Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Victoria Falls

Genre: Drama
Premise: A look at the white commercial farming industry in Zimbabwe in 2002, the year of the first opposing political party to president Mugabe’s tyranic reign.
About: Victoria Falls is one of the winners of this year's Nicholl’s Fellowship. The Nicholl's Fellowship is considered by most to be the most prestigious screenplay competition on the planet. Although winning the Fellowship is by no means a path to success (many winners we never hear from again), there are some who have used it to launch great careers. Recently mentioned on the site are previous Fellows Ehren Kruger (1996) and Anthony Jaswinski (1997). Kruger's winning script was the excellent unconventional twist-ending thriller, "Arlington Road."
Writer: Matt Ackley

President Robert Mugabe

Victoria Falls, even on its best day, even with a great director, even with an A-List actor, is never going to light up the box office. It's just not that kind of movie. The themes are heavy here. The subject matter will challenge you. Thinking is a requirement. It feels like something you'd see nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

What I like about Victoria Falls is that it's not what we think it is. Since the script is set in Zimbabwe, we're automatically assuming it's going to be about a bunch of oppressed Africans. Yet the focus is actually on a family of rich white farmers who are kicked off their land without reason by Zimbabwe's tyrant of a leader, the dreaded Robert Mugabe. What I don't like about Victoria Falls is that there are large sections of the script where I felt like I should be taking notes so I could ace my History test tomorrow. First and foremost to me, movies represent entertainment. And anytime I feel like I'm being taught something, I get squeamish. I think the true mark of a great historical or socially relevant film, is to teach you without you realizing you're being taught. And that wasn't my experience here.

So as long as class is in session, you're probably wondering what Victoria Falls is. It's actually the name of the biggest waterfall in Africa. And as you can see in the below picture, it's one of the few waterfalls where you can actually lay over the edge without going over. Because people need to lay over 700 foot waterfalls. Yeah, that's exactly what I want to do when I go to Africa. Right after I dive head first into a Volcano and swim into the heart of a tsunami.

The story centers around two best friends, poor Zimbabwe native Ojaji, and the rich white son of a local farming family, Nico. Nico's father is nearing the end of his working days and would like for Nico to take over the farm. But Nico has other ideas. He wants to grab a pot of the family gold and head over to America to party it up. And he wants Ojaji to come with him. The two are all set to bounce when Ojaji feels some guilt for leaving his crumbling country, a country where 10 trillion Zimbabwe dollars is worth 3 U.S. dollars. In an ironic twist of fate, he takes the job Nico was supposed to take, managing his father's farm.

Meanwhile, for the first time (In its history?) Zimbabwe has an opposition party. Mugabe, who is painted as a seriously bad dude, will do anything to squash the uprising. So in order to appeal to the masses, he promises that, if elected, the rich white farmers will be sent back to their country, and the locals will run all the farms themselves. It's a bold but effective claim. Zimbabwe is home to 5000 whites and 12 million blacks. Yet whites own more than 70% of the farmland. There's a predicable amount of animosity towards them as a result, and the chance to send them packing strikes a chord. Ojaji is then forced to become a bit of a politician himself, as he tries to save the farm from the relentless locals, who would like for nothing more than to burn the farmhouse down along with everyone inside it.

Zimbabwean politics. Farm management. An upcoming election. What more can you ask for in a piece of summer entertainment, right?

What we have here is a good writer who's maybe trying to do too much. I mean there's a lot going on in this script. We have the two best friends going off in different directions. We have a political battle between a renegade party and a dictator. We have Ojaji trying to run a farm. We have Ojaji's sister secretly promoting the opposing party. We have a strange love triangle between Ojaji, Nico, and an American woman. I just felt that at a certain point, we lost focus. What was Victoria Falls about? I wasn't always sure.

That's not to say the script isn't deserving of a Fellowship. There are some wonderful moments and the final act rewards you for your patience with an intense almost action-movie like ending. But the foundation of the story - asking us to sympathize for the rich white man amongst the poverty and struggles of so many less fortunate people - is a tough pill to swallow. From a purely story point-of-view, it's the same reason why I didn't like Friday Night Lights (the film). I couldn't figure out why I was supposed to root for a team that always won. I tend to pull for the underdog.

I'm happy the writer had this competition, because I'm not sure the script would've been recognized otherwise. If you liked Gaza or The Untitled Bill Carter Project, you might want to check this out. The subject matter here just wasn't my cup of tea, and ultimately kept me from falling for this story the same way the Nicholl's judges did.

Script link: **sorry guys - asked to take this down.**

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: This is a competition script. Plain and simple. You could send this logline to a thousand agencies and you'd probably get 999 rejections. But there's a lesson here. You need to understand how marketable your idea is before you type Fade In. Know that if you're going to write the next Victoria Falls, agents, producers, and managers will likely turn their cheeks. Contests will probably be your only route. Write something more mainstream with a hook, and the logline does the work for you - getting you reads everywhere you submit. As long as you know what you're in for, you can make a more informed decision and write any kind of screenplay you want.