Ancestral land: Nokuphila Cele and game guard Bongimpilo Zondi in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park during the making of Sisters of the Wilderness. Picture: SUPPLIED
Ancestral land: Nokuphila Cele and game guard Bongimpilo Zondi in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park during the making of Sisters of the Wilderness. Picture: SUPPLIED

Five young Zulu women embark on a journey into KZN’s Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park at the start of Sisters of the Wilderness.

Each is burdened with her own painful history and they find themselves on a physical border that separates civilisation and nature, and a psychological one that draws a line between their past and their future.

Directed by Karin Slater, the film made its debut at the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival in June. It has also been selected for the Durban International Film Festival, as well as the Nature, Environment, Wildlife Filmmakers Congress in July and the Mzansi Women’s Film Festival in August.

The unnerving reality of open-cast coal mining, as well as the rapid decline of the rhino population due to poaching, also come under the spotlight.

"When you look at most of Africa, and specifically South Africa, wilderness areas are fenced off," says Slater, who also took on the role of camera operator and sound technician during filming. "This means that only those who work inside those perimeters — usually as cooks, cleaners or guards for fancy lodges — have some sort of access to these areas. Everyone else has essentially lost access to their ancestral land."

All the women featured in the film were selected through the Durban-based non-profit organisation Wilderness Leadership School, which provides "a pure wilderness experience" for people of all backgrounds, races and nationalities.

Slater only met the young women the day before they started their trek. The women also did not know one another, and in a similar manner, the viewer is also not told their or their guides’ names.

Into the wild: Sisters of the Wilderness is a revealing social-impact feature film that will be screened at the Durban International Film Festival. It was shot in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. Picture: SUPPLIED
Into the wild: Sisters of the Wilderness is a revealing social-impact feature film that will be screened at the Durban International Film Festival. It was shot in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. Picture: SUPPLIED

"The decision to not put up name titles on screen was a deliberate one," says Slater. "I wanted to create an experience that was closer to a feature film, and not to constantly remind the viewer that they are watching a documentary.

"As filmmaker, I simply wanted to go on this journey with the girls and experience the trail through their perspective, while feeling what they experienced through my lens.

"That’s also why there are no long cut-away interviews with them, or any other creative prods to try and help the narrative along."

The result makes for a disarming and intensely personal viewing experience.

Seeing the look on the women’s faces when they first have to take off their shoes to cross a river, or their looks of wariness as they prepare for their first night under the stars, makes it feel real.

As an added layer, thanks to Slater’s vivid imagery, what the viewer ends up seeing being done to Mother Earth over the course of their journey makes for a stark realisation that this is, in fact, simultaneously happening to the women of our country on a metaphorical level.

"Doing all these activities together for the first time helped the girls bond in a very special way," she says. "I wanted that to play out organically, and held back and just filmed for the first bit. I did not even let them know that I spoke isiZulu.

"As time progressed, they picked up clues, because I would laugh at their jokes or frown at certain revelations."

Due to the intensely personal disclosures about their respective backgrounds, Slater had to be extra vigilant when it came to editing the footage.

"I was very careful about what I included, mostly for their own protection. We screened it to Zulu social workers to make sure they would be able to go back to their communities without being ousted.

"After everything was cleared, the girls got to have their own private premiere as well, with a social worker to help them through it.

"I’m happy to report that they loved it, because my biggest fear was letting them down."

Cape Town and Johannesburg audiences reacted similarly during the Encounters festival, and the film stimulated interesting conversations, Slater says.

"During the questions and answers, people asked me all kinds of questions and gave amazing feedback. I talked about everything — from how the girls got over their fear of the animals, to technical matters such as how many batteries I had to carry for my equipment."

Asked what she would like viewers to keep in mind when watching the film, Slater says she would like them to be open to the experience.

"Allow yourself to be transported on this journey. Have a look at the wilderness and what it can do to a human being."

Visit the website, www.sistersofthewilderness.com, for more information.

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