke to some crew members about his behaviour they said that they often experience this behaviour from actors on shoots and though it upset them they were used to it. One source told me that if they complain they are often ignored and they feel as if they have no rights because when the camera starts rolling actors have all the power and some use it to undermine them. Our Assistant Director relayed to Singiswa that he was used to working with Venter and that this behaviour was not unusual from him. The decision was made that they would continue to work with him in an effort to finish the shoot.
Later that day, when I met with Venter about his issues, he gave me a long list of complaints, including the catering from the three star resort. It seemed nothing was good enough for the irascible Venter.
Despite the difficulties we finished the scenes. It was during our preliminary edit that it became apparent that the lead protagonist, who was playing the role of the husband, had not pulled off his character effectively. We realized that we would have to recast him and reshoot some of the scenes.
We recast Shweni as our lead protagonist. In our first preproduction phase we had auditioned Shweni, who we had turned down for the role despite his enthusiasm and fighting skills, because he had no acting experience at all. Shweni was disappointed when he did not initially get the role and very excited when I invited him back. We coached him in his role for weeks.
We had also hired Eugene Snyman as a fight and safety co-ordinator. It was agreed that Snyman would act as assistant director on the fight scenes as he had the experience to break down the sequences into blocks. Weeks were spent working out the parameters for the fight choreography and making sure that they consisted mainly of contained grappling moves that did not pose a danger to the cast members. Singiswa, who has a background in Kyokushinkai, Shweni who had a background in Judo, and Arne Bro who brought in Krav Maag, assisted in the design of the fight sequences and they began rehearsing the scenes to film for dissemination to the cast.
In February, I had sent Louw Venter an email with a preliminary textual sketch of the fight scene. After the choreography team had completed their sessions the plan changed, and I sent him another email on 4th of April, informing him of the changes. I attached the video to show him the new fight scene and to find out if he was comfortable with it. He sent me back the following message.
“Hi Gillian. I have watched the fight sequence video. It looks cool. As
long as we do things safely. Kwaai…”
Reports in the press after the tragedy make no mention of this email communication and refer only to the first email sent to him a month earlier.
The waterfall scene was recorded in the shoot schedule and sent to crew and cast in advance. We had meetings at our production offices to discuss the terrain and the scenes with the crew. Our director of photography (DOP) met with us to discuss the fight scenes, was shown the videos of the fight scenes and was sent video tutorials to ensure he understood how fight sequences were shot.
THE WATERFALL SHOOT
On the day of the shoot we successfully finished some scenes on the hill, despite Venter acting out again and throwing around loud disruptive commentary. At one point he shouted out “Why do I get the feeling that this is going to be a day I regret for the rest of my life.” We then moved onto the waterfall location, where Singiswa had set up a 16 foot crane as a safety measure, instructing crew and cast not to go beyond it. It must be noted that the waterfall location offers a sizeable flat rock plateau and was, at the time, open to the public.
On location the crew began to set up their rig and were given the safety parameters by Singiswa and Snyman. Singiswa checked with Venter and Shweni to see if they were comfortable with the location for the shooting of the scene. They both acknowledged that they were. Venter told Singiswa and me that they wanted to rehearse the scene thoroughly before the shoot.
Both Venter and Shweni assisted Singiswa in gaffer taping down the safety mats in place and they discussed the scene. There was only one move in the fight scene that required a landing mat and that was the judo slam, which Shweni had included in the scene as a judo practitioner as one of his moves. The fight scene was otherwise grappling moves on the ground. It was agreed that they would rehearse the controlled fight moves under Singiswa’s role as one of the fight choreographers and Director, while Snyman dealt with crew safety and set up. Shweni informed me that he had already thoroughly practiced the choreography with Venter at the resort while they waited for the location call.
The instruction to the actors on location was to rehearse the fight in slow motion and Singiswa informed them that the scene would be filmed in blocks. He also informed the actors that they were to enact their moves away from the water towards dry rock and gave instruction that they were not to touch the water at all as he would create the face in water scene with a go-pro under water at a rock pool on the resort.
