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Amy Jephta – telling untold women’s stories

Aug 15, 2019, Author: Carly Ritz

Historically underrepresented in the arts, women bring a nuance and sensitivity to the stage and screen that’s able to regale audiences in ways that men simply cannot. We caught up with award-winning South African playwright Amy Jephta, as she prepares for the Royal Court Theatre commission for the Edinburgh International Festival later this month. 

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Just back from National Arts Festival and in pre-production for her first feature film that will shoot later this year, Amy Jephta is also writing a play for Royal Court Theatre commission for the Edinburgh International Festival later and story editing and writing a 13-part drama series for KykNet. She’s busy, to say the least! 

Winner of the 2019 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre Award, although a playwright by nature, Amy has also built a reputation as a filmmaker, activist and academic and has been part of continuing the charge in local and international initiatives to promote opportunities for women playwrights and tell other women’s stories. “Because women have traditionally been underrepresented in the arts, our voice always feels ‘new’ and our perspective is fresh. Good stories are rooted in your personal experience or speaks to something truthful in human nature.” With that context, it’s easy to understand why her feature film, ‘the Ellen Pakkies story’, has resonated so deeply with audiences.  

In 2007, the death of 20-year-old Abie Pakkies caused a stir in South Africa and the world. The most heart-wrenching part of the case was that the murderer was his mother, Ellen, which Amy took on. “I instinctively connected with the story and with Ellen, the mother behind the headline. I think it’s because she reminded me of every mother, teacher and aunt I’ve known throughout my life. I grew up in the Cape Flats and I think older women in the Flats have something in common – a resilience, a toughness about them, but also a kind of humour and joy. I found that warmth in Ellen and immediately had a connection to her and to the story.” In taking on the case, advocate Adrian Samuels was determined to prove that Ellen Pakkies had no choice.  

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The story has traveled far and wide. Ellen premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and was selected as the opening film for the Toronto Black Film Festival and was screened at the Afrykamera Festival (Poland), Seattle International Film Festival and Pan African Film Festival (Los Angeles) before its national cinema release. Ellen was South Africa’s official submission to the 2018 Golden Globes for best Foreign Language Film.  

Despite long-standing naysayers who hark on about theatre being a dying art, Amy believes otherwise. “I don’t think we’ll ever not need live performance. It’s too vital. Added to that our country’s long tradition rooted in struggle theatre and the ability to make something out of nothing (we work on tiny budgets in difficult venues, and still make magic), theatre and the arts remains alive and well in South Africa. A representation of a unique intersection of cultures.”  

As a screenwriter, Amy has three feature film credits to her name including the Afrikaans romantic comedy Sonskyn Beperk (West Five Films: 2016), the LGBT drama While You Weren’t Looking (2015: Out in Africa) and the biopic Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story (2018: Moving Billboard Pictures) 

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