What does a young man do when he loses his grandfather at the age of five and more than two decades later, still doesn’t know who this man, who has one of the main arteries in the capital city named after him, was. DIANE DE BEER speaks to filmmaker Adam Heyns about the short film tribute to his grandfather, moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church, Dr Johan Heyns:
Adam Heyns was five years old and living in Germany with his parents when they heard about his grandfather’s assassination. “I can’t remember much,” he says, but he does recall a sombre atmosphere in the car (they were on a road trip for the weekend) because his father Prof Christof Heyns, had heard about his father’s death on German radio.
The young filmmaker remembers a friendly black man at his aunt’s home when they returned home for the funeral, called Nelson Mandela. He also remembers realising, as he stood at the grave, the permanence of death. “I understood that I would never see him again.”
When he started with filmmaking it was a desire to tackle something more authentic than fiction and adverts, which started him enquiring about his family history. “I knew my grandfather was a well-known man, but I didn’t know much else about him,” he explains.
When his grandmother (one of the producers on the doccie) gave him a box of VHS cassettes, it was like meeting him for the first time. Here was someone who could take a moral point of view during very troubled times in our country’s history, he learnt. “Today I battle to establish a moral compass for myself and I often think he could have advised me. Fortunately, I got to know him better with the making of the film.”
Once you watch the doccie, you’re struck by the approach, the brevity as well as the story that emerges – a homage from a young man to his grandfather as he, together with us, gets to know what must have been a remarkable man in a difficult time and place.
“At one stage I almost stopped with production because there were so many directions and options. It just felt overwhelming,” says Heyns Jr. A speech his grandfather made on December 16 1988 at the Voortrekker Monument on what was then known as Geloftedag (Day of the Covenance – a holy day for Afrikaners) became the backbone of the film.
On the day, his sermon from the Book of Amos deals with God’s harsh words to the Israelites about their immoral lifestyle. He compares this with that of the Afrikaners in the late ‘80s. “I was struck by his use of the Bible to encourage Afrikaners to rethink their mythology,” says his grandson.
But he was still worried about the edit until a filmmaker friend, Willem van den Heever, had a look and brought a new perspective.
It starts with Adam walking into a room and putting a VHS cassette into a TV – and then watching with his audience his personal take on his grandfather’s life – yet another of those remarkable South African stories.
This was a man, the leader/moderator at that time of the main Afrikaans church, the Dutch Reformed Church, who had a complete change of heart about the political system in his country established by his people. He understood as he grappled with what he was experiencing that what would have to be reconciled were white fear and black aspiration. A wise man then , he would have had the same impact today, which is why this is such an important moment in time.
Titled Dr. John Heyns: Exorcist of Apartheid, the poster tagline reads: A young white filmmaker in South Africa asks what his grandfather did during apartheid. His grandmother gives him a box of family videos.
It is beautifully crafted weaving between family reels with the grandfather and his grandchildren at play, the momentous sermon at the Voortrekker Monument, television interviews with Dr Heyns about his beliefs and his change of heart and that fatal day and his assassination in front of some of his grandchildren and his wife as well as the shockwaves experienced in the country in the face of the brutality of this dastardly deed.
Sharing his grandfather’s names, and honouring the man he has discovered in the making of this very personal film, Heyns Jr used his full names in the final credit as homage: Johan Adam Heyns (JR) (left).
It will be screened on October 6 at The Bioscope Independent Cinema in Maboneng starting at 12.30pm.
It is part of the Jozi Film Festival which began in 2012 and was initially created to provide a platform for local filmmakers and reach audiences under serviced by traditional cinemas. The festival began accepting entries from around the world in 2014 and is now firmly established as one of the sub-continent’s leading film festivals. They are proudly independent, and a supporter of independent films. They also support and showcase both upcoming talent and veteran filmmakers.
For more info check https://www.jozifilmfestival.com/schedule.html for the festival which runs from October 3 to 6 in Jozi.