THE GIRL WHO MADE STARS
We have raised the majority of the film’s budget but are currently seeking a small amount of additional finance to complete production. If you would like to become an investor please contact executive producer Julian Friedmann: email@example.com
The /Xam were stone-age hunter-gatherers, living in the Northern and Eastern Cape of South Africa before they were wiped out by colonisation. No one is left alive who speaks the /Xam language but their scattered descendants, of mixed race and speaking Afrikaans, with little education and no resources, have reclaimed their heritage and explored their roots in a Centre in the remote village of Nieu Bethesda. Their remarkable tapestries are being exhibited and bought by museums, most recently the British Museum in London.
The ancient myths explored by the First People artists at the Bethesda Arts Centre include tales about the creation of the Sun by a wise old woman and some mischievous children; the relationship between humanity and the wind; the creation of darkness and the moon by the ubiquitous Trickster figure who permeates the stories; and the creation of the stars by a frustrated young woman in her first menses, from which the film takes its title.
These stories were recorded by linguists Lucy Lloyd and Wilhelm Bleek in the 19th Century. Their informants were Bushmen prisoners in the Breakwater prison in Cape Town whom Wilhelm Bleek persuaded the authorities to release into his custody. He and Lucy Lloyd learned /Xam from them and translated the stories into rough manuscripts in English. It is these manuscripts that have been used by the arts project as a source.
Jeni Couzyn is a poet and psychotherapist, born and educated in South Africa. Fleeing from South Africa aged 23, with Apartheid raging, she declared then that if it ever ended she would return and set up an Arts Centre. In 1998, on a trip from London, where she lives now, she came across the village of Nieu Bethesda, in the heart of the Great Karoo. She purchased a dilapidated mud building, and by the following March the Bethesda Arts Centre was up and running.
For the last twenty years Jeni has been working with the local community in a holistic way. Alcoholism and abuse have been addressed with “clean meetings” roughly based on AA principles. Poverty, nutrition and health have also all been improved by assistance with a reliable income, good food at the Centre, and medical support. A need for education has been addressed from many different angles, including literacy, computer literacy, and trips to cities. Art skills have been offered by visiting professional artists in disciplines from stained glass, ceramics, printmaking, textiles, to performance skills and clowning. And it has been through art making that the participants have been enabled to explore their identity and reconnect with their heritage as descendants of the /Xam Bushmen.
22 September 2005
The Bethesda Foundation
In South Africa we have a saying, “You can eat an elephant only one bite at a time”. I commend to you the Bethesda Foundation, an organization that has set itself the task to make poverty history in Nieu Bethesda, an impoverished community in the beautiful Eastern Cape.
The banner headlines surrounding the G8 are not for Nieu Bethesda, nor can individuals take on the poverty of the world. But we can all make a difference to someone somewhere and through the Bethesda Foundation empowerment programme you can change a life of hopelessness to its glorious counterpart. In fact your help will touch many lives as each participant in the project will have family members and dependants who look to her for support.
I commend the Bethesda foundation to you enthusiastically. The women of Nieu Bethesda are creating beautiful work. I hope you will support them and place plenty of orders.God bless you
+Desmond M Tutu Archbishop Emeritus
I had such a wonderful time, short as it was, at your centre. What you have done is totally inspiring and I have the greatest admiration for how you have achieved what you did. There have been several attempts to do what you have done, but mostly they fail -‐-‐ they fail because somehow the social problems are not well enough integrated into the project and a commitment to the group is not really established. But you managed all this with astonishing results -‐-‐ astonishing on a personal level for each of those participants and on a creative level with the tapestries and the art work and the openness to different kinds of creativity. Then for me, to see that group of people having so internalised the Bleek and Lloyd stories was really, really wonderful. Jeni, it is a remarkable thing you have done.”
Pippa Skotnes, Professor of Fine Art and Director for the Centre for Curating the Archive, University of Cape Town. Author of Claim to the Country, Miscast, Negotiating the Presence of the Bushmen, and various other books about the /Xam.
Humanity has existed for about 200,000 years and astronomy for a fraction of that time. But archaeology has discovered that 100,000 years ago the Bushmen of Africa were telling sophisticated stories around their fires about the creation of the universe.
For millennia the /Xam Bushmen of the Northern Cape and Great Karoo lived peacefully, in harmony with nature. Then the great colonisation of Africa began, and within three hundred years they were all but wiped out. They lost their land, their way of life, their identity, and most tragic of all, many of their languages. Now there is no one left alive who speaks /Xam.
By a kind of miracle, and the prophetic wisdom of a /Xam shaman, whose name, //Xabbo, means Dream, much of /Xam mythology was preserved in written form by two linguists working in the 19th century. At the Bethesda Arts Centre we have worked from those rough manuscripts, bringing the stories back to life in our artwork, and re-introducing the scattered and lost descendants of that culture to their ancient roots.
Fire was integral to all their stories. In the Great Karoo, where our ancestors lived, you can still experience darkness so black you cannot see your own feet, still see the sky like a vast ocean falling deep into space, ablaze with stars, and you can still feel the sun as a nuclear burst of heat and light on your face. Bringing the stories to life has not needed much of a leap of imagination.
Much more difficult has been the long slow work of healing after the devastating genocide followed by generations of reinforcement in South Africa’s Apartheid era. Whole communities were lost to alcoholism, poverty, and lack of education. A lack of motivation, ambition, self-belief and self-respect were the inevitable emotional rubble that remained.
Some have tried to cling to, or resurrect, the idea of Bushmen by returning to a long-past culture of hunting, wearing animal skins and carrying bows and arrows. But our bushmen use computers, carry cell phones, watch television and drive motorcars. This is our story.
What should we call ourselves? Academics, searching for a nontoxic word to describe “Bushmen” decided on the name “San” which means vagabond. It was originally used by pastoral Bushmen to describe hunter-gatherers.
In Hightown, the township of Nieu Bethesda, the people still call themselves “coloureds”, a term invented by the Boers for those who were neither white nor black but of other race, or more often a mixture of races: Bushman, white farmer, black tribesman and Malay slave. The term had the added benefit of not needing to relate to any history or culture, as the “coloureds” spoke only Afrikaans. But in post-apartheid South Africa, “Coloured” has racist undertones.
The term “San” means nothing to people outside of the academic community, and “Bushman” was considered a term of abuse in Hightown when we started work there. For a time we tried to use the word San, but eventually instead committed ourselves to changing attitudes to the idea of what Bushman meant.
Instead of being a derogatory term, it has now become a source of pride for our artists to refer to themselves as Bushmen.
In Victorian times, scientific curiosity was at its most obscene, and the Natural History museum still holds in its basement archives, Bushman genitalia in formaldehyde, and many photographs of naked Bushmen. But how are those scattered, hurt and denigrated people different from us? As a species we are so deeply disconnected from nature, so deeply addicted to poisons, and so far severed from our roots that the Bushmen and other indigenous people are a fitting symbol for our common predicament. In working with the people of Nieu Bethesda, I feel I have been working in a wider way with issues that touch us all.
During the twenty years since the Centre opened in 1999, we have encountered much racial prejudice. At first hostility came from neighbouring white communities reluctant to lose their cheap labour force and sceptical of the potential of a group they have traditionally seen as low and ignorant. Those people obstinately refused to believe the artwork was not being designed by white people. More recently, as the work thrived, others with the opposite agenda have persistently tried to cleanse the work of any white participation.
Lack of money, skills, and support have of course been central problems, but I have been blessed with enough of all of these things to keep the project going to the point we have reached now. Although these difficulties persist, more and more the Centre participants are taking over the running of the Centre themselves. We all believe that, inshallah, it will become a permanent resource for the Bushman people of Nieu Bethesda and the Eastern Cape.
Three central strands of this extraordinary story will weave together to form a comprehensive and cohesive tapestry.
The starting point is the ancient myths themselves, telling the Bushmen’s renditions of the creation of the celestial bodies, timeless fables steeped with age old wisdom that is as relevant as ever to our troubled modern world. These parables will be narrated by the artists and illustrated by their own intricate black and white lino prints, drawings and full colour tapestries, brought to life with simple but striking two-dimensional animation.
The second thread recounts the history of the Bushmen, from the rich culture of their noble past, through tragic decimation, to reawakening. This epic story that stretches all of 100,000 years will be told not only through interviews with academics and professionals in the relevant fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, art and astronomy, but also the emotional and highly personal accounts of the Centre’s engaging and charismatic artists, each with their own narrative depicting how they have overcome their individual hardships (be it extreme poverty, violent abuse, criminal behaviour, homophobia, or the prejudices that come with carrying HIV) through reclaiming their once lost identities as proud Bushmen.
Acting both as narrator and the ever-present mentor figure for the artists will be Jeni, speaking in a comprehensive master interview illustrated by the abundance of archive footage that she has compiled over the past two decades.
Finally, bringing us up to the present day and towards the future, we will track Jeni, the artists and the wider community working towards the refurbishment and relaunch of the Arts Centre as the newly denominated ‘Bushmen Heritage Museum’, whilst also creating a giant tapestry depicting the stories lost and found, marking a significant transition as Jeni guides the artists towards self-sufficiency. The completion of the tapestry culminates in a poignant blessing ceremony by the current “headman” of the /Xam, Toetie Douw, whilst the grand reopening of the site will be attended by many important figures representing the Centre’s past, present and future.
Thematic similarities between specific aspects of all three of these strands will allow them to run side by side in the film, telling all three stories concurrently whilst shifting between them, and ultimately conveying a deep and thorough understanding of this unique and uplifting saga.
Born-and-bred in London of English/Israeli/South African heritage, Adriel’s screenwriting debut was optioned by Allan McKeown (‘Birds Of A Feather’, ‘Lovejoy’), the first and only occasion the Emmy award winning UK/US producer ever optioned an unsolicited script. He then went on to write and direct three independent films that between them won two awards at the LA Comedy Festival, a Best Feature award at Texas’ Interurban Film Festival, and received nominations for a further 11 awards from 21 film festival appearances, securing a UK broadcast deal and distribution in the US.
Adriel conceived, directed and edited documentary feature ‘Professor Julian Leff: Unravelling Schizophrenia’ which received its world premiere at Cape Town’s Recovery Film Festival, its European premiere at Portugal’s International Mental Health Film Festival and its UK premiere at the Royal College of Psychiatry’s International Congress, and has another mental health related documentary in development with BAFTA winners Raw TV.
In the last year alone he has won the British Urban Film Festival Screenwriting Competition for an unprecedented third time, reached the grand finals of The Sitcom Mission, the final shortlist of the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writers Competition and the final shortlist of the BBC Writersroom.