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Rising to new heights with Siya documentary



Johannesburg executive producer and the founder and chief executive of The Star Film Company, Adam Thal, is still in shock after a documentary he co-produced, Rise: The Siya Kolisi Story, won the prestigious first audience award at the renowned Tribeca Film Festival in New York on 18 June.

“When we were told that it was selected to be screened at Tribeca, it was surreal, as Tribeca is one of the top film festivals in the United States” he says. “Immediately, my business partner, Tebza [Malope], who directed the documentary, said he was going to go as he had a good feeling about it.

“However, we were told it was just a screening of the film, and wouldn’t be in the competition. So, when we got the email the night before saying that we had actually won the audience award for the most highly voted documentary, we were dumbfounded. Quite frankly, it still hasn’t sunk in what a big achievement this is. The winner of the audience award is chosen by filmgoers who vote throughout the festival, so it’s the best accolade to know that viewers loved it so much.”

It’s a defining moment for Thal, who has been fascinated by film from a young age. Born in Harare, his family moved to Johannesburg when he was six. “I started at Fairways Primary School, and in Grade 4, a man came to the school to teach us about cameras and editing. That’s when my passion began. I started videoing all our family holidays, functions, and events. I was instrumental at Glance [King David Linksfield’s in-house TV network], in high school.

“I then studied film production at AFDA [The South African School of Film] and started The Star Film Company in my fourth year of studies in 2003. We’ve been in existence for 20 years, with Rise being one of our latest long-form projects. I live in Linksfield North with my wife, Kerryn, and our two kids who both go to King David Primary School Linksfield.”

He came to work on Rise after “I got a call out of the blue one day from a guy called Jon Day, who co-owns a company called Orange Films. Siya and [his wife] Rachel felt they needed a director on the project who understood South Africa, South African politics, and one who had lived a similar lifestyle to Siya’s growing up.

“Jon was asked by Siya’s management team to approach us and gauge if we would co-produce on the documentary, and for Tebza to direct it. We cleared our schedule to accommodate the project, and went back and forth in meetings and presentations. Since I was still busy producing commercials through Star, Jon took on the main producer role and I joined him as a co-producer.”

He says the documentary is powerful because “besides Siya’s story being a beacon of hope for all South Africans, Siya requested that the documentary comprise raw emotions, truth, and storytelling, and that it be as real as possible. He wanted us to show to the world everything he’s been through, from family politics to rugby politics, and absolute poverty.

“The ‘realness’ is what gets an audience to relate to the man behind the public figure. We aren’t sugar-coating anything, rather making him and Rachel more relatable. Also, the simple fact of a young boy who grew up with absolutely nothing being given the opportunity of a lifetime to play rugby and then not only enter a majority white-dominated sport but rose up and became the first non-white Springbok captain that took the team on to win the World Cup, it’s quite a thing!”

As for the title of the film, it’s based on Kolisi’s book of the same name. “It’s perfectly apt, because Siya rose from absolutely nothing to a World Cup winning Springbok captain,” says Thal. As quoted by the Kolisi Foundation, the title, Rise, is inspired by the translation of Siya’s mother’s name, Phakama, as well as a celebration of his Xhosa heritage. Tracing his journey from the impoverished Zwide township, Kolisi’s compelling memoir reflects on the power of a positive mindset, and having the courage not only to dream, but to rise up and take action.”

The documentary took just more than three years to produce. “Unfortunately, the major delay was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and us being unable to film any rugby games or even do interviews during the hard lockdown. But we persevered, and got all the necessary footage, re-enactments, and archival material, and made it a goal to get the film completed and premiered in early 2023.”

The most challenging aspects of making it “were probably having to work around the strict schedules of Siya and the Springboks, as they cannot stop their training or travel for filming purposes. Luckily, COVID-19 also helped us to an extent, as they weren’t travelling that frequently. When we started on the project, we didn’t dream that it would take three years. It was our first biographical documentary, and we learnt a fortune.

“The most exciting aspects, especially being a rugby fan, is that we got to work closely with Siya and also got to interview and chat to other Springboks, travel, and meet so many people and celebrities, not forgetting that the company that commissioned this job is owned by Jay-Z.

“On the other side of the coin, the most uplifting and inspiring moments were when we went to Zwide [township] to film, and also when Siya premiered the film to the Zwide community. To see the impact that this one individual has on our larger population and the hope he gives to kids is remarkable. It definitely hits home what Siya and rugby can do for our country.”

Thal’s Star Film Company is ranked among the top ten film production companies in the country. “We have an amazing roster of 11 creative directors, and we’re constantly producing television and digital commercials for the global advertising market,” he says. “We’ve travelled the globe from Los Angeles to Lagos, Cairo to Cape Town, Moscow to Maputo, and have created multi-award-winning campaigns for local and international brands.

“We were also one of the first companies to produce a television commercial for Samsung during the hard COVID-19 lockdown, and one of our directors, Tristan Holmes, was one of the first directors to produce a full music video using artificial intelligence. Watch this space for our next TV series that we are developing for one of the big global streaming platforms.”

For others wanting to go into this industry, Thal says, “As the saying goes, its 70% luck and 30% hard work to achieve your goals and ambitions. To any inspiring filmmakers or creatives, I would say, give it a go and give it your all. We don’t have to be doctors, lawyers, or accountants – our Jewish community has a phenomenal presence in the local film industry and many of our community members are making waves. So as long as the passion, creativity, and excitement exists, the world is your oyster.”

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