During these rehearsals the medics were called onto the rock plateau from where they were set up around 10m away (not 300m away as reported). They had just attended to our make up lady who slipped in a shallow puddle on the way to the location (not into the river as newspaper reports allege).
The scene was repeated numerous times while Singiswa spotted and gave instructions.
Rehearsals were halted and I, via Singiswa, gave the instruction that the fight scene would be filmed first. I then left the DOP with the instruction to set up the cameras for the first take while I went to the hillside to call the production manager to bring the jackets down for the actors to wear after the scene. They were to wait for the director and AD to set up the take.
VENTER CALLS THE SHOT.
Snyman tells the account of him standing with Singiswa some distance away from the stream on the rock plateau where they were about to discuss the logistics in preparation for the first take, when they heard a commotion behind them and turned to see Shweni in the water.
Snyman and Singiswa immediately ran towards the water to try to get to him. Singiswa recounts that he shouted to Shweni not to struggle, but he was too late and Shweni had floated into the middle of the stream out of reach. He saw Shweni being carried over the edge of the waterfall. As he watched in horror he then saw me in the water, also being carried to the edge.
Moments before Shweni’s fall I was returning with the production manager and the jackets and I observed, from a distance, an aggressive fight playing out in full swing and not in slow motion, contrary to the instructions that were given to the actors during the rehearsals. I began to run toward them. Seconds later I saw Shweni struggling in the water. I instinctively ran into the water and lunged at him to try to get to him and ended up in the stream myself. I fell on my backside whilst trying to get to Shweni and as I watched him going over the edge I too was being carried to the edge of the falls. I found out later that Singiswa managed to save me in the nick of time. I have no recollection of being saved as I had been looking over the precipice of the falls and remember being swung in the opposite direction. I grabbed onto some grass. That is the last thing I remember. When I was back on dry rock, I began shouting for the helicopter and the medics, who were already running towards the scene as they were situated behind a bush on the location. Later they told me they were told by the crew to get out of shot so they moved behind a bush close by.
In my out-of-body state I began running up the hill because I knew that the helicopter was on the next door farm. When I got to the Monks Cowl entrance, I jumped into my car to drive to the helicopter farm and was intercepted by a police reservist who had received the call about the accident. He told me that it was too late for the helicopter, though it was still light.
Later, while I was in our hotel room in shock, Singiswa arrived to tell me that the crew and rescue team as well as the police were at the resort and wanted statements from everyone but that they knew I was traumatised from my near death experience and would interview me at a later stage.
I then received a call from the Digital Image Technician (DIT) complaining that he had not received film cards the entire day, so I drove down to the camera crew accommodation and found them unpacking the equipment. When I requested the cards, they became belligerent and hostile, insisting that the cards had been lost at the waterfall. It was only when they were told by Singiswa that the police insisted on receiving the cards as evidence and that the hotel would be placed on lockdown until they handed them over, that the crew gave him the cards. He handed them to the police immediately who went to view the cards with the DIT. After viewing the last card shot on the day the police requested a copy of it for evidence. Singiswa signed an affidavit given to him by the police to say that the footage would not be tampered with and a copy of the footage was made in the presence of a police officer and handed over.
The footage reveals the camera crew taking instruction from Venter to do the first take. They were not given instruction to shoot the first scene from the Director or the AD, as required by their contract. When the assistant clapper loader was asked later why she had responded to an actor calling the scene, she said both she and the DOP were confused about Venter calling the scene, but he was insistent, saying, “Let’s shoot the scene” and they all obeyed. She stated that she fell in line because the crew told her to write it up. The rest of the camera crew refused to answer any questions when asked.
What we see on the clip is Venter shouting – “I’m calling the scene OK.” He then shouts, “Action 3,2,1” and rushes into the fight scene looking angry. He and Shweni meet each other with incredible force and the fight begins in real time, ignoring all the safety protocol that had been rehearsed before. The fight scene is quickly thrown out of the safety parameters, and they are facing the wrong direction. Their movements are enacted toward the stream instead of onto dry rock. It is also clear that they have missed out on three moves of the choreography and that Shweni is seemingly disorientated by this. He shifts his body into the wrong direction. At this point Venter delivers a knee blow to his face and Shweni, who appears to be fighting for his life, backflips into the water. There is no backflip in the fight choreography. He was meant to fall to one side .
Venter has Shweni’s head in his hands and appears to be doing the head drown even though Shweni’s entire body is in the water and even though he was told more than once that the head drown was going to be cheated in a rock pool on the resort. Shweni does not lift his head at this crucial point and it seems that Venter is holding his head down while enacting the head drown. Venter, seemingly, only realises what has happened when Shweni starts to get carried downstream by the water and people start to scream. He makes no effort to grab Shweni’s ample dreadlocks but puts his hand on his head and looks directly into camera expressionless.
THE ACTORS AND CAMERA CREW ACTED OF THEIR OWN ACCORD
It is apparent from the video footage that the actors and camera crew at the relevant time acted on their own accord and without permission of the Director and the fight coordinator/AD who were in the process of discussing the safety parameters for the take. The fight scene ended up outside of the designated safety parameters that had been rehearsed thoroughly. It is badly framed and there is no artistic direction. Had the AD and director been present they would have called a halt to the take as soon as it went out of the safety parameters and as soon as the actors involved started the fight scene in real time.
When I asked about the accident Snyman says that it was brought about by a cast member “not acting with due diligence but above the authority of the director by giving instructions that are not within his or her contract as an actor or cast member. He displayed irrational and irresponsible behaviour.”
Singiswa says that the actor clearly decided that he had the authority over him to take over the shoot while he, the director, was discussing the logistics with the safety co-ordinator. This endangered the lives of the cast and crew as he took on himself the multiple roles of Director, Assistant Director, and safety/fight co-ordinator as well as actor.
Says Singiswa, “he has allegedly told the press that this was a dangerous location so we have to then ask what possessed him to behave so impulsively if he felt they were all in danger? As an experienced actor and director he would have walked off a set that posed any kind of danger. This is an example of the arrogance of a certain ilk of white men who feel that they have a god-given authority over Blacks. The majority of our crew are Black and it was only Black crew members who reported being at the receiving end of Venter’s violent verbal abuse. Perhaps this is what SAGA, IPO and other film organisations should be investigating.”
Venter had signed a contract in which it states that he will:
4.3 abide by all reasonable instructions and directions given to him/her
from time to time by the Company concerning his performance; and
4.4 be present as and when required by the Company at such studios or on
such locations as the Company may from time to time direct; and
4.5 comply with all studio and filming location regulations in force from
time to time;
THE TRAGIC CONSEQUENCES OF IRRESPONSIBLE REPORTAGE AND MALICIOUS SOCIAL MEDIA CONJECTURE.
After almost two years of lies and malicious speculation on social and mainstream media, I have decided to give our account of Odwa Shweni’s tragic death on our film set in April 2018. This cruel media onslaught has not only caused us terrible trauma, it also impacted negatively on the life of our son, Kai, who died through suicide in December 2019 after months of anxiety and depression, much of which was brought about by the many false allegations against us, anxiety exacerbated when one of his Wits lectures used the factually inaccurate City Press article in a lesson as an example on how not to make a film, something we only became aware of after his suicide.
I wish to stress that we are not the only victims of this story. Odwa is. So are his family. A rookie actor was bullied by an experienced one to ignore his instincts and the strictures of his contract, and in doing so he fell to his death. We have tried to ensure, despite this, that Odwa’s family received financial compensation through our insurers, because he was our friend.
The footage, which is in police custody as evidence, supports our version.
Rest in Peace Odwa Shweni and Kai Singiswa. You are both loved.
Artwork: Bonisa Bonani. http://instagram.com/bonisa81/
Copyright: Media for Justice on all content.