By Chris Willman
LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) - South Africa's entry in the foreign-film Oscar race, "Little One," ends with the printed statistic that one out of every three girls in the nation is raped before the age of 21. An audience member at the Wrap's screening Monday night at the Sundance Cinemas asked the filmmakers an obvious question: Is the government doing anything about this pandemic of abuse?
Producer Anton Ernst pointed out that the very fact that "Little One" was being screened for Oscars voters meant "yes." "I think the government is making a point, by exposing the movie into the world, and making the film the official South African selection for the Academy Awards." Ernst thinks the government shares his belief that "the movie can do a lot (about child rape awareness) if we can find an audience for it."
Finding an audience for "Little One" at home or abroad probably entails helping get the word out that the film is a more redemptive than harrowing experience. The gang-rape, beating, and near-murder of a kindergarten-aged girl has already taken place off-screen by the time the movie begins, and the plot follows the attempts of a poverty-stricken matron living in a corrugated-metal shack to navigate the system and nurture the young stranger she found left for dead in a nearby field.
Steve Pond, the Wrap's awards expert, started the Q&A by asking the filmmakers about the reasons for the startling stat on child rape that ends the film. And writer-director Darrell Roodt immediately made it clear that that was a minefield he was reluctant to step into, calling it "a very complex issue" and stating, "I'm not a sociologist." But as the issue came up again, he finally wasn't shy about laying much of the blame for the root cause of the massive abuse at the foot of the shadow of apartheid.
"We were shooting in a place where you do see the after effects of apartheid - where there's one toilet that services 10,000 people, or there's one tap for the entire community, and the people would tell me the stories about rats running all over them while they sleep at night," Roodt said. "It's tragic. South Africa is a wonderful country. It's been called the rainbow nation for good reasons. The people there are extraordinary. But the man on the street - the man living on the street - they're suffering. So when you're leading such a subhuman existence, subhuman tendencies tend to float from it. It's not an excuse for that terrible behavior. But you can contextualize it."
In the midst of that turmoil is the film's inwardly gorgeous heroine, played with magnificent sweetness by Lindiwe Ndlovu - a woman of such goodness from the first frame to the last that Ndiovu admitted it was hard to find different shadings for the character's overwhelming benevolence.
When Pond asked the panelists what their greatest challenges on the film were, there were plenty to go around, from absurdly tight timetables to philosophical choices to potty breaks amid extreme poverty.
Composer Laurent Eyquem said that when he got the call to do the score, he was told he had three days to do it - and he wrapped up the composing in 27 hours of work. For editor Avril Beukes, it was keeping the full extent of the young victim's facial injuries hidden until a key reveal about two-thirds of the way through.
And for the director, "the most challenging thing for me was finding toilets for the ladies to go to" at the squatter camp where much of the filming took place. He was smiling, but not joking.
Roodt - whose 2004 film "Yesterday" was a foreign film Oscar nominee - said, "I don't usually like my films, and I don't think many directors do. But this one I've really got a soft spot for, for one reason, and it's this lady sitting over here. Lindiwe absolutely plugged in to what I was trying to do and saw that it wasn't a film about this awful thing. Because it is about that, obviously, but it's about how you transcend that awful thing with a deeper humanity. South Africa is full of - thank God - people like Lindiwe who are able to dig deep, and the generosity of spirit is overwhelming."
Pond pointed out that both "Little One" and previous Oscar nominee "Yesterday" deal with strong female leads under extreme duress (the heroine of the earlier film contracted AIDS).
"It's not a strange thing," said the director, "because in South Africa, women are the most modularized members of society, and it just trickles down. I always like to tell a tale like this about the most ordinary woman on earth who's got the most extraordinary capability, the biggest heart you can possibly imagine. That happens in South Africa, so I just end up making these films. But it's weird, because I like James Bond, too," he laughed.