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Sure-Footed Ponies: Return to Lesotho

January 6, 2011—Maseru, Lesotho. Follow this first-time filmmaker as he makes Lesotho's first feature. This week: casting begins!



Sure-Footed Ponies: Return to Lesotho
The mountains of Lesotho


"Big trouble for you. Two nights in jail," said the young constable while crossing his wrists in an easily recognizable gesture of handcuffs. "But give me some Christmas money and perhaps I let you through."
This was my first ever experience with bribery, and it happened at a police roadblock just a few kilometers after I'd crossed the border into Lesotho. My crime, alleged the officer—who could not have been older than seventeen and wore an oversized government issue uniform that made him appear to be playing dress up in his father's clothes—was that I had failed to bring my vehicle to a complete halt at the stop sign. It's true; I may have rolled ever so slightly.
Lesotho is generally not known as a den of police corruption. My brother lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where such a thing is more commonplace. For that part of Africa, he used to employ a rather clever way of thwarting low-level bribery: he stored the name of the prime minister's son into his mobile phone, along with a (fake) number. In the presence of a corrupt official, he'd cordially suggest that a call to his "close friend" should sort the matter out, then nonchalantly allow the offending officer to see the surname of the individual he was speed dialing. This usually turned things around for him. I wasn't so crafty in my first seven minutes in Lesotho, so I unceremoniously handed over the twenty Rand (about three bucks).
With the exception of a new shopping mall, downtown Maseru hasn't changed much since I was last here in 2007. It was a pleasant surprise to run into a few familiar faces; Dineo from the Internet cafe, Thabo from the coffee shop, and Mpho from the Shoprite grocery store. I also recognized a few street kids, now a bit taller, still hawking their spit-and-squeegee window cleaning services on familiar street corners. One of these boys, for whom I used to make the occasional peanut butter sandwich, flashed me a wide smile of recognition (then promptly asked for my money).
Finally in Maseru, my first step was to find a room to rent. I contemplated throwing a mattress into the back of Kinski and sleeping by a 24-hour security booth in the mall parking lot, but that sort of living would make chaos of my need to work from a computer and spread out my books, camera, etc. The next cheapest thing was a room at the Anglican Training Centre: a mission on the hillside, just beyond a shadowy intersection where a nocturnal band of prostitutes pass around cigarettes and make catcalls at passing motorists. The most peculiar thing about the Anglican mission is that apart from a sole security guard perched just inside the gated compound, it appears completely devoid of other guests, or even staff. There is no receptionist, and no housekeepers or groundskeepers that I'm aware of.  It now strikes me as complete luck that on my arrival, a young theology student was present to take my money and give me a key. Since then, as many as four days will pass before I see signs of any occupants other than the security guard. Every so often the young minister will knock on my door, and I'll pay him for however many nights it's been since our last interaction. The patchwork of lawns is wildly overgrown, and birds are roosting everywhere; it's impossible to sleep past six because of the noise they make. It seems that nature is slowly reclaiming this small plot of land.
Sure-Footed Ponies: Return to Lesotho
Casting assistant Teboho posting audition flyers in Maseru

I drove to the town of Mohale's Hoek on Christmas Eve to see my friend Mojaki, a young actor played the lead role in my original trailer for The Forgotten Kingdom. Mojaki has since moved to Johannesburg (he's now in Lesotho for the holidays), where he has pursued an acting career with great fervor. Last year he secured steady employment as an extra on the South African soap opera Generations. Despite the fact that so far he's been mostly seen in the background of party scenes, he's become something of a celebrity here in Lesotho. Everywhere we go, people pull him aside, recognizing him from one episode or another. Per his request, I brought him a stack of Stanislavski books on method acting, still crisp in their bag from Strand Bookstore on 12th Street. The urgency and attention he gives to these texts is how you might read the airline safety guide when your plane is in freefall toward the Atlantic: Mojaki is all heart, and I think his future in theater will be a very bright one.
On Christmas Day, I strolled up the mountainside to the village of Mapotsane, where my brother Weej spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Together we visited the place in 2006, three years after his service, and returning now to this community somehow made me very nostalgic. Weej hasn't been back since then, but still, as I entered the village, I heard people excitedly call his name out from the village pathways, gardens, insides of mud huts. In my elementary Sesotho I delivered the disappointing news that I was not Weej, merely his less photogenic doppelganger. Grandmothers and pig farmers were eager to deliver messages to him, which I recorded on video. Mostly, they wanted him to come back so he could be put to work. (The hardest job you'll ever love?)
When I returned to Maseru and my curious place of habitation, I was greeted warmly by my old friend, local film/video producer Silas Monyatsi. Silas, who is busy on his own projects and thus unable to work full time on TFK, connected me with my assistant-to-be, Khantse Monyake, nicknamed Papali. It was time to get to work, and the three of us (along with producers in NYC and Joburg) have now laid out a plan for the next few weeks.
Sure-Footed Ponies: Return to Lesotho
Papali Monyake getting ready for a radio interview


The most important task is to find as much of the cast as possible among non-actors here in Lesotho (with professional actors from Joburg to fill in the rest). To find these people, we've scheduled three days of open auditions—January 10, 11, and 12. To spread the word about the auditions, Papali and I have done interviews with three radio stations, three newspapers, and the sole television news program. We also have announcements about the auditions running three times per day on nearly all the radio stations, and on a giant TV screen in downtown Maseru, which also plays a loop of the film teaser 24 hours a day. There are 250 flyers posted on shop windows and utility poles around Maseru, and 1,500 leaflets handed out among the bustling taxi rank and street markets. Short of renting an airplane to spell it all out in smoke, I think like we've done all we can do. Now we wait.
We're casting a wider net in our search for one particular role, the 11-year-old boy to play the precocious orphan Tau. It's a demanding part to play, with no small amount of dialogue. We need someone spirited and bold (picture that kid from Slumdog Millionaire who jumps into the latrine). "Tau" is the Sotho word for lion. Our lion also needs to be able to ride a horse. Finding the right actor for this role has become a bit of an obsession for me, and my hunch is that rather than finding him in the city of Maseru, we may discover him living in the mountains, stomping around in a pair of gum boots, whistling to his flock of sheep.


To find him, we've organized castings to take place in ten communities around Lesotho: the camptowns of Mokhotlong, Semonkong, Butha-Buthe, Mohale's Hoek, Qacha's Nek, and Quthing, as well as the towns of Roma, Mafiteng, Christ the King, and Leribe. In each of these communities, we've hired a "district casting assistant" to spread the word with flyers that describe the sort of kid we are looking for. As an incentive, this casting assistant gets his fee doubled if he's the one who delivers our Tau. In addition, three local kids in each community are paid a small fee to distribute the flyers deep into the mountain villages.
A challenge we face in some of these rural areas is having to explain what a film is, let alone acting. For many people, this whole thing will be a completely foreign concept. It will be interesting to see how many curious onlookers show up to each of the auditions. As far as the number of aspiring 11-year-old actors who might throw their hat into the ring, I haven't the slightest idea.


Sure-Footed Ponies: Return to Lesotho
The map of the casting plan


Back in New York, my producers are patiently waiting for Panasonic to finally release their newest camera, the AF100—the 4/3 sensor HD camcorder that shoots 1080P and has interchangeable lenses. Please indulge me this moment of geek out— it's a pretty revolutionary little camera. I know that my producer T.R. Boyce is not literally camping in front of Abel Cine in the two feet of snow that has fallen in that city, but I do believe his commitment is something akin to this. It's both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking to bring this new (i.e., untested) technology to Africa. The cinematographer we've hired for this project is Carlos Carvalho, a very talented guy we found in Johannesburg. With him, we're putting our feelers out to rental houses in Johannesburg to see what kind of 35mm motion picture camera glass, if any, we can afford for this project.
Tonight Cecil and Bonnie arrive from Joburg, and TFK will finally move from its current limbo phase into official pre-production. T.R. arrives next week, and the rest of the crew soon thereafter. The immediate road ahead remains a mission of casting—first the Maseru open auditions, and then the cross-country road trip to find our shepherd Tau.


Want more Sure-Footed Ponies?
An Introduction
The Beginning


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