Toronto Star -- FIN
ENTERTAINMENT Friday, December 29, 1989 D20
African 'Degrassi Junior High' a compelling story
by Jonathan Manthorpe Special to The Star (Southam News)
HARARE - One of the producers called it "a sort of African Degrassi Junior High."
What Eric Jordan wanted to imply was that the partly Canadian-financed TV series now completing filming here would deal with contemporary issues in the kind of realistic way that teenagers have come to expect.
No skirting around the tough stuff for the sake of the children's sensibilities.
African Journey, which will probably be shown as six half-hour programs in Canada beginning in April, certainly meets that test.
The trials and tribulations confronting modern African young people come tumbling out of the script in hectic profusion.
The list needs a deep breath.
There's water shortage, infant mortality, education, unemployment, drugs, AIDs, the lure of crime, transportation problems, industrial hazards, cultural conflicts, generational conflicts, starvation, prostitution, soil conservation, game poaching, multinational corporations (the evils thereof), commodity prices (effects of the decline of), and corrupt officials.
If this cornucopia of the world's ills seems strong meat for teenagers, the explanation is that the $3-million budget for the series has been given by a collection of governmental aid agencies, including nearly half from the Canadian International Development Agency, a large chunk from New Zealand and others from the Netherlands, Sweden and West Germany.
But out of this somewhat unencouraging prospect has come a simple but compelling and sometimes poignant story.
It has not been easy. Co-producer Paul Stevens said in an interview on the set in a Harare market that there has been constant "rewriting of the scripts and a lot of experts working on it."
He probably didn't intend to leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth around the word "experts."
Robert De Jong, a freelance film consultant working for CIDA, said "the thing that took most time was to get scripts that are just not adventure stories but which show a viable African reality in the background. In the beginning, all the writers came up with Hollywood African stories."
Not that all the Indiana Jones' bits have fallen foul of the aid agencies' demand for political purity.
The script is a surprisingly good compromise between the agencies' message and the film makers' desire to tell an exciting story:
Luke Novak, a teenager from Sudbury, Ont., goes to a country which may or may not be Zimbabwe to see his father who is on an extended contract with a mining company.
Through accident, chance and design, Luke becomes embroiled in the lives of Themba, a boy his own age, and Tulani, Themba's sister.
In the beginning, Luke is, to put it mildly, an unpleasant, ignorant, insensitive, brash, hyperactive brat. The Ugly Canadian.
But as he experiences first hand what his African contemporaries have to go through, a certain understanding permeates his impermeable skull.
"The big theme is interdependence," said Stevens. "What do Canadians know about Africa? Nothing. But in fact we depend on each other enormously. But basically the film is about friendship."
It has also produced a name worth watching for. Eldinah Tshatedi, who plays Tulani, is a natural.
A member of the crew, on the way to a casting session in Harare, met her on a bus. He persuaded her to audition and she got the part.
Said Stevens: "She's going to be a star."
Copyright © 1989 Toronto Star, All Rights Reserved.
DOC. #: 891229TS89173