The South African film-maker who now lives in Munich, Germany—the two countries were hosts of the last two World Cups—made the movie Themba to highlight issues that plague South Africa, predominantly poverty and AIDS. Issues, she says, that are not new, but do not get the kind of attention they deserve. She chanced upon a novel that linked football to these issues, and the recent World Cup could not have been better timed for her.
Releasing this Friday in South Africa, five days after the World Cup, Themba is a film about an 11-year-old boy who dreams of playing for Bafana Bafana, the national football team. His troubled journey, which begins with a father who abandons his family, leads him through extreme poverty, child rape and a search for his missing mother, till he finally fulfils his dream and wears the national colours. The struggler-turned-hero, however, admits publicly to having AIDS—which, Sycholt says, no international sportsman would ever do.
A single mother to a five-year-old son, Sycholt wanted to tell the story not just because the issues disturb her, but also because football gives hope to children. “I wanted to make the film that was inspiring and positive,” she says.
Adapted from the book Crossing the Line, Themba—which means hope—is based on real stories, written by Lutz van Dijk, who runs an orphanage in Cape Town. Sycholt says the film mirrors real problems. “South Africa has the highest instances of child rape in the world. Many people believe that raping a virgin child can actually cure them of AIDS.”
For Sycholt, the problem lay in finding an actor to play the role of Luthando, Themba’s mother’s boyfriend, who rapes the child. African actors she approached said their lives would be on the line if they played a child rapist.
Her search finally led her to Patrick Mofokeng, who was Morgan Freeman’s bodyguard in the film Invictus. Hectic negotiations during a meeting in Cape Town ended with Sycholt telling him, “Don’t force me to take a foreign actor.” Mofokeng agreed to play Luthando but there was still a problem: The first week’s shooting for Themba overlapped with the last week’s schedule for Invictus.
“Then, as only Clint Eastwood (director of Invictus) could, they wrapped up a week early,” recalls 47-year-old Sycholt. She got her Luthando.
The other coup was to net Jens Lehmann, the former German national goalkeeper who played the 2006 World Cup, to enact the role of a coach in the film. Lehmann, who has taught football to children in South Africa, was an inspiration to the several young actors in the movie, says Sycholt. Most were street children, who had never acted before or seen such luxuries as a film set. One of the girl actors “literally grew” in six weeks because she had never eaten so well before.
The timing of the film could not have been better, says Sycholt. “The World Cup is a life-affirming celebration. It’s about dreams; the game itself is about challenges and facing adversity. The right attitude can make a difference and there is no better time than now to emphasize that.
“I wanted people to look at South Africa beyond football and even though AIDS is a problem in every continent, it no longer needs to be a death sentence.”
Themba played at the United Nations Sports for Peace Gala in Johannesburg in June and Sycholt now hopes to bring the film, made with a budget of €2.7 million (around Rs16 crore), to some festivals in India.