A Qantas flight to Johannesburg. Spurning the offered champagne (it was 10 a.m.) I rapidly check the list of films available on the in-flight entertainment. As usual, I’ve seen quite a few and take my standard evasive action with the numerous vampire movies and teen comedies. With some hesitation I choose an Australian TV movie about Kerry Packer and his cricket wars. This turns out to be vastly entertaining, well written (Christopher Lee) and directed (Daina Reid) with Lachy Hulme playing Packer, deftly avoiding any suggestion of caricature. A performance that should be garlanded with any award available.
I change planes in Johannesburg for a flight to Cape Town. I’m met by Tony Raphaely, the executive producer of the film I am here to discuss, and we drive to a small hotel on the beach in Camp Cove, a few miles from the city. I stayed awake through nearly all of the 13-hour flight so should be able to sleep. I turn on the TV, where an opera group from Soweto is singing. This is unexpected. Next, there is an interview with my country and western hero, Willie Nelson. He thinks guns should be regulated and drugs legalised. I drop off to sleep as he serenades me with his superb ‘Always on my Mind’.
The film under discussion is the story of a man named Isaac Ochberg, a Jew from the Ukraine, who went to South Africa at the age of 16. He became a highly successful businessman and was appalled, in 1921, at the pogroms that raged through Eastern Europe after the chaos caused by the end of the first world war and the disruption resulting from the Russian revolution. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. Orphaned children wandered the devastated countryside. Ochberg determined to save as many as he could. Alone, he returned to a devastated Ukraine where the Red army, the White army, the Poles and the Ukrainian nationalists were at odds with one another and united only in their anti-Semitism. Overcoming staggering obstacles, he managed to return to Cape Town with around 200 orphans, where he arranged for them to be adopted by Jewish families.
For various reasons, including a limited budget and the difficulty of transporting young children from South Africa to Europe, it has been decided to shoot a lot of the Ukrainian scenes in South Africa. In a van with Tony Raphaely, the American co-producer Dan Lupovitz, a young African named Kwaku (who turns out to be Nelson Mandela’s grandson) and a dynamic lady driver named Kate, we drive all over the countryside surrounding Cape Town in search of Ukraine. A couple of days of this and I’m more or less convinced that it’s feasible, though we’ll have to be careful to keep the ubiquitous baboons out of shot.
We will do some city shots in East European cities (probably Riga) but it’s still necessary to find some buildings in Cape Town where we can shoot interiors. We visit a few large private houses that could be suitable for Ochberg’s Cape Town house. All of these have formidable security — electronic gates, barbed wire, electric fences. One of the grandest even has bars in the hallway that can be lowered and locked at the touch of a button so that intruders cannot reach the family. ‘Is it all really necessary?’ I ask, naively, I suppose. Tony Raphaely tells me he knows of no one who hasn’t been the victim of some ‘incident’.
Back at the hotel in elegant Camp Cove, I find that someone has been in my room and found the $500 I had carefully hidden under some ties and socks. There is a safe in the room but the key for it had not been given to me despite a request. The hotel management are mildly sympathetic but hasten to assure me the responsibility is not theirs. Having been robbed by experts all over the world I regard this theft as a minor incident. When filming in Baltimore a few years ago I returned to my room after breakfast, on the day of my departure, to find that my packed suitcases had disappeared. Everything had gone, including my toothbrush. Luckily my passport was in my pocket so I was able to make a rather pleasant luggage-free return to Australia.
We visit Stellenbosch, a beautifully preserved Dutch colonial city an hour or so from Cape Town. Evidently there is a synagogue here that could be used in the film. It’s locked, but after a phone call a distinguished elderly man appears with a key and explains that the building is no longer in use as he is ‘the only Jew left in Stellenbosch’. After 1994, some of the Jewish community, along with many non-Jews, fled the country, wary of black majority rule. Interestingly, we have dinner a few nights later with a Jewish businessman who owns a chain of outdoor clothing stores. He states that he is delighted with his black staff as well as the black business partners that the law stipulates share management.
Encouraged by reviews of Richard Burton’s diaries, which tend to rate him as a thinker comparable to Marcus Aurelius, I download the book onto my Kindle even though I’ve always regarded Burton as a hammy actor with a silly voice. I can’t imagine what the reviewers were reading as there is little in the diaries but endless descriptions of elaborate meals and drinking binges, vituperation about the talents of other actors and endless attacks on the ‘ruling class’ in Britain, although Burton himself is so self-indulgent he would put Caligula to shame. Elizabeth Taylor, for whom he professes profound love on almost every page, emerges as difficult, wilful and absurdly spoilt. After reading about a third of the way through I turn with relief to J.M. Coetzee’s masterly Scenes from Provincial Life. He is yet another South African who left his homeland (he lives in Adelaide), which is irrelevant, I suppose. Does anyone else alive write so well? I’m only sorry I’ve now read all of his novels. I can’t wait for the next one.