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  • Zulu Love Letter: A Screenplay
  • Litheko Modisane
Zulu Love Letter: A Screenplay by Bhekizizwe Peterson and Ramadan Suleman Johannesburg: U of the Witwatersrand P, 2009. Book, ISBN: 978-186814-496-9. Book with DVD, ISBN: 978-186814-505-8.

The publication of a screenplay of an African film is rare and rewarding. As film scholar Mbye Cham observes, “[T]he practise of publishing a script or screenplay of a film is yet to develop and take hold on a wide scale in African cinema.” But Bhekizizwe Peterson and Ramadan Suleman’s Zulu Love Letter: A Screenplay (2009) is more than a screenplay. Drawing on various contributions from the academy and media, the book locates South African film culture firmly within the country’s social and political context, the only work of its kind to do so two decades after Matthew Krouse and Jeremy Nathan’s Mapantsula the Book: Screenplay and an Interview (1991). For this reason, it is tempting to approach Zulu Love Letter: A Screenplay with reference to the earlier work. Emerging in the 1990s context of the popular vision of “people’s culture,” Mapantsula the Book attempted, in part, to instate the signposts of an indigenous cinematic culture in South Africa and to “encourage writers to read and criticize the film (Mapantsula, 1988) towards contributing to the creation of South African cinema” (Nathan and Krouse 15). The current book is not inimical to this constructive vision. At the time of the publication of Mapantsula the Book, local progressive films did not fare well in terms of distribution, and in [End Page 159] addition, contended with the challenge of censorship. Though censorship is no longer a major problem in the new dispensation, the challenge of distribution still burdens South African films, especially those that are independent of Hollywood conventions and aesthetics. This reflects how little has changed in the last two decades. The packaging of the book with a DVD combo of Fools (1997) and Zulu Love Letter (2004) sets an example of how independent films can circumvent the problem of distribution.

The screenplay itself is preceded by a very useful foreword, scholarly analyses, and press reviews. In the foreword, Cham notes the problems to which the film and the screenplay respond. One of these is “stagnancy” in creative imagination in the local film culture. Cham suspects that “in current South African film culture, there is much activity but little movement forward” (ix). However, for Cham, Suleman and Peterson’s work is “an exemplary development in South African film practise and has yielded much that is the subject of critical engagement, celebration and commendation” (x). With these words, Cham gives us an indication of the critical value of the film Zulu Love Letter and ultimately of the book itself. In Bead Works and Visual Praise Poems, the art historian Anitra Nettleton discusses the historical context and cultural significance of beadwork in Africa. This brief section is a useful introduction to the cultural nuances underwriting the film’s aesthetic, centered as they are on Zulu beadwork. Nettleton’s discussion draws the reader to the film’s expansive and resonant vision of a genuine African film language. In a longer section titled “Love, Loss Memory, and Truth,” film scholar Jacqueline Maingard discusses the film’s “extraordinary achievements in opening up new ways of (re)presenting traumatic memory in film” (5). Employing Joshua Hirsch’s concept of “posttraumatic flashback,” she argues that “the film’s protagonist Thandeka’s flashbacks are posttraumatic” (6). Maingard critiques the haste with which a “new genre” of “TRC films”1 has been announced, and bemoans in particular the lack of careful consideration, in this announcement, of what film genre entails. In light of this analysis, she makes the significant point that Zulu Love Letter “references rather than represents TRC proceedings” (6). Peterson’s fairly extensive piece, “Writer’s Statement: Trauma, Art and Healing,” makes clear the fact that “Zulu Love Letter is about two mothers in search of their daughters” (21), echoing Maingard’s argument that the film is not about the TRC. This disavowal notwithstanding, Peterson sets the screenplay against the social and political backdrop that includes the strengths and limits of the TRC...


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