This month sees the release of the much anticipated movie My Father's War. Written and directed by Craig Gardner, it tells the story of young man who is struggling to make the transition to adulthood and the constant conflict with his father who himself struggles with the consequences of having been a soldier during the South African Border War in Angola. American-born writer and director Craig Gardner spoke to me about the origins of My Father's War, how he conceptualised the characters and finding a creative solution to bridging the gap between past and present.
How did you and producer Peter Lamberti come to make this movie?
Craig Gardner: I had just come off seven years of writing and directing Scandal on e.tv, I met Peter and in conversation we realised we both wanted to do a feature film. So we got together and what happened was, I came in to Aquavision, which was his company and wee decided okay, we're going to make a movie together. Peter is an ex-special forces operator in the SADF, he was with 5 Recce, so he had always wanted to do a film about the border war.
He had collected footage to do documentaries and things like that but he always wanted to do a feature film. The first thing from my perspective as writer/director though, was how many people are going to see a movie on the border war? It's a very contentious subject, you know, it's a subject that people don't talk about. We were in this war for twenty-three years and nobody talks about it. From 1966 to 1989, nobody talks about it and the veterans who came back were ostracized.
“...We were in this war for twenty-three years and noboby talks about it. From 1966 to 1989, nobody talks about it...” - Craig Gardner
Much like the American Vietnam war?
Craig Gardner: The two wars are very, very similar. After the Vietnam war, a lot of soldiers came back and they were blamed for the war. You know, people were blaming the soldiers, instead of blaming the government. So the point was that how do we do a movie that involves the border war, where it doesn't put off a lot of the audience because it's a bit like a political football.
My primary focus was I want to do a movie that has something to do with the border war, but at the same time it is a movie that will attract the biggest audience and have the most commercial appeal. And also being an American, my one thing is that movies that we do in this country, as much as possible, we should try and get them to have some appeal to an overseas audience as well. So I wanted to do a movie that had the broadest appeal.
How did you decide to do that?
Craig Gardner: For me, father and son relationships resonate internationally, guys all over the world have issues with their dads. And dads have issues with their sons. Even one of the characters in the movie says "We all have daddy issues." I thought let's do a film that's primarily a father/son relationship film with the border war as a backdrop.
So what we can do is we can actually give people information about the war but it's not a movie about the war. And it's a movie in which we don't take sides. That's how the whole thing started, you know, then there was the whole creative process of how to make that work, but that was the genesis of it.
You mentioned Peter was in 5 Recce, how much was he involved in the creative process?
Craig Gardner: Firstly he was quite involved in who the character of the father would be. Because being a soldier, he understands the psyche of a soldier. So when I was developing this character of Smit, who's played by Stian Bam, I wanted him to be a palette of a lot of different people. I knew that I wanted him to have psychological problems, when we started talking about post-traumatic stress disorder, Peter was able to help me in terms of that - what would be the manifestations of that.
The character being an ex-alcoholic, that came out of the fact that a lot of people came out of the war having become drinkers. So who David Smit as a character is, and the baggage that he carries, came out of conversations that Peter and I had. And developing the characters, we talked about what character traits would these people have, coming out of the war. What obstacles would there be in their relationships and communications with their wives and their children. There was a lot of psychological research that went into the development of the character of his father.
Through your research and conversations with veterans, how do you think they will react to this film?
Craig Gardner: The experience that I've had, in meeting veterans, during and after the making of this picture, it's been like a blast of cold air in my face - that there are many people out there in this country who don't have closure. Young men either went to war, or they went to jail, or they fled the country. When they turned eighteen, there you go, off you go.
And back in those years there was a lot of black people in the army as well, it's also something many people don't know. So there a lot of people out there that have just not got closure. And we're hoping that this film will help do that. Every veteran that I talk to, when I tell them about the movie, they for half an hour want to tell me their stories.
There was one guy that I met, and when I started to tell him about the movie, he said look and he pulled up his sleeve, and he had goosebumps. Just from hearing what the movie is about. And he said to me that he buried a lot of young men during the war, and he remembers the last soldier that he buried, he was buried on his son's first birthday, the man who died. And this man who burried him, he stopped drinking that day. And he is carrying this, thirty years later.