The family of Odwa Shweni, the actor who fell to his death from the cliff edge of a waterfall in the Drakensberg during a film shoot in April last year, has expressed shock and sadness that the film has almost been completed and will soon be ready for release, with new scenes added that were shot by a new crew. By Charl Blignaut
Several of those close to the earlier shoot of the film, originally called White Outside and now referred to as White The Film, shared the family's reaction when contacted this week.
A City Press investigation in May last year revealed that, according to numerous witness accounts, various industry standard safety measures were not in place when Shweni slipped from a rock, where he was acting out a fight scene, and floated off the edge of the 40m-high Sterkspruit Waterfall near Monk's Cowl in Winterton in the southern Drakensberg.
The sources blamed the film's producers, writers and directors, the well-known documentary film-making couple Sipho Singiswa and Gillian Schutte, for creating the unsafe conditions that led to the tragedy.
Singiswa angrily denied the claims, calling them "absurd and either grossly exaggerated or devoid of truth" and threatening to take legal action for defamation.
But before the filming an email from Schutte to a cast member had outlined various safety measures that would be in place for the shooting of the fight scene at the top of the waterfall.
But none of these was in place and the shoot was rushed, unprofessional and shambolic, according to sources interviewed by City Press at the time.
"The family was not aware that the filming had continued - the film makers never told us. We have been clear that we don't ever want the film to see the light of day. If we need to interdict it we will," Odwa's widow Tebogo Shweni told City Press this week.
The death left her alone to raise the couple's two young children.
Actor Odwa Shweni's death has become a touchstone for the industry to lobby for safer working conditions and for regulation
After the actor's lifeless body was retrieved by rescue divers the morning after he fell, the shoot came to a halt and an insurance claim was put in, which included a payout to the Shweni family.
A source told City Press that the insurers would have had to pay out about R8 million if the project was abandoned and about R3.5 million for it to be completed.
So they decided to complete White The Film.
The source said the couple were happy to do so.
The insurance payout was confirmed by Paul Raleigh of the Hollard film guarantee division, which was appointed to monitor the film's completion.
City Press has spoken to six sources with knowledge of the completion shoot, who confirmed that the new version of the film apparently intends to use the Drakensberg footage - but also add new action.
The sources said Schutte and Singiswa had decided to add themselves to the plot, playing themselves and, in places, addressing the tragedy.
The original film had been based on their own lives: They take a camping trip after the drama of Schutte's character who outs a judge as being allegedly racist - referring to Schutte taking on Judge Mabel Jansen publicly about her comments about black men and rape.
On the trip the couple is attacked by raving white racists camping nearby.
The new scenes were shot at the Victory Theatre in Johannesburg and also in a home near Lombardy.
The two-week shoot appeared to include a separate documentary shoot and was described by sources as "muddled", "confusing" and "discreet to the point of secretive" and that "both Gillian and Sipho took turns directing".
There was apparently not much dialogue in the new shoot - which sources said included several fantasy-type scenes involving juggling, schoolchildren, a drag queen, alcohol brewing, and black actors in pig masks acting out scenes involving extreme racism.
Two sources also told of the couple's anger towards a lead actor from the original film - who had exposed the alleged lack of safety on the shoot as well as the alleged callous attitude towards actors - and said they were blaming him for hijacking the shoot and thus enabling Shweni's death.
However, witnesses and video footage of the scene in which Shweni dies paint a picture of Singiswa directing.
Sources say he was pressed for time, personally choosing a rocky outcrop in the rain-swollen river that was ominously close to the edge, with no safety officers near the action and no safety nets in place.
"In the new film they're trying to tell their version of the truth, I think," said a source.
The couple responds
The actor, who - like the rest of the cast and crew - has been severely traumatised by Shweni's death, did not wish to comment this week.
Nor did Singiswa and Schutte, instead instructing their attorney to write to City Press.
He cited the sub judice rule, saying "the incident and matters relating thereto are subject to certain current and potential legal processes, the outcomes of which may have significant impact".
After the Shweni family paid for an autopsy, prosecutors in Colenso declined to prosecute and instead referred the matter to an inquest court, which is yet to make a decision on the matter.
Said the couple's attorney: "Our client would like nothing more than to tell its version of events and put an end to the sometimes harmful and vocal speculation that [has] abounded since the incident. There have been numerous occurrences of defamatory and false statements being made from various quarters since the incident, which have the potential to harm our client reputationally and financially, and indeed cause harm to third parties ... Our client is cooperating fully with all authorities and any parties with legal standing in this matter, and are confident that all relevant information will come to light in the pursuit of justice and resolution."
"I don't know how or where they plan to release it or what their distribution plans are," said Raleigh this week.
"It should be ready in a few weeks, is all I know."
Industry leaders contacted by City Press said they expected a boycott and considerable backlash if the film was released as it had highlighted the plight of actors and freelance film workers who are largely unprotected by the law and often forced to work in unsafe conditions.
The SA Guild of Actors, which helped City Press in its original investigation, said this week: "The largest players in the industry are resistant to any form of regulation in the belief that it will drive foreign business from our shores.
"But the lack of any form of regulation allows 'cowboy operators' carte blanche to ignore even the self-imposed standards that keep actors and crew safe in the workplace.
"It is an indictment on our industry that we use the lack of regulations as a unique selling proposition: 'Come to Sunny South Africa where slave conditions are tolerated.'